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Boyd's call to privatize control of Legislature media access unlikely to defuse controversy for NDP

Heather Boyd

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The effort by Alberta's NDP government to avoid being accused of trying to determine who is allowed to report the news inside the Legislature and who isn't in a chaotic era of media disintegration, collapse and reformation is unlikely to produce the results the government desires.

Alas for the NDP, the recommendations in the report by retired journalist Heather Boyd that was released yesterday -- all of which the government says it will accept -- are only to stir up more controversy, and a not insignificant amount of scrutiny for the cozily private Alberta Legislative Press Gallery as well.

Boyd, who was highly respected in journalistic circles for her work as Western Canadian bureau chief of the Canadian Press, in effect recommended that the government privatize the job of determining who gets access to politicians and information to the Press Gallery.

That seems to achieve the government’s short-term goal of ensuring that it won't be accused of deciding who is a journalist, and who isn't, or, worse, being accused of waging a "war on free speech" by supposedly doing so.

This was precisely what happened last month, when right-wing Internet commentator Ezra Levant created a brouhaha after a government official foolishly asked one freelancer from his online publication to leave a media lockup on the government's about-to-be-announced royalty review, and another was denied access to a stakeholder's meeting to which no media were invited.

The trouble with Boyd's proposed solution -- which I have no doubt was made with completely honourable intentions -- is that it outsources a job that properly belongs to the Speaker of the Legislature to a small group of legacy media operations, most of them in financial difficulty and many increasingly partisan in their approach to journalism, that are desperate to preserve their monopoly on access to information.

The Gallery's members are employed by only 11 media operations -- seven if you count as one those owned by the same corporation, three each for the CBC and Postmedia. Nine of the 11 are based in Ontario. Only one -- journalist and consultant Paul McLoughlin's Alberta Scan PDF newsletter -- is in any sense independent.

So while Levant's web publication is obviously out to lunch when he accuses Premier Rachel Notley of trying to use the Press Gallery as a fig leaf to vet journalists for her, he's not far wrong when he calls the Gallery's members a cartel that has an interest in keeping new media out.

What’s particularly bizarre about this is that, contrary to Mr. Levant’s assertions, the NDP is rewarding its enemies and making life more difficult for those inclined to report more fairly on its activities.

Now, instead of an elected government deciding who gets to ask it questions -- which is what the NDP was accused of doing last month, if not exactly accurately -- representatives of a private club of corporate bosses in a Toronto and Ottawa over whom we have no control whatsoever will apparently be allowed to make that decision.

In her recommendations, Boyd pleads for the government, while not developing a specific media policy, to "be guided to various degrees by convention, common sense and a desire to keep access to legislative proceedings as open to as large a number of citizens as possible."

To do this, however, she has suggested handing the responsibility to a group that hasn't shown much common sense in its past responses to journalists from non-traditional media who have asked to join and has a corporate-driven interest in restricting access only to its current declining membership.

Her idea of a secretariat funded by the Legislature to issue accreditation on a day-to-day basis is a sound one, but it is hard to see how that will insulate the government from fatuous charges of censorship and interference -- as Levant's commentary has already clearly illustrated.

Moreover, there is nary a word in Boyd's report about the need for transparency by the Press Gallery itself, which publishes no basic information about its membership, its criteria for joining, its activities or, at least until Boyd's report came along, its rules.

Readers can count on it that there will be more developments in this story soon, as other journalists and organizations attempt to join the Gallery, and reporters and commentators who don't want to join the Gallery but are determined to cover the Legislature continue to push for open access.

Does the Gallery have the common sense to handle this without further embarrassing the government? Given its recent performance, it seems unlikely.

Count on it, yesterday's report won't be the last word on this.

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

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