Reporters cultivating political sources need more wisdom than Solomon

OTTAWA — News that high-profile CBC politics anchor Evan Solomon was rubbing shoulders — and allegedly brokering secret art deals — with some of the country’s biggest movers and shakers did more than just cost him his job.

It also cast an unsparing spotlight on the many murky relationships between the Parliamentary Press Gallery and the country’s political class.

And coming in the midst of the Senate spending meltdown and Mike Duffy trial, Canadians outside the Ottawa bubble can be forgiven for looking at Solomon’s clandestine business dealings and thinking, so that’s the way it works, is it?

In a perfect microcosm of what’s been coined an Ottawa “clusterduff,” the Toronto Star story detailing Solomon’s art commissions landed like a grenade Tuesday evening at a private, multi-partisan bash held annually by the super-connected Anderson brothers — elbowing Senate accounting out of the common conversation.  

Solomon, host of the daily “Power and Politics” program on CBC News Network and the weekend radio institution “The House,” should be as attuned as any reporter on the Hill to the devastating conflation of issues — Senate scandal, press hijinx — among the wider public.

In a public statement Wednesday, Solomon, 47, said he was “deeply sorry” for any damage his activities had done to the trust CBC, its viewers and its listeners put in him.

“I have the utmost respect for the CBC and what it stands for,” he said.

But the issue is bigger even than the public broadcaster.

It calls into question how political reporters interact with their subjects, and whether any journalist is ever free of being compromised in the pursuit of news.

It is also one of the most difficult subjects to discuss publicly.

Most journalists who have inside access to people of real importance are smart enough not to talk about those relationships with anyone, even their co-workers.

Journalists who have no such access, but instead use government documentation, data analysis, low-level sources and other gum-shoe reporting techniques to break stories, are just as unlikely to boast about their weak sourcing at the top.

Most reporters use a combination of methods, and no newsroom is complete without specialists in both.

Sharing a drink with an MP or political operative isn’t automatically compromising, and indeed, “how the hell can you do the job without it?” said John Ivison, a columnist with the National Post who frequently breaks stories.

“Most people in this business would boil their grandmother for glue to get a good story,” added Ivison, who counts Solomon as a friend and neighbour. “That to me seemed to be his over-riding motivation.”

But Solomon’s side business is a cautionary tale.

As journalism professors warn their students, be friendly but not friends with the people you write about.

“Journalists get to move in very rich and exclusive circles,” Steve Maich, a former business reporter who is now senior vice-president of publishing at Rogers Communications, wrote on Twitter.

“But it’s dangerous when you start to think of yourself as a member of the club.”

Gord McIntosh, a former Canadian Press investigative journalist who became a lobbyist more than a decade ago, said good reporters have always cultivated relationships with people in low places, as well as high, since that’s where a lot of story trails start.

“It is a seductive world, let’s face it,” said McIntosh. “If you get an invitation to the U.S. ambassador’s (residence) on July 4, that’s a very coveted invitation.”

Rubbing shoulders with the powerful, picking up carelessly dropped insider gossip, carries its own ethical perils.

“There is a trap in that. You can’t out people” without verifying the information, he said.

Yet for all the appearances, journalists and the political class on Parliament Hill may now be more estranged than they’ve ever been.

From Confederation until well into the 1950s, journalists often held specific allegiances to political parties, even offering policy advice to mandarins and ministers.

“When I was appointed Ottawa correspondent of The (Toronto) Empire, at Sir John’s unsolicited suggestion, he told me to see him ‘as often as I liked. News or no news come along,'” former gallery scribe Fred Cook wrote in 1934 of Canada’s first prime minister.

Today’s political leaders are far more circumspect, and won’t touch the Solomon controversy with a barge pole.

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair skipped past a question Wednesday by calling it “a purely internal CBC matter.”

“I don’t have any comments to make on that other than I’ve never bought any art from Evan Solomon,” said Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau.

— With files from Jennifer Ditchburn

Follow @BCheadle on Twitter

Bruce Cheadle, The Canadian Press