Jean Laroche finds out what is really happening in Nova Scotia politics.
By Kendra Hoskin
On the political beat, decoding bafflegab is the biggest battle.
Jean Laroche is CBC Nova Scotia’s longest-serving legislature reporter. He’s been a reporter for 26 years, 15 of them in the House. He has been around the Nova Scotia legislature longer than many of the current politicians.
Laroche has made a career out of getting politicians to speak truthfully. It isn’t easy.
“The bafflegab, the muck you sometimes have to wade through, the layers, the roadblocks that people will put up to get between you and what you know as the story, that can be grinding,” says Laroche.
When asked his least favourite part of his job, Laroche answers: “The bullshit.” But he has developed techniques to get past it. It helps that he has known many of his subjects since before they won their titles. He takes time to make personal connections, is obsessed with research, and the fact that he almost never stops working, has made him, according to CBC’s national reporter Stephen Puddicombe, “one of the best, if not the best, legislature reporters in the province.”
As a constant observer of the legislature, Laroche meets many politicians when they are in opposition and are more eager to speak to the media. This is an advantage when the politicians cross the floor and become government.
“Being around as long as I have, I can say, ‘Come on, that’s not what you said when you were in opposition’ and they know I’m right. They know I’ve been there that long,” says Laroche.
A perfect example is Premier Darrell Dexter. Laroche has followed Dexter throughout his entire political career in Province House: as a newly elected member of the legislature, leader of the New Democratic Party, leader of the Opposition and, currently, as the premier of Nova Scotia. Over the years they have developed what the premier describes as “a good professional relationship.”
Dexter says that Laroche sees stories in the bigger picture not just in the light of the day.
Laroche brings historic context to political reporting. After the last election, when Dexter raised the HST after promising to not raise taxes, Laroche knew the reversal was an important part of the story.
But Laroche also has respect for the politicians he covers.
Laroche often meet sources for coffee to talk about background information, not for attribution. Shawn Fuller is the director of communications for Darrell Dexter. He says Laroche establishes relationships with people that allow him to get a little more information than other journalists.
In late September, Fuller and Laroche went to coffee at Just Us, down the street from Fuller’s office in One Government Place on Barrington Street. Laroche asked about house strategies and budgets. But, at one point, the conversation turned personal. Laroche’s father recently passed away, and the two shared their experiences of a losing a parent.
Laroche sees politicians as people with a job to do. He relates to this, but he also has a job to do. He needs to undercover what his wife calls the loaded word: the truth.
Catherine Buckie is a writer and former reporter and has been married to Laroche for 20 years. Buckie says Laroche is usually the first person to defend politicians, even though he doesn’t let them shade reality.
“If he’s interviewing a minister, he doesn’t let them get away with jargon, bafflegab, non-answering,” says Buckie. Years of experience shape Laroche’s interviewing style, which helps him get real answers.
In September, Laroche interviewed Jonathon Ross on new provincial laws against copper theft. As the vice president of the largest metal recycling operation in Atlantic Canada, Ross was concerned that the new bill would be time consuming for the industry. At the interview, Laroche asked Ross questions he had developed earlier that morning at Starbucks, where he had used his Blackberry to verify facts. For this interview, Laroche wrote out questions in a coil notebook, but he often e-mails questions to himself so that they are accessible on his phone.
Laroche is attached to his Blackberry. Buckie says he doesn’t put his phone down until he goes to bed. He had used his Blackberry the day before to call Ross and have a short pre-interview. The conversation led Laroche to believe that the interview would be intense.
In Ross’s office, Laroche quickly took his microphone and recorder out of his black case and connected the pieces together. When Ross asked about the big, black microphone covered in foam, Laroche joked “It’s a Swiffer. I’m going to clean your office.”
The mood eased.
Ross wanted to know the angle Laroche was going to tell. Laroche told Ross what he knew. “No hidden agenda here,” Laroche said.
In the interview, Laroche looked at his notebook a couple of times. But the planned questions were just a guideline. Laroche asks questions depending on what his subject says. When a subject uses an ambiguous adjective, Laroche will often repeat the word in his following question. When Ross called the new bill “onerous” Laroche asked him, “Why is it onerous?”
This technique is a favourite of his because it pays off. Ross’s answer to that question was more than half the clip used in the news report that aired on Maritime Noon.
|Jean Laroche – A Brief Biography
Radio is his medium of choice, but becoming a journalist was an accident.
Jean Laroche was born in 1959 in Alma, Lac Saint-Jean, Quebec.
In elementary school, Laroche learned English. But today, his French culture is still an important part of his life. French colleagues surround his pod at the CBC Radio building on Sackville Street. It was a conscious decision so that he can use his French daily.
On occasion, Laroche even speaks French on the radio, which is the medium that makes up the majority of Laroche’s career.
Laroche started his journalism career in television. After graduating from Concordia University, Laroche was selected for CBC’s reporter training program.
The program landed him a job as a television reporter in Ottawa. He stayed there for two years before moving to the television newsroom in Montreal.
After 18 months, Laroche switched to radio, which he says he prefers because it’s “more intimate.”
Surprisingly, Laroche’s career in journalism started by mistake.
After working on the trains for a couple years after graduating high school in St. Hubert, Laroche applied to Concordia “fully intending” to take Communications. He accidentally checked the “Communications and Journalism” box.
“I wasn’t interested in journalism, to be quite honest,” says Laroche.
Three years later, he graduated with the degree. He has been a journalist ever since.
Laroche also uses silence to his advantage.
Stephen Puddicombe says Laroche’s strongest technique as a journalist is that he waits for an answer. “He’ll sit here and he’ll ask you a question and he won’t interrupt. And you’ll finish and you’ll stop and you’ll pause and you’ll feel uncomfortable and he won’t say a thing and then you’ll talk again and you’ll keep talking because people can’t sit still and be quiet,” says Puddicombe.
Despite being a great listener, Laroche loves to talk. And speaking to different people helps create contacts which benefit his reporting.
While writing his report on copper theft, Laroche needed to know the number and year of the bill concerning scrap metal dealers and the recyclers act.
He immediately knew whom to call.
From his Blackberry, he called Neil Ferguson, the legislative counsel and assistant clerk of the house of Nova Scotia Assembly. Ferguson was not there. Without hesitation, Laroche then called Gordon Hebb, a barrister. Laroche had the bill details within minutes. He didn’t do a web search or get transferred to a communications department. He goes directly to the source.
“I have access to these people because I know who they are and they know who I am,” says Laroche.
But relationships do not affect what he reports. Laroche’s reporting is based on “as much research as humanly possible.”
On occasion, politicians in the legislature have even cited research done by Laroche. In April 2003, Michel Samson, a Liberal MLA, used Laroche’s investigating skills to strength his own argument. Samson said the minister of health promised to keep the same amount of hospital beds open as in 1990. Laroche found figures from the department of health that proved 179 beds had closed since 1990 and no new beds were opened.
That was not the first time Laroche’s thorough research was mentioned in the House. In the previous year, Samson had specifically thanked Laroche for “assisting in deliberations” down at the legislature. As president of the legislature press gallery, Laroche knows his stuff. In the legislature, MLA Donald Downe called Laroche “Mr. Nova Scotia Know It All of Politics.”
But Laroche didn’t get there overnight. Dexter says Laroche has a “depth of experience” acquired from years of hard work.
Laroche’s wife says the only time he can really be isolated from work is if he is far away geographically. “He’s always got his antenna up so that if something happens, if something catches his attention, he can switch right back into work mode,” says Buckie.
Laroche works even if he’s not at work.
He sets the pace for each work day by researching the recent political happenings. He checks Twitter first. Then he reads The Chronicle Herald and Allnovascotia.com. He also listens to the CBC morning show unless a competing station has a particularly interesting story. His routine is how he keeps on top of what’s happening in the city, the province and the country.
He commutes everyday from his house in Dartmouth to his downtown Halifax office. Laroche leaves his house no later than 8 a.m., to catch the 58, 59 or 60 bus. He doesn’t drive himself because there is nowhere to park.
Laroche spends the 40-minute bus ride interviewing people and setting up interviews. Talking into his Blackberry, he introduces himself as “Jean Laroche from CBC” to the person on the other line.
On a crowded bus, with people less than a foot away, Laroche says his voice sometimes makes for “interesting stares.”
Rob Batherson is the former communications director under Premier John Hamm. Batherson says Laroche’s persistence in getting answers landed him the nickname “Crabby Laroche” in the press gallery and among media relations people.
“Crabby Laroche” says politicians tend to withhold information. But this doesn’t stop Laroche from getting answers. He does whatever he can until he can confidently say, ‘OK, now I know this to be true’. At that point, Laroche feels great satisfaction. “There is frustration but generally there is a payoff,” says Laroche.
The payoff is the ability to report fair, balanced and accurate political news to the people of Nova Scotia. “He’s like a little kid in a candy shop when there’s something happening in politics,” says CBC national reporter Stephen Puddicombe.
After 15 years as a political reporter, Laroche still has a sweet tooth.