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Alberta Diary

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David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Toronto Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. His 1995 book, A Poke in the Public Eye, explores the relationships among Canadian journalists, public relations people and politicians. He left journalism after the strike at the Calgary Herald in 1999 and 2000 to work for the trade union movement. Alberta Diary focuses on Alberta politics and social issues.

Fallout from the 'Rebel Media' brouhaha: Maybe it's time to abolish Alberta's anachronistic Press Gallery

| February 19, 2016
Image: YouTube

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Members of the Alberta Legislative Press Gallery will rue the day they jumped on Ezra Levant's bandwagon and demanded the province open wide the doors to government news conferences and other events to representatives of the partisan conservative agitator's video blog.

The dispute started when Levant's so-called Rebel Media website, set up after the closing of Sun TV where he had worked, accused the government of throwing one of its "journalists" out of a media news briefing and not allowing another to attend a private stakeholders meeting when the government announced its decision not to raise resource royalties on Jan. 29.

I place the word "journalists" in quotation marks because Rebel's freelancers are clearly not journalists in the sense most Canadians understand the word. Rather, they are partisan political operatives whose website runs petitions against government policies and sells campaign materials with such slogans as "Don't blame me, I voted Conservative" and, under a picture of former Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper, "Miss me yet?" Back in the days when I worked in what we quaintly called the press, even unserious journalists disdained such partisan activities.

Levant himself, of course, is well known for interjecting such sentiments as "f**k your mother" into mainstream commentary, albeit to date only in Spanish.

Nevertheless, after the events at the oil royalty review briefing, Levant hired a lawyer who wrote a letter pleading his case, and made public the reply of a government lawyer who stated that "those who identify as being connected to your client are not journalists and are not entitled to access media lock-ups or other such events."

That was the moment the stuff hit the fan.

Columnists at Postmedia's Edmonton and Calgary operations, The Globe and Mail, the Canadian Press, the CBC and many other still-respectable news organizations associated with the Press Gallery jumped to the support of Levant, accepting uncritically his characterization of a fight over access to officials and information as a dispute about "free speech,” which it was not.

Condemnation of Alberta's NDP government by media associated with the Gallery was universal and excoriating. An Edmonton Sun columnist characterized it as "the NDP's war on free speech." The Globe compared the Government of Premier Rachel Notley to those of Russia, Egypt and Iran that called the exclusion of Levant's agitators as "beyond deplorable." The Canadian Association of Journalists, which no one is required to join, issued a particularly sanctimonious statement calling the government liars.

As blogger John Baglow observed, this was "rather like a College of Physicians and Surgeons demanding that faith healers be licensed."

Indeed, one really has to ask: did any of these professional journalists actually look at Levant's website? Or are they so determined to attack the Alberta government that they paid no attention to what they were arguing about?

The Alberta Press Gallery itself issued a carefully parsed news release that nevertheless backed Levant's fundamental position. "The Press Gallery supports the right of journalists to provide vigorous and diverse coverage of the Alberta Legislature," it said.

The premier, obviously nonplussed by the nearly universal support of Levant by mainstream media, quickly backtracked and announced Rebel Media would be admitted to news conferences, at least until a review of media accreditation practices by former Canadian Press Western Canada bureau chief Heather Boyd is completed in about three weeks. Observers in media and the blogosphere expect Boyd to deposit the hot potato in the lap of the Press Gallery, as has been done in other jurisdictions.

If so, however, the Press Gallery's own members have just shot their institution in both feet, and the poop-storm Levant let loose won't end any time soon.

For starters, since Levant's operation falls so far short of the Gallery's basic standards for its own members, the Gallery is justly going to wear some of the blame for Rebel Media's future excesses, which they are determined to enable.

God help them, though, if they turn him away! Levant is completely consistent, and disapproves as much of other journalists acting as gatekeepers as he does of government officials in that role. "Journalists are people who do journalism," he said to me yesterday in an email. "It has nothing to do with the approval of a third party.

"We tolerate exclusionary cartels in other professions, like doctors and lawyers, because of the objective skills and knowledge necessary. Journalism is simply commenting on the events of the day. It is not a profession."

But if partisan Conservatives like Rebel Media are admitted to all government news conferences and events, then so must be all other partisans. If the Press Gallery now tries to enforce the mainstream media's traditional monopoly on access to politicians and information, it will feel the full wrath not just of Levant's activist supporters, but of many of the rest of us who cover political events from other perspectives for non-traditional media, not to mention many lawyers.

In other words, the Press Gallery should have been more careful about what it wished for. Once opened, this door is going to be hard to close.

The Gallery's own rules state: "Active membership in the Association shall be open only to journalists, photographers, camerapersons, soundpersons, and other professionals whose principal occupation is reporting, interpreting, editing or analyzing Alberta Legislature or provincial government news on a continuing basis who require the use of Gallery facilities to fulfil their functions."

Another rule forbids membership in political parties, and a Press Gallery member was thrown out last year when he was spotted at a members-only party function. (I got the reason for this expulsion wrong in a previous post, for which I apologize both to readers and the unfortunate reporter.)

"Membership in the Gallery...is not open to part-time bloggers employed by unions or public-interest groups," sniffed Gallery President Darcy Henton in a note to me.

It is true, as the Gallery said in its news release, "it has long been the practice in Alberta that reporters and photographers who present their news credentials to Legislature security can acquire visiting media passes to cover news conferences." (Emphasis added.) But Levant has sought, successfully, to render even that broad definition meaningless. And if he's in, then everyone else must be in too!

Nowadays, of course, even the most respectable media operations are heavy on the opinionating and light on actual reporting.

So perhaps the time has come to throw open the doors and abolish the Press Gallery, which in this day of openly politically partisan mainstream media is really just a private club to enforce the information monopoly of its original members.

Moreover, thanks to the generosity of the public, I am told Gallery members pay just $70 a year for office space in the beautiful and historic Legislative Building in the heart of downtown Edmonton. That's less than $6 a month for the best address in town!

This public subsidy came about because, many years ago, the press was seen as essential to democracy. But how can that be argued now, when, more often than not, mainstream media plays an openly partisan role in favour of conservative political parties, as did Postmedia, owner of all of Edmonton's and Calgary’s daily newspapers, in the last federal and provincial elections?

Indeed, a strong case can be made the Gallery itself is no longer the charming anachronism it appears but an actual impediment to democracy. Certainly, it is very hard to argue it should be allowed to be the gatekeeper to government information, able to blackball inconvenient information interlopers.

Since we're now all journalists, according to the Press Gallery, then we should all be permitted to take notes in the public galleries as long as we don’t throw spitballs at the MLAs below.

And if that creates a security problem, the democratic solution can only be placed in the hands of the state, not privatized to the beneficiaries of a broken institution.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

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