Inside the Belly of the Beast
by Darren Stewart
Sometimes I see the genesis of news from where I sit.
When in the press box in the House of Commons, I sit in the area reserved for part-time press, which is the back row overlooking the main box. I crane my neck sometimes to read what the reporters write on their pads, and watch for the details to appear in their columns and stories in the papers the next morning. I enjoy this opportunity. So far, I've seen no correlation nor caught any great scoops, though Paul Wells scribbles vigorously and illegibly every day during question period.
One day in late November, a Southam reporter excitedly slammed down the phone and hoisted his tape recorder in the air, saying, "I think I've got something here."
He played the tape for a small crowd of us, trying to make out the words, asking for second opinions about whether or not what he'd captured was in fact a scoop. It was right in the throes of the fall federal election's final stretch. The election was criticized by many for being without any clear issues but one Liberal tactic that had stuck, was their accusations that the Alliance party had a "hidden agenda."
The Southam reporter played the tape over and over while we all looked at each other and listened, rapt.
"I think as we come up with alternative methods of providing for people's income when they reach retirement age," the voice clearly said on the tape recorder, while the reporter clutched it in our faces, looking on proudly.
He'd recorded Canadian Alliance incumbent MP and Deputy Finance Critic, Ken Epp, saying that his party planned to phase out the Canada Pension Plan for those young enough to still save for retirement. It was a scoop.
He spent the day calling around, setting up an interview with Human Resources Minister, Jane Stewart, and salivating at the glory he would receive. Sadly, the next morning, a mere single major daily paper ran the story. The Southam reporter was chagrined. The news editors of the country hadn't realized what they'd missed, until later in the day, when the story suddenly snowballed.
Around noon CBC Newsworld ran the story at the top of their broadcast. Everybody stood up, walked over, and patted the reporter on the back, solemnly congratulating him. That same evening, all the networks caught on, and the two national papers ran front-page stories on the topic the following day.
Four days later, the Liberals beat the Alliance with a resounding majority.
This week, everybody is speculating about an alleged conflict of interest involving the Prime Minister's and the Auberge Grand-Mère, a hotel in his riding. A controversial million dollar federal loan was given to the hotel, over which Chretien admits he contacted the head of the Business Development Bank of Canada. But he denies that he still had a stake in the hotel at the time the loan was given, which the opposition parties hotly dispute.
The Ethics Counselor deemed the whole thing clean, though many critics say the counselor is a lapdog not a watchdog. The opposition parties, in solidarity, are demanding that Chretien table all the documents relating to his ownership of the golf course beside the hotel.
Chretien once owned a 25 per cent stake in the hotel, but he sold his shares in 1993. The deal collapsed in 1996 and it is unknown where the shares went. The names of the other three owners have been made public, but the person controlling the final 25% has not been named.
Veteran reporters in the press gallery have watched the Prime Minister closely in his responses to these allegations, and believe the opposition parties may finally have found the smoking gun in the Liberal leader's recent past. They say he looks like a wounded animal, trapped by his own deeds. Conspiracy theories are flying: Is there criminal activity involved? If so, could this be grounds for resignation? Did the Paul Martin camp leak the story?
Speculation is rampant. Suspicion is clouding. Watch closely. Breathe.
Darren Stewart is happy to be here, with you.