THE WEEK CANADIAN JOURNALISM WAS BETRAYED

The National Post's front page endorsement of Conservatives Leader Stephen Harper could have troubling consequences for its employees, as well as its bottom line. (Graphic by National Post)

The National Post’s front page endorsement of Conservative Leader Stephen Harper could have troubling consequences for its employees, as well as its bottom line. (Graphic by National Post)

By endorsing the Conservatives for another term in government, some of Canada’s biggest dailies have betrayed both democracy and themselves.

Last week, papers owned by Postmedia Network Inc., the country’s largest English-language daily newspaper publisher, ran editorials with headlines such as “Conservatives are the most prudent choice,” “Let’s keep Harper’s steady hand on the helm” and “No change is best.”

Those papers were joined by the Globe and Mail, which endorsed the Tories but not Stephen Harper – seemingly and improbably suggesting his party colleagues weren’t, at the very least, responsible for enabling their leader’s baser decisions.

In the main, the pith of those newspapers’ contestable argument is that, according the Vancouver Sun, “The Harper government has kept a steady hand on the economic rudder” and, as such, is “best able to maintain a stable and healthy economy.”

Yet at least some of those editorials also affirmed the Conservative’s slide into crypto-despotism.

For example, the Montreal Gazette wrote that the party has “demonstrated high-handed disrespect for Parliament and the democratic process on occasion.” Meanwhile, the Ottawa Citizen was even more fulsome, stating Harper has:

…picked political fights with major pillars of our democratic system – Elections Canada, the judiciary, officers of parliament – for no obvious reason apart from the fact that they appear to stand in his way. Under his watch there were unreasonably high levels of moral and even criminal corruption among some of those closest to him. He has indulged his MPs in their quest to make a mockery of Question Period.

That means, in their endorsements, those papers weren’t just choosing between left and right. They were choosing between democracy and stability. And, in the end, they choose what they see as stability.

In a strange way, it was a very Canadian decision.

Our nation was born in the lukewarm cauldron of colonial deference rather than revolution, with its founding document declaiming the importance of peace, order and good governance.

That secular trinity of stability – which contrasts sharply with the American commitment to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – is exemplified by our secretive, winner-take-all, Father Knows Best political system and is part of our often unacknowledged political values.

For example, in 2014, 24 percent of Canadian surveyed by AmericasBarometer said it would be justifiable for the prime minister to govern without Parliament if the country was facing very difficult times.

Among the other countries polled in the western hemisphere, only respondents in Haiti, Peru and Paraguay were more supportive of such a coup.

Similarly, just 45 percent of Canadians approve of people participating in legal demonstrations – 10 percentage points lower than respondents in the United States.

Nevertheless, it was still jarring to see newspapers favour a party that has shown such disdain and disregard for democracy because, in its absence, journalism is put in peril.

Without the twin freedoms of expression and information associated with that political system, the power of reporters to challenge the decisions and actions of those they cover is crippled.

Those freedoms have always been less than absolute in Canada – sometimes to serve the public interest and too often to serve the private interests of the powerful.

But the Conservatives, like the Liberals when they were in government, have further attenuated them, something the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders decried in a statement released late last week.

That attenuation deepens Canada’s democratic deficit, and possibly the financial deficits of its already flagging newspapers.

After all, who will pay to read those publications if the journalists who write for them become more and more frustrated in their ability to report on what the government doesn’t want the public to know about?

Yet neither Postmedia nor the Globe and Mail seem to have recognized that four more years of the Conservatives might be bad news for them – regardless of what it would mean for the rest of Canada.

It would be easy to blame the owners and managers of those newspapers for this lack of foresight. But, with a few notable exceptions, too many reporters in this election were just as negligent in covering issues such as government secrecy and accountability.

That collective failure brings into relief the question of how much responsibility journalists and their employers feel they have to protect the freedoms they exercise on behalf of the public. And during this campaign, in newsrooms across the country, the answer, tragically, appears to have been very little.

SQUIBS (FEDERAL)

• University of King’s College journalism professor Fred Vallance-Jones’s latest annual freedom of information audit has been released by Newspapers Canada. That audit “ tells the story not only of Newfoundland and Labrador’s success and Ottawa’s failure, but also of foot-dragging by police forces, and widespread resistance at all levels of government to releasing computer data in formats useful in the digital age.”

• Canadian Journalists for Free Expression has released a report card grading the four major political parties for their stances on critical free expression issues.

• A coalition of 22 civil society groups concerned about the disrepair of Canada’s Access to Information Act has distributed a statement noting “the NDP and Liberal parties have included commitments in their platforms to improve the Act. Unfortunately, the Conservative Party did not see fit to even mention access to information in its platform.”

• CBC News’s Neil Macdonald argues that the federal government is simply prosecuting embarrassment by calling in the RCMP to investigate leaks at Citizenship and Immigration Canada.

• “Four years after he first asked Health Canada for all the information it had on a popular morning sickness drug, Toronto doctor Nav Persaud finally has the documents,” reports the Toronto Star. “But he cannot tell his patients or any other Canadians what’s in them” because of a confidentiality agreement he had to sign with the federal regulator.

• “Thousands of pages of correspondence and briefing notes on the federal government’s anti-terror Bill C-51 are so secret the government won’t disclose its reasons for censoring them,” according to Global News.

• “Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau scolded some of his own supporters Thursday after a journalist’s question on the resignation of his campaign co-chair elicited groans,” reports the Huffington Post.

• “Transport Canada is not releasing the results of its last two inspections of the Ambassador Bridge,” reports CBC News. (hat tip: Ian Bron)

• CBC News takes a look at the back-and-forth debate over cameras in the courts. (hat tip: Ian Bron)

SQUIBS (PROVINCIAL)

• “Despite several high-profile privacy breaches and controversies over the destruction of government documents, MLAs studying changes to B.C.’s Freedom of Information legislation have had to cancel public meetings due to lack of interest in the topic,” reports the Vancouver Sun.

• IntegrityBC executive director Dermod Travis argues that cancellation may have had less to do with a lack of interest and more to do with the fact those meetings were announced during a federal election campaign, on the Friday before the Thanksgiving Day long weekend.

• The Telegraph-Journal opines that the New Brunswick government’s “treatment of a series of independent legislative officers shows a disturbing pattern — a growing cavalier attitude toward these important watchdog roles.” That treatment includes ignoring the province’s information commissioner.

• The Times-Transcript’s Norbert Cunningham writes that the Atcon fiasco demonstrates “why taxpayers should demand far more acountability from provincial governments, They all provide grants, subsidies, and loans in efforts to spur economic development. Have we ever seen a full accounting of outcomes? We hear positive announcements and expectations. Politicians boast when recipients prosper, but run for cover if they fail. We get an overall accounting of spending and losses, but few details.”

Have a news tip about about the state of democracy, openness and accountability in Canada? You can email me at this address.

12 thoughts on “THE WEEK CANADIAN JOURNALISM WAS BETRAYED

  1. Ken Rubin

    (on the record) Thanks Sean for offering fair and informative editorial comment about the editorial actions of major media players at a time when it’s needed. Yes, Virgina, we have a chilling traditional media problem that is helping them diminish their own communications capacities. Ken Rubin

    Reply
  2. Douglas James

    Excellent article. There is much to be concerned about with Canadian journalism. The CBC’s online coverage during this past election campaign was abysmal, focused almost entirely on the horse race and the cult of the personality. Before restoring full funding to the CBC, I would hope that Justin Trudeau would ask for a review of the role of the corporation in today’s crowded media environment. There are numerous non-profit websites in the United States that are producing better public journalism at a fraction of the cost of so-called public journalism in Canada. Perhaps Ottawa should change tax rules so that non-profit journalism can also find a home here (charitable status is necessary) and even provide start-up loans or grants for such endeavours. A flourishing media landscape with diverse voices builds a strong democracy.

    Reply
    1. John dePass

      I totally agree with your analysis Douglas James. I think Canadian journalism is sorely in need of a more varied voice and am sick and tired of seeing and hearing the same old, same old given by the same voices with the same perspective. (a white middle class view on every subject) I find it obnoxious to hear or see people (supposed experts) talking about subjects they obviously know very little about but for the talking points. I happen to have lived in different parts of the world and am aware of the context in which many topical issues are discussed in the media. To hear some of the unlearned nonsense being spouted is to make me want to throw up. Your suggestions on how to go about promoting a more diverse culture of opinion is a welcomed addition to the dialogue. I hope it is read…and acted upon by the powers that be.

      Reply
  3. Carol Crocker

    Perhaps, people’s livelihoods got in their way of feeling able to take a stand against the money bosses. When government policies don’t support those who take a stand the risks may be too high for most to endure. I guess we could start refusing to buy those products that are sold by these corporations that won’t support their employees, either. Seems like taking away or or at least reducing their ability to abuse their power is becoming more and more necessary.

    Reply
  4. Nobie Cop

    All western democracies currently are experiencing trouble with press coverage, reporting and investigative reporting. During the OJ Simpson drama, CNN was really struggling to keep afloat. They decided to cover the story 24-7. What they learned was sound bites, interviewing experts not involved in the story and sensationalism raised their ratings. Add to this that over 95% of the western democracies media outlets are owned by just a few corporations who also own many other major corporations. They are running papers today to make money and sell advertising and real news coverage has suffered. Very rarely do we see well researched reporting. In fact, Rothschild thanked the press for never reporting on Bilderberg meetings – this is a meeting where the most wealthy elites and political leader meet together yearly, in secret, a reality that is deplorable and undermining to any democracy. In essence, it seems the press, owned by the elites is used to spread propaganda and control what information is provided to the public. For instance, how many have seen in the western press that of the 14 accused terrorists who died in planes in 9-11, most have now been found alive and well. Or who has read that over 500 000 children under the age of have died in Irag. If one wants truth from the media one has to really work and investigate a topic by yourself by pouring over media reports across the globe or find online news created by reporters committed to bring forth truth.

    Reply
  5. Richard Rehsler

    The newspapers appeal seems to have become limited to the older demographic of our population and they likely knew exactly who their target audience was. Most people are aware now that there are many other avenues whereby news and information can be accessed. The mainstream media, with so much disinformation and obvious distraction from the real issues, is rapidly losing its credibility.

    Reply
  6. Barry Marshall (@RunninonemptyAB)

    Just goes to show us that what is usually printed in newspapers is usually what they want the unsuspecting public to read and not really the full story which is a real good reason not to waste your money buying then on a newsstand or subscribing to them on line.

    Reply
  7. Ben and Lyla Andrew

    i find it very difficult to write about something that most people will never experience in their lives and that is experience an event internally which is profound and personal which will be the basis for your values. This is why the majority of people will always be liable to good arguments and change their minds while the afore mentioned people will not likely change their opinions.I have always been very interested in elections and polling. Polling, instead of measuring a opinion I am sure measures our mental health . the drastic up and downs of polling i think indicates how disoriented we are and how vulnerable we are to the whims of politicians.This polling also shows our inclination to be very happy or very sad. i think there is a psychiatric term for being very high then very low.And i think this is our present mental state Look at all the polling that has been done in the past and look at how unstable we have been.

    Reply
  8. patrickinvictoria

    When you think of the hundreds of millions of public dollars spent on advertising what a great government we have, for media outlets to endorse anyone other than the Conservatives would really have been biting the hand that feeds them.

    Reply
  9. Drew

    Mr. Holman makes an interesting point about the need to reform FOI processes. Unfortunately, beyond that, the article lacks context and seems to devolve into yet another anti-Harper rant. The media has not enjoyed anything close to independence since long before Mr. Harper, who just happens to be the most recent PM during traditional (read: paper) journalism’s unfortunate march to irrelevancy.
    To suggest that Mr. Harper represents the high-water mark in journalistic puppetry shows a disturbing lack of insight into the effects of the corporatization of the media: where the press is beholden to shareholders rather than truth.

    Reply

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