Crossing Over

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Jas Johal, former reporter at Global and current Richmond Queensborough MLA.

Most journalists have covered politics at some point in their careers. Some have even decided to cross over and seek elected office themselves. 

For those who have made the switch, the reason why—according to two local politicians—is that the transition is a natural one, given the emphasis on connecting with people in both professions. 

Jas Johal is the Liberal MLA for Richmond-Queensborough. Before entering politics in 2016, Johal was a journalist of 23 years, most recently with Global Television, where he worked as a senior reporter focusing on provincial business and politics. His time at Global also included a stint serving as the network’s Asia bureau chief.

Whether interviewing British Columbians about issues in their community or getting reactions from Egyptians in Tahrir Square after President Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year regime ended, Johal valued talking to a wide range of people.

“If there is a particular issue, it’s not just sitting down talking to the CEO in the boardroom; it’s actually talking to everyday people. It’s talking to activists, union leaders,” Johal says. “You get a great cross-section of society that you interact with.”

Another person to make the switch is George Affleck, formerly a journalist with the CBC. Affleck is currently a Vancouver city councillor, elected in 2011 as a member of the Non-Partisan Association (Affleck is not seeking re-election in the October 2018 municipal elections). He says journalism complemented his eagerness to learn—a major reason why he entered the industry.

“I have always been a curious person,” says Affleck, who is also president and CEO of Vancouver-based public relations firm Curve Communications. “Being able to research certain things in-depth was enjoyable. We are so used to interacting with people in our community as journalists, so having that skill in politics makes the integration much easier.”

Johal says he wasn’t looking for a change; as long as the journalism industry had stayed healthy, he says, he would have had a job for life. But in 2014, he decided to exit journalism when he started to grow concerned with the diminishing returns for the stories he was reporting on.

“I noticed that the quality of stories and time we were spending on these stories were declining,” Johal says. “I fought really hard to do explanatory and exploratory journalism, but it was a fight and I could see that slippery slope coming and I made the decision then.” Johal had spent much of his time at the network talking to B.C. politicians, so once he finally made the decision to move to provincial politics, the transition was seamless. 

Johal says that there was no long-held plan to become a politician, but that it had always been important to him to be invested in his community. 

“I believe you have to be involved,” Johal says. “I sort of would think, ‘Well maybe I would like to do that.’ Maybe that’s the idealist in me.”

Johal and Affleck are two of many former B.C. journalists to become involved in politics. Others who have made the switch (or attempted to make the switch) include Steve Darling, a well-known morning anchor for Global who ran unsuccessfully as a Liberal candidate in the 2017 provincial election, and former CTV and Global anchor Pamela Martin, who was Premier Christy Clark’s director of outreach. On the national stage, ex-journalists making the jump include senators Pamela Wallin, Jim Munson and Mike Duffy, and MPs Peter Kent, Seamus O’Regan and Adam Vaughan. 

Johal believes many have made this switch because both professions involve forms of idealism. 

“At its core, journalists are idealists—they care about their communities,” Johal says. “We have been in the midst of public discourse our whole career, or a good chunk of our career. Politics, in many ways, is no different.”

Johal’s political career began with him door knocking for six months—a pre-election rite of passage that produces no income. Nowadays, he is fully involved in the issues of his local Richmond riding, as well as what goes on in the legislative in Victoria. 

Johal says he is enjoying his current job, but adds that the most challenging part is juggling the daily processes of legislation, making sure the concerns of his constituents are heard, and playing the role of husband and father.

“It’s been a transition on the government side, on the constituency side, and on the personal side,” Johal says. “Time management is a really big thing.”

The MLA says that, when it comes to significant decisions that impact the community, the most important thing he can do is listen to the questions and concerns of residents with an open mind. 

“I don’t think you need to take a side on everything,” Johal says. “It’s really making sure that all the [residents] are heard from, that their concerns are coalesced together and you can at least articulate them.”

In his seven years in office, Affleck says that he has taken pleasure in being on city council and being able to listen to the ideas and concerns of Vancouverites. He has also enjoyed being involved in efforts to improve the city. “I get to play a role in building up Vancouver,” says Affleck, “and to me, that’s pretty cool.”  

As a reporter, Johal became an expert at asking politicians tough questions. He finds it interesting and challenging being on the other side—and is bemused when politicians take issue with the questions journalists ask. 

“The day that I am happy with all of the coverage is the day that journalists aren’t doing their jobs,” Johal says. “When they are annoying me occasionally, that’s probably healthy and good for democracy.”

The MLA says many of his former colleagues in journalism have asked him for advice on potentially leaving the industry. Even though he moved on to politics, Johal says he encourages them to stay in the media business because there is a need for journalists throughout society. 

“Anytime I can encourage them to stay, I try to do so,” Johal says. “Everybody is in a different point in their life, but we still need strong journalism.” 

Both Johal and Affleck say they are happy where they ended up after leaving the industry, and say they are encouraged when there’s a journalist who comes out to challenge them. 

Story by Jason Gilder
Photo courtesy: Jas Johal

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