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Postmedia makes a dubious case demanding right-wing website staff be allowed to join Alberta's press gallery

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Members of the Alberta legislature press gallery at work. Image: David J. Climenhaga

Canada's largest newspaper chain has just rolled over for the Rebel.

Last night the National Post published an editorial demanding that the Alberta legislature press gallery admit employees of Rebel News Network Ltd. to its ranks.

The Post's editors gave the appearance of being so incensed about the press gallery's refusal to allow the right-wing video blog site's staffers to become members that they declared, "until it does, Postmedia will withdraw its reporters from the gallery, effective immediately."

The Post did its best to make it appear the position was one of high principle.

The Rebel may be "obnoxious," the editorial piously said, and it may have "been home to a succession of cranks and bigots since its inception,” but that's no reason to not let it join the press gallery.

"This difficult process of reinventing our industry to meet the challenges and needs of 21st century readers cannot be threatened by established legacy players strangling ambitious new outlets," the editorial huffed self-righteously. "Let The Rebel report."

Legislative reporters for Postmedia's Calgary Herald and Edmonton Journal are said to be none too pleased by this. It's more than likely some of them joined the gallery's vote to declare the Rebel's right-wing activists persona non grata.

But instructions have come down from on high in Toronto, so they must do as they are told. It will make their jobs more difficult.

Nor can the recently elected president of the Alberta legislature press gallery association be all that happy. Tyler Dawson is a Postmedia reporter. Postmedia's editorial certainly sounds to an outsider like a public rebuke of its own employees. Under the circumstances, it's unclear how Dawson can continue as gallery president.

The press gallery itself, which rushed to the defence of the Rebel in 2016 when a couple of its operatives were turned out of a stakeholders' briefing on the NDP government's oil royalty review, is hoist with its own petard.

When mainstream media inaccurately accused the NDP of "seeking to muzzle" the Rebel at the time, the Notley government vowed never to be caught in this embarrassing bind again, hired a respected retired journalist to write a report, and washed its hands of all responsibility for determining who is a legislature journalist and who isn't -- a duty, it is has long been argued here, that properly belongs with the office of the Speaker.

When Heather Boyd recommended the gallery be given responsibility for handing out credentials, with administrative support from the Speaker as in Parliament in Ottawa, its members wanted no part of it. Too much work. Too much potential for being on the receiving end of a controversy.

Had they done their bit and found a way to provide credentials for journalists and commentators on the right and left who need occasional access to the legislature building, they might have nipped this crisis in the bud.

Instead, journalistic interlopers -- sometimes including the author of this blog -- were left to the always time consuming and often inconsistent mercies of legislature's security department, for which every day is a new day, to gain access to the building.

At the time, Rebel Media proprietor Ezra Levant had no interest in his organization joining the press gallery. He told me so himself. Now the United Conservative Party is the government and he has changed his mind. When the gallery told him no, he promptly proceeded to threaten its members with legal action.

Among the letters sent by Rebel News Network's lawyers was one stating that the press gallery "is a Postmedia dominated trade association" that "benefits from a dominant position in Alberta's media landscape." Accordingly, it continued, if the press gallery does not reverse its decision, "we have instructions to commence formal proceedings against Postmedia pursuant to the Competition Act … which regulates anti-competitive business practices in Canada."

So despite the high-minded tone of last night's editorial, it is also quite reasonable to suspect Postmedia hopes its quick withdrawal from the gallery will let it escape the legal snare set for it by the Rebel's lawyers.

There is also the reasonable question of whether many of the notoriously right-wing Post's senior editors not so secretly sympathize with the Rebel's point of view and would not be unhappy to see its staffers prowling the corridors of the legislature.

Left unsaid in the editorial is whether Postmedia's employees will be turning in the credentials issued by the press gallery that give them easy access to the legislature without having to explain their business to an uninterested security guard who would prefer they just went away.

If not, it is likely the Speaker's office will soon hear from others in a similar position with complaints about unequal treatment for Postmedia reporters who, like them, are not gallery members.

Then there is the matter of the office space in the legislature provided for a nominal annual fee to press gallery members. Does Postmedia expect to somehow keep the keys, despite its absence from the gallery?

Postmedia's reporters will now have to suffer the inconvenience and indignity of working from the Edmonton Journal's offices, several long blocks away from the legislature.

One wonders if Postmedia thinks this can all be settled by the time the COVID-19 emergency is over and the legislature building is open again to normal business, its reporters welcome back to their congenial home in the basement.

As Duncan Kinney, the reporter for Progress Alberta quoted in the Post's editorial, said last night, "I think the press gallery needs to get over itself!"

It's an anachronism, essentially meaningless except as a gatekeeper for a couple of perks: a security pass to the building and publicly subsidized office space at the best address in Edmonton.

Otherwise, it's completely irrelevant, as Postmedia just proved.

Sooner or later, like it or not, some responsible grownup in the Speaker's office is going to have to deal with this.

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 at The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. This post also appears on his blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

Image: David J. Climenhaga

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