When I decided I wanted to join Twitter and begin writing about the issues that affect my family and friends, the first two people to follow me were Mary Agnes Welch and Bruce Owen after I started following accounts to build a community online. I was pretty proud of myself, that two senior reporters noticed my account.
So I am kind of disappointed that I won’t be able to take her up on the invitation from Twitter to see them tonight at the pub:
I’m disappointed because I have some questions I’d like to ask Bruce.
This announcement seems to have been greeted without any hesitation by reporters in Winnipeg as ‘happy’ news, but is not being seen the same way in my circles.
It makes people uncomfortable.
A political reporter, moving over directly to the public relations department of an influential government agency – sorry, Crown Corporation – isn’t seen as a merely benign lateral career move.
Bruce has written a lot, obviously, about Hydro issues the last few years. As recently as August 28th.
According to what a couple of the girls heard, he put in his notice at the Free Press on September 8th.
Was he subject of a rapid interview and hiring directive, that within 10 days he was moving on up the corporate ladder with no previous experience?
Or was there dealings between Bruce Owen with Hydro about the job before August 28th.
Whichever answer it may be, that doesn’t pass what reporters sometimes call, “the sniff test.”
This is why I asked on Twitter if anyone knew what the rules were for reporters taking a job in these circumstances.
I asked because for people in government moving into the private sector, there is a cooling-off period to deal with conflict of interest.
I have a few media people and political people following me, and did not get a single response. Either this isn’t an important question, or it makes news people uneasy.
Those are the kinds of bigger-picture questions that have circulated.
Now, if we were in unionized jobs, like Bruce and his wife are at the Free Press, maybe we could afford a babysitter and an impromptu night out at the trendy KingsHead.
But since we can’t do that, here are the questions I’d ask Bruce if I saw him, to try to establish some reassurance that my faith in him as a Winnipeg Free Press reporter wasn’t misplaced :
1) When you wrote the August 28th story, had you already spoken with, or applied for, the job you got at Hydro? And who at Hydro did you speak with, was it anyone you had quoted or written about before?
2) When did you tell your employer that you had applied for work with a Crown Corporation. Was it before you gave notice?
3) How long was this move to Hydro in the works. When did the discussions start about maybe finding you a desk over there? Was it broached a few years ago?
4) Reporters are big on the idea of a cooling-off period for government officials because otherwise, it may look like they were ‘bought-off’. How do you respond to the optics of it looking like reporters (like yourself) have a double standard?
5) Since the expensive expansion of Manitoba Hydro is a cornerstone of the provincial governments’ policy, and you are now benefiting from rate increases, how can you assure us that you were protecting the public interest in your reporting instead of your own? Was this job one of the positions that got that secret pay raise that PUB wasn’t told about?
There’s other questions that have been going around my circle that reflect more on the rest of his silent colleagues than on him.
How does a reporter like Bruce Owen, move directly from one job protecting the public interest in Manitoba Hydro, to another job trying to influence it, without a cooling-off period ?
How much trust can we put into his previous, or recent, reporting about Hydro being unbiased, since they found him so like-minded and agreeable, they hired him for their PR job with no apparent previous experience (since he’s been an employed reporter since about 1987) ?
Overall, the way a reporter can shed their clothes to join a bandwagon without question, makes some of us household subscribers wondering about others in the media – if they are already on a bandwagon, while being payed to report fairly.
If you are a reporter going to celebrate his good fortune tonight, maybe you can give your points of view, why readers/listeners etc should believe you and other reporters will ask Bruce the tough questions and hold him accountable when he wears his new Hydro hat.