Inside the Belly of the Beastby Darren Stewart
For eight months I'm working as the Ottawa Bureau Chief for the Canadian University Press (CUP). I hold the pen on parliamentary coverage for university newspapers Canada-wide. I write stories that go on a central newswire which editors of individual school papers can then download and publish in their papers. Every day I sift through and attempt to unravel the many gnarled threads of information available to me. Where possible, I write about things the federal government does that may be of interest to students. Otherwise, it's up to me to decide which direction to run with my keyboard and who may have the deepest throat of the day.
The position carries much responsibility and very little financial compensation. I work long hours and often the threads of information I follow go nowhere, leaving me with nothing to show for it. My published stories are difficult to track down in hard-copy form, given the typically disorganised state of Canadian student newspaper staff. My parents wonder why I choose to live thanklessly and in poverty while many of my friends are making rock-star wages in various high-tech jobs. My mom, back west in Victoria, expectantly watches the parliamentary channel some days, hoping to catch a glimpse of the back of my head.
My first day was in September and I showed up to Parliament Hill all fresh and green with my precious press pass clipped to my shirt. It was amazing: in through the front door underneath the Peace Tower's jangling bells, past huge throngs of tourists, past guards and ushers, and guys in suits (too many guys in suits); past tour guides, and into the inner bowels of the country's ugly machine. Tourists and visitors have to have an escort and go through metal detectors, but I get to wander around wherever I want because I have this press pass.
I spent the first day exploring the halls. The place is a labyrinth, and more than a few times I lost my bearings in the ornate hallways lined with offices and nooks. But the guards kept nodding at me and I kept wandering. I guess it just doesn't matter that journalists are loose in the halls. I kept playing over scenes in my head, wondering what I'd do if for instance the Prime Minister turned a corner ahead and walked toward me.
"Act stoic," I thought. "Establish and maintain eye contact, and think of something clever to say. Get some comments about APEC or student loans or skyrocketing tuition. Ask him whether he believes in brain drain. Make small talk about golfing or Shawinigan."
Inexplicably, I felt I'd have to resist the urge to offer him a high five.
Ironically, within the first few minutes of wandering, a haggard Jane Stewart walked past me in the halls, muttering and cursing under her breath (poor Ms. Stewart. She wasn't muttering and cursing, but she did walk by and she did look haggard. Understandable, given the "boondoggle" wringer she's been through lately). I didn't get up the nerve to speak with her on time, and I'm not even sure what the protocol is for such spontaneous meetings.
Incidentally, I recommend the tour at Parliament Hill, should you visit Ottawa. The building is pretty amazing really: filled with marble carvings and stained glass. And the tour guides are filled with useless information about various notable things. For example: the two sides of the House of Commons benches are two sword lengths apart, plus a bit (back in the day respectable gentlemen packed a bit of metal at their side).
After I sort of figured out the layout, I set up camp in the press gallery, which is better known as "the Hot Room." This is the room set up for the press. On a good day, the Hot Room bustles with reporters from print, radio, TV and otherwise. Some lucky few actually have their own workstations — computer, phone, desk drawers, desktop bookshelves, etc... For those of us who aren't stereotypical hardened whisky drinking fixtures who'd been camped there since before John Lennon died, there's a row of communal phones on the wall and a few outlets to park laptops.
There are a bunch of Televisions set to news stations and the parliamentary channel. Several times a day a huddle forms around the set and reporters discuss the big story of the day or give a little grief to the colleague on the screen ("Christ, didn't Mansbridge wear that same tie to the Liberal fund-raiser last night?" and so on).
There is a staff of people who take phone messages for journalists and provide audio tapes of various Hill proceedings and press conferences (they come out of this funky taping machine and only take a few seconds). With my press gallery dues comes the privilege of unlimited long distance calling, from the Hot-room, so long as it's work related (not a very strictly enforced rule).
At first, the mood in the gallery seems tense and unfriendly. Everybody is on a deadline. Everybody is looking for the scoop. Everybody thinks they're "the shit" because they're working on "the hill." Nobody cares about the nervous new guy whose there as a representative of the student press. So I keep to myself and try to be wary of stepping on the pro's toes. But people gradually lighten up and introduced themselves to me.
Back to the tale of my first day: I sip my coffee, look around, and try to look like I know what I'm doing. I began by sifting through the remarkable mountain of paper in the CUP box. (I soon learn that the stack was actually quite unremarkable as it is replenished several times a day with new papers). Hundreds of press releases, reports from various government departments, a transcription of the previous day's events in the House of Commons (usually an inch thick) and whatever else somebody thinks will interest a parliamentary reporter. I check the wall with an impenetrable collage of press releases, media advisories, notices, reminders, advertisements, schedules, contact lists and dates and times for upcoming press conferences. More gnarled threads waiting to be unravelled by the elite and savvy members of the Parliamentary press.
And so begins my almost daily effort to try to find something worth writing about, to send out on the wires and be printed on the pages of Canadian campus newspapers. And often the words I write are read by many. Darren Stewart is a left-handed writer from Victoria B.C. After he's throughworking as Ottawa Bureau Chief he plans to either take up knife throwing orbecome a rock star. He wears large sunglasses that are bent. He is proud ofhis quirks and hopes that you are too. He has so far escaped physical injuryin writing this column and is threatened with such infrequently.