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Pulp friction: Edmonton Journal quits toothless Alberta Press Council, Calgary Herald to follow

Edmonton Journal Publisher John Connolly

If you have a problem with something written in the Edmonton Journal, you can forget about seeking help from the Alberta Press Council.

Early last month, the Journal quietly pulled out of the 40-year-old voluntary organization that was set up to help resolve conflicts between newspapers and the people they write about. Journal management told APC officials that they no longer saw any value in the organization the newspaper once enthusiastically supported.

Actually, given the pathetic state of Alberta's newspapers nowadays, you have to concede that Journal Publisher John Connolly, who naturally hails from the advertising side of the industry, had a point of sorts when he informed the Press Council of the paper's decision to yank out the plug on membership.

After all, goodwill gestures like allowing readers an option to resolve disputes without the expense and inconvenience of a defamation lawsuit may be the ethical thing to do, but they add nothing to the bottom line and may even involve some modest expenses -- say $10,000 or $15,000 a year.

What's more, with high-priced lawyers on the paper’s retainer, it's usually pretty easy for them to get all but the most determined and deep-pocketed complainers to give up and go away, no matter how justified their complaints.

Naturally, readers won’t find any of this reported in the pages of the Journal -- or for that matter in those of its Sun Media rivals, which pulled out of the Ontario Press Council months ago, also without fanfare, and were never members of the Alberta version. In the past, some Journal managers mocked the Suns for their irresponsibility of not being part of the press councils. No more!

In a terse statement on Feb. 7, the APC's directors said they "are saddened to announce that after many years of involvement the Edmonton Journal is no longer a member-newspaper of the Alberta Press Council." As far as I can see, this was reported nowhere in the mainstream media.

Well, the APC's directors should be saddened, because when the Calgary Herald also pulls out in May, as news business scuttlebutt suggests it will, the organization will be moribund and all but irrelevant. The only newspapers still involved in the Press Council will be small dailies in Medicine Hat, Lethbridge and Red Deer, plus Alberta's 100 or so weeklies, and it's hard to believe that they won't soon follow the example of the major metropolitan daily newspapers.

Now, I have to confess to some ambivalence about the Alberta Press Council because, in a crunch when a newspaper was really determined to behave irresponsibly, the APC turned out to be a well-intentioned but essentially toothless organization.

Back in 2000, when the employees of the Calgary Herald were on strike for a first collective agreement, the Herald published a particularly unbalanced piece of propaganda designed to undermine the strikers and assist the company's goal of busting the union, in which it was ultimately successful.

A complaint was made by one of the strikers to the APC. The complaint said the report made false allegations about the striker, and that the striker was given no opportunity to respond.

In its ruling, which as a member of the Press Council the Herald was obligated to publish in a timely fashion, the APC at least demonstrated its independence and good will. The Press Council ruling said:

"At its June 2, 2000, meeting the Alberta Press Council upheld a complaint by Mark Lowey, reporter for the Calgary Herald, against the Calgary Herald for a story published on Dec. 11, 1999. The story quotes the Herald's editor in chief, Peter Menzies, alleging Lowey swore at him on the picket line and Menzies stands behind this claim. Lowey denies these comments and has asked for the opportunity to reply to them.

"What the Press Council must decide is whether the story printed in the Herald represents a fair and balanced report on the subject matter and whether the Herald has allowed Mr. Lowey the opportunity to respond. According to the Code of Practice of the Alberta Press Council, 'it is the duty of a newspaper to allow fair opportunity to reply when reasonably called for.'" (Emphasis added.)

"The comments attributed to Mr. Lowey could be seen to damage the reputation of any individual who is not given to abusive language or behaviour. This attribution, within the tone of the entire article which was clearly not an objective account of the matter, was meant to elicit an unfavourable impression of Mr. Lowey as a professional and a person, by his words and behaviour and description given. The reporter made no attempt to contact Mr. Lowey either to verify the incident or allow him the opportunity to respond, which should be included in any fair and balanced report published in a newspaper. Neither did the Herald's staff and management contact Mr. Lowey before publishing the story, allowing him the chance to respond. … The Herald, as a member of the Alberta Press Council is bound by the Code of Practice, and must therefore give Mr. Lowey fair opportunity for reply when reasonably called for."

In the event, the Herald did not publish the ruling of the APC until after the strike had ended, and no action was taken by the Press Council to try to remedy this or even raise the issue of the newspaper's inaction. To my knowledge, Lowey was never given an opportunity to respond.

This left me to harbour the opinion that one ought not to deal with an organization that would demand a reader with a complaint agree not to sue in return for the promise it would arbitrate the dispute, then prove unable to deliver its part of the bargain.

On the other hand, in normal circumstances -- when the newspaper itself did not have a direct interest in the outcome of the dispute -- press councils have probably done more good than not by resolving disputes and ensuring that newspapers made an effort to abide by reasonable and ethical minimum standards of practice.

But in this undemocratic era, in which what's left of the mainstream media is thoroughly dominated by the advertising department and neoconservative ideologues at head office, such notions as fairness, balance and journalistic ethics must seem increasingly quaint and impractical to the people running our news media.

These managers, complacent after 30 years of neoconservative domination of the media and commercial sectors, forget that press councils were originally voluntarily set up in the 1970s to forestall the possibility of legislation that would force media to treat the subjects of their attention in a professional and honourable manner.

Now that the "marketplace of ideas" associated with the concept of freedom of the press no longer exists in Canada, and those at the helm of the mainstream media have demonstrated their lack of commitment to providing groups and individuals attacked and defamed in their reports with some form of redress, it is not impossible that some future government will consider a reasonable level of regulation to ensure this institution is forced to behave responsibly.

In the mean time, however, if you have a dispute with what a daily newspaper in Edmonton or Calgary has written, you will have no option but to proceed directly to a lawsuit for defamation.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary. Note: This post's incorrect reference to Sun Media's membership in the Alberta Press Council has been changed.

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