A bit of a kerfuffle shaking the dust from filing cabinets in the Alberta Legislature Press Gallery. Seems that the worthy inmates of that venerable institution recently voted to uphold an earlier rejection of a Gallery membership bid from Rebel News Network Ltd.
That, trumpeted the National Post – the flagship of a once-powerful newspaper family – was a travesty of justice, a betrayal of all that is holy in the battle for free speech and a free press.
That was a bit much coming from a newspaper chain that has recently presided over the disarmament of a once-proud army of active journalists and amalgamated (read: gutted) the editorial staffs of the Vancouver Sun, the Province, the Calgary Herald, the Edmonton Journal … the heavy hitters out west.
Maybe the faded ivory towers of once-great newspapers brought back dreams of grandeur and persuaded remote control bosses that now would be a good time to win a second Pulitzer award. After all, the Edmonton Journal got to grasp a share of a Pulitzer – the first-ever awarded outside the USA – way back in 1938 because it went to bat for a relatively unknown political columnist named Donald C. Brown, who had been charged and found guilty of “scandalous misrepresentation.”
(After being overruled by Ottawa and challenged by many others. Social Credit Premier William Aberhart withdrew all charges).
The National Post was roaring to the defence of Rebel News that had a hot reputation for ill-chosen language, controversy, and inaccuracy. The Post argued that even though the Rebel’s publications could be a little wild at times, their breaches were not severe enough to justify withholding Gallery access from its staffers.
The Gallery executive disagreed. It held firm in its demand for high professional standards. Then, the Post flexed its national muscle and played what it thought was an ace card: “Grant Rebel certification or we will pull our reporters out of the Press Gallery.”
As of this writing, the Gallery hasn’t budged. It has carefully weighed the quality of Rebel’s work and found it wanting. And, if it maintains that position of refusing to endorse journalism it regards as not just inferior but dangerous, the National Post editorial writers will have learned a fundamental lesson about newsgathering.
It might help them if they spent a few hours reading about how our system of parliament got started. It wasn’t easy. That was because the last thing members of parliament wanted was publicity of any kind about what they were debating and how they were debating.
The first House of Commons did everything it could to prevent publication of debates and reports. Historians figure it took close to 100 years before MPs got used to telling the people what they were up to. Back in 1798, British MP and Minister of War William Windham, lamented that the naval mutiny of the previous year had been caused by “parliamentary reports of an evil nature.”
Windham also waxed eloquent on the theme that newspaper writers “were not the best judges of political affairs” and that the great unwashed public was “not the most discerning class of society.”
He lamented that when he moved around town, he saw newspapers “being carried everywhere, read everywhere, by persons of inferior capacities, and in common alehouses and places frequented chiefly by those who were least accustomed to reflection, to any great mental effort.”
Fast forward 200 years to April 2002, and British MP Peter Mandelson is ending a long television interview with comments on the value of press interviews. “I think that those who report politics … I think they are a very inward-looking, very incestuous bunch of people who are overly preoccupied with process rather than policies. As a result, we are not getting the coverage of politics that the voters deserve.”
As a reporter or columnist for 60 years or more, I always think at such times of my old columnist hero Bob Considine. He taught me long ago that “whenever readers call in to accuse you of being a bum, always consider the possibility they could be right.”
I share that Considine thought for the benefit of those who defend the spiteful spread of malicious, racist, unfounded hate and those who defend such evil as justifiable “free speech.”
One of the worst things to ever happen to “the press” was its description in 1787 by Edmund Burke, who used it in a parliamentary debate. Pointing to the Gallery where they sat, he proclaimed that there were “Three Estates in Parliament; but, in the Reporters’ Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important far than they all.” Arrogantly, we believed him; many reporters still do.
But only until we remember the alternative quote believed coined by Rudyard Kipling but first used, with permission, by his cousin Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin in a speech in London on March 18, 1931. At least two major newspaper publishers were in the audience to hear his message that they held “power without responsibility: the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages.”
The press retains its position in free world parliaments today as defined by Sir Barnett Cocks, when he was Clerk of the House of Commons in the 1960’s. “The press,constitutionally and historically, is here on sufferance.”
A sobering truth.