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The real problem with Licia Corbella dustup is the lack of diverse views in Canadian media

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Postmedia political columnist Licia Corbella. Photo: David J. Climenhaga

There was a fine old to-do on social media Friday night when a Toronto journalist revealed that a high-profile Postmedia columnist known for her enthusiastic support of Jason Kenney had been a member of the United Conservative Party at a key time during the Alberta premier's rise to power.

A tweet from Sean Craig said Licia Corbella was a member of the UCP during the party's 2017 leadership race, and included an image of a statement he had received from the Calgary Herald acknowledging Corbella "did indeed buy a membership to the UCP prior to the leadership contest and voted in the process."

"This was not disclosed to her editors at the time," the statement said. "Her membership has lapsed, as of mid-2018."

"We will be taking measures to address this situation with this individual, and those are governed by privacy concerns," it continued.

Responding to me by email this morning, Herald editor-in-chief Lorne Motley referred further questions about the matter to Phyllise Gelfand, Postmedia's vice-president of communications in Toronto.

A terse story worded similarly to the Herald's note to Craig duly appeared on page 2 of the newspaper this morning under the headline "Message to readers."

As regular readers of this blog know, I am not a particular fan of Corbella's point of view. But while this may be an opinion that runs counter to those of many readers of this blog, in my view being a member of the UCP hardly a mortal sin for a member of the fourth estate.

Look, it's a sound journalistic practice for a reporter to disclose her interest in a story. That doesn't mean she ought to have no such interests.

Face it, we all know bans on employees of major media outfits holding party membership cards are a ridiculous affectation of the sort commonly known as a fig leaf. Readers who have dipped their toes in the history of art understand the fig leaf is the plaster or painted foliage intended to hide the naughty bits of an otherwise exposed figure, say, of Venus or Adonis. The idea, of course, was that we all know perfectly well what lies beneath.

In the case of modern Canadian journalism, the rule against journalists being party members is the fig leaf intended to hide the fact that they are virtually all Conservative propagandists, by conviction or convenience. We all know perfectly well what lies beneath.

Those who say newsrooms are packed with lefty ideologues, as a former colleague of mine incessantly and bitterly asserts on social media, clearly don't dwell on the same planet as the one on which I spent 30 odd years in newsrooms, including the Herald's. But that's a topic for another day.

My point is only that the prohibition on party membership is just another example of the hypocrisy characteristic of the Canadian news industry.

For one thing, whether or not she is or was a UCP member, Corbella, obviously, was hired to write a tendentious pro-Conservative column. So who cares whether or not she’s a party member? Indeed, more power to her on that point! At least it shows her ridiculous arguments are based on genuine conviction and passion.

As for a journalist omitting to tell his or her boss about such a membership, well, that might be an error in judgment, but it’s not as if fessing up would change much from readers’ perspectives. That said, in this context, Corbella's tweeted reply to a comment by former Progressive Conservative deputy premier Thomas Lukaszuk in 2017, that "I'm not a partisan but I have an opinion I'm expected to express" was probably not the best response considering.

Anyway, what gives any employer -- even a daily newspaper, fig leaf firmly in place -- the right to enquire into any employee's associations? I'm not convinced such bans on party membership aren't a violation of section 2(d) of the Canadian Charter if Rights and Freedoms, which guarantees the fundamental freedom of association to all Canadians.

Section 2(d) of the Charter was the foundation of the Supreme Court of Canada's recognition of collective bargaining rights in Canada -- something that has figured in the news in Alberta in the past couple of days very much to the UCP's distress.

(I imagine that Justice Eric Macklin's ruling this week that Bill 9, the Public Sector Wage Deferral Act, violated the Charter rights of members of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees is just the sort of thing that on a normal weekend would send Corbella into a tizzy of indignation.)

So if Postmedia's "measures to address this situation with this individual" are disciplinary in nature, Corbella would have legitimate cause for complaint, in my view. Indeed, if the Supreme Court had ruled on this topic 20 years ago, she might have been able to go to her union representative for assistance resolving this contretemps. Alas for her, the wheels of justice grind slowly, and as a result there is no union at the Calgary Herald.

The problem with the Herald and Postmedia is not that one obviously Conservative columnist happens also to be UCP member, but that there is so little room in the pages of any Postmedia publication for a diversity views that reflects the company's readership.

The best that can be said about the idea someone hired to write Conservative opinions for a paper that publishes very little but Conservative views must be forbidden to join a Conservative political party is that it is at once quaint and bizarre!

It's particularly absurd and ironic to see the spectacle of Postmedia getting self-righteous about party members on staff at the same time as it bids for its share of the profits from Jason Kenney's War Room.

If the Herald and Postmedia want to atone for their multitude of sins, they should leave Corbella alone and hire a talented young columnist with NDP, Liberal or Green sympathies, even if she has a party card in her pocket.

But if no action is taken against Corbella, the Alberta Legislature Press Gallery, of which Postmedia remains a part, should apologize to and readmit any writer they've driven out for being caught with a party card in their pocket.

Judging from his social media links, Premier Jason Kenney is almost as enthusiastic about Corbella's efforts as she is about his. So, if worst comes to worst, she should be able to find a happy home writing broadsides against foes of fossil fuels with her former colleague Claudia Cattaneo in the premier's ludicrous War Room.

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 Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. This post also appars on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

Photo: David J. Climenhaga

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