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Now the Details

Media, ethics, and journalism. What works. What doesn't.

Jeffrey Dvorkin

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Political Journalists and Entitlements

Sens. Mike Duffy and Pamela Wallin

A small but juicy scandal in Canada involving two former journalists who are alleged to have fiddled their accounts. They were caught out and are now in full damage control mode with the media and their former colleagues in hot pursuit.

The two are Canadian Senators, Mike Duffy and Pamela Wallin.

The Canadian Senate is unlike its American counterpart in that Canadians are appointed to the Senate as a perk by the ruling government.

Its Parliamentary role is to review and approve legislation already passed in the lower House of Commons. It is supposed to provide regional representation from the provinces. But since 1867, it has remained an unelected body that pays rather well but not exorbitantly - the average is $132,300 plus perks.

It is simply a cushy reward for long and loyal service and has been described as "the taskless thanks."

This compares poorly with US Senators who, with perks, rake in around $2 million a year. (US Senators are paid proportional to the size of their constituencies, and the number of committees they serve on, etc.). They, in fact seem to do some work, compared to their Canadian counterparts.

This very Canadian scandal concerns a legal entitlement; in this case, a housing allowance claimed by the Senators.

Duffy claimed his main place of residence is on Prince Edward Island. In fact, he lives in Ottawa. Wallin claimed her primary residence is in Saskatchewan. Not so. She lives in the Ottawa region as well.

Both will ultimately have to pay back the subsidies claimed over the years and in each case, the amount may top more than $100,000. So far, the government is not revealing just how much is owed.

As scandals go, it's doesn't measure up to some of the shenanigans of Wall Street brokers or some US politicians. And as usual, this is a modest Canadian scandal, with much to be modest about.

Still, the law is the law and the present Conservative government in Ottawa has made a considerable fetish about being tough on scofflaws.

What's more interesting is both Senators have long journalistic histories: Duffy worked for many years as a national reporter for CBC TV News (full disclosure - I worked as a news producer in the Ottawa bureau when Duffy was there and produced stories with him for the nightly news). Wallin spent less time at the CBC, but was also a highly regarded on-air host. Most of her career was with CTV. Both were unabashedly pro-Tory over a few drinks, but on the air (while at the CBC at least), I found them both to be professional.

The evident glee that the Canadian media has taken to the reporting of Duffy and Wallin is interesting. Nothing like going after one of our own in order to put some distance between them and us.

Journalists are addicted to "schadenfreude" (from the German: the pleasure we get from the misfortunes of others). And the normal tensions and jealousies of the newsroom are amplified whenever one of our own leaves this vale of tears and falls up to his or her reward.  ("Damn!" say the wretches. "This could have happened to us!")

Hence the particular delight and harumphs of moral outrage from the Canadian media while watching Duffy and Wallin squirm while under their scrutiny.

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