Conservative MPs call for freelance journalist to be booted from press gallery after tweet

Conservative MP Garnett Genuis rose in the House of Commons on Thursday to call a journalist's comments about him 'threatening.' (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Conservative MP Garnett Genuis rose in the House of Commons on Thursday to call a journalist's comments about him 'threatening.' (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press - image credit)

Conservative MPs are calling for the removal of a freelance reporter from the parliamentary press gallery after he tweeted a comment they say risked provoking violence against politicians.

The issue spilled out of a moment during question period on Wednesday when Conservative MP Garnett Genuis quoted the band Queen while asking a question about inflation. The Queen reference was a dig at Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who was spotted singing Bohemian Rhapsody with members of the Canadian delegation last weekend ahead of Queen Elizabeth's funeral.

Dale Smith, a freelance member of the parliamentary press gallery, then tweeted that "Genuis tries to includes lyrics from 'Bohemian Rhapsody' in his question, and I cannot adequately tell you how lame it is. When horses are this lame, you shoot them."

Genuis rose in the House of Commons on Thursday morning on a question of privilege. He called Smith's comments "threatening" and beyond the bounds of normal political discourse.

"In the current climate, we should all know the risks associated with explicitly inciting violence against public officials," the Sherwood Park-Fort Saskatchewan MP said.

Dale Smith/Twitter screengrab
Dale Smith/Twitter screengrab

"Some would say surely he is joking, but the problem with so-called jokes implying threats towards public officials is that I, as the target of these comments, [am] somehow supposed to understand and be OK with a threat on the basis of someone's presumed intentions. And I'm just not OK with this."

Genuis said Smith's accreditation in the press gallery gives him access to West Block's halls. He called on the gallery to revoke those privileges.

A day later, Opposition House Leader Andrew Scheer said in a social media post that his party did not want Smith thrown out of the gallery — but it did want his security access restricted.

But on Wednesday in the House, Genuis did not mention Smith's security credentials — only his accreditation in the parliamentary press gallery.

Genuis quoted at length from the press gallery's statement of principles and practices, drawing attention to the fact that the gallery considers accreditation to be "a privilege — not a right."

He then asked the Speaker to protect the rights of members and asked the press gallery to do the same.

"The press gallery also has responsibilities, and I would like to see the gallery take swift action to revoke Mr. Smith's privileges," Genuis said.

"This is an opportunity for the gallery to show that they do take seriously the issue of threats made against public officials. At the very least, Mr. Smith's privileges should be immediately suspended pending further review."

He was backed by Conservative MP Raquel Dancho, the party's public safety critic, and Scheer in asking the Speaker to consider suspending Smith's privileges pending an investigation into whether he should be removed from the gallery permanently.

"As my honourable colleague pointed out, there is a direct relationship with the parliamentary press gallery," Scheer said. "Its members' accreditations for security run through the House administration. I believe it is entirely reasonable for you and the Speaker's office to look into this matter to find a prima facie case of privilege."

Assistant deputy Speaker Carol Hughes said the Speaker would look into the issue and come back with an answer.

In a statement on Thursday, gallery president Guillaume St-Pierre said the organization wished to distance itself from Dale's comments, noting that "we all, journalists and politicians alike, hold the responsibility of promoting healthy and professional public debates."

Guillaume condemned intimidation in all its forms, but he also added that membership in the gallery was not a determination made by politicians.

"The gallery is a decision-making body independent of political interference and must remain as such."

Smith says he owes 'no apology' 

In a blog post Thursday morning, Smith called the tweet an "unoriginal joke" and denied he was insinuating Genuis should be shot.

"I did no such thing and I owe him no apology. If anything, he owes everyone an apology for subjecting us to his attempt to be clever with the lyrics of Bohemian Rhapsody," he wrote.

Smith then accused the Conservatives of playing "the intimidation game."

"If you are critical about anyone on their team, they declare that you are biased, even though you are critical about every team," he wrote.

"They howl and moan, in the hopes that you either apologize and retract, and then they know that you're weak and that they can silence you through these kinds of tactics."

Reached Thursday afternoon, Smith said he's waiting for the Speaker to rule on the point of privilege before making any further comment.

The back-and-forth comes as reporters — particularly journalists of colour — report a rise in harassment and abuse.

For weeks, multiple journalists have been sharing publicly a series of emails they've received containing specific, targeted and disturbing threats of violence and sexual assault, along with racist and misogynistic language.

Politicians also have come under attack in recent years. MPs from both sides of the aisle condemned an incident last month that saw Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland loudly accosted in Alberta by a man who repeatedly yelled profanity at her and called her a traitor.

Last month, Trudeau urged political leaders to condemn acts of aggression and intimidation directed against politicians, warning that Canada might be forced to "rethink" the ways in which elected officials and the public can interact safely.

"We need to be able to have that connection that we've always prided ourselves [on], of Canadians being able to have proximity to those who represent them," Trudeau told reporters outside Rideau Hall.

"But the aggressive bullying, hate-filled tactics of a small number of people is causing us to have to rethink the freedoms that we've had as parliamentarians."