A Lost Press and Protector

It was in 1935 that a well-organized group of unhappy citizens decided to try for foothold representation in the Alberta general election. The group waved a relatively unknown political flag named Social Credit and voiced strange theories about new ways to finance government.

It had no president, but a leader in the rank and file who was a fire and brimstone evangelist named William Aberhart. He was among thousands of other citizens stunned when the votes were counted, and the returning officer announced Social Credit would form the new government with 56 seats in the 63 seat Legislature.

The Liberal Party held five, Conservatives two. The United Farmers of Alberta (UFA), in power since 1921, elected zero. It was the first time a sitting government had lost every seat it held.

Within a few days, a seatless Aberhart called for a general meeting of the victors who enthusiastically elected him their party president thus automatically making him premier without a seat. That problem was quickly solved with the resignation of a newly elected Socred and polite agreement of Liberals, Conservatives and the UFA not to contest a byelection.

Premier Aberhart was in by acclamation, and the temporary truce was over. Aberhart had bigger fish to fry than seven MLAs who could be overwhelmed in the Legislature. His larger enemy was “the press” which was already challenging his strange ideas on banking regulations and economic theories.

In 1935, radio as a means of transmitting news and information was weak, and television was not a factor. The press – large circulation dailies and modest rural weeklies – were all that stood in the way of dictatorial government decrees and stepped up to meet the challenge.

Edmonton Journal Publisher John Imrie and Editor A. Balmer Watt dismissed Aberhart and his Socred economic theories with derision and references to half-baked populists seduced by pseudo-economic theory.

Aberhart fired back from every pulpit he could find. In words (that echo in 2019) he said they were just “the mouthpiece for financiers … publishing falsehoods that are entirely unfair and untrue. If this is done in the name of liberty of the press, we must question that liberty. The calibre of the men who are managing these newspapers is so low … they should not be at large!” (Not quite “lock her up,” but close).

Aberhart backed his rhetoric in 1937 with three pieces of legislation – two dealing with financial matters, and a third draconian law to bring the press under government control. All three moved through the Socred-dominated Legislature under heavy attack, but safe on the final vote in the legislature.

The Accurate News and Information Act required newspapers to be government licenced, compelled reporters to hand names and addresses of their sources to government investigators, forced editors to permit government-appointed editors to have final say on the wording of all political reporting including editorials and opinion columns – and the right to suspend the publication of any newspaper indefinitely.

There was a list of substantial fines for violators.

Lieutenant Governor John C. Bowen slowed Aberhart’s grab for press control by refusing to grant Royal Assent to all three bills, but that didn’t quench the premier’s desire to test his strength against existing law.

On March 24, 1938, the provincial government issued a warrant for the arrest of Edmonton Journal columnist Don Brown. He was to be taken to Lethbridge provincial prison and held there without trial “at the pleasure of the legislative assembly.”

Officials from the Journal were called before the Legislature for questioning and informed their columnist was going to be charged with “scandalous misrepresentation.” He had poked fun at two MLAs, they said.

An hour before midnight on March 25, 1938, Liberal MLA Gerald O’Connor quietly ended debate with a motion that the charge be withdrawn. And without objection it was, but with a warning note from Aberhart that while he was pleased to offer Brown clemency, he wouldn’t hesitate to take further action against the writers and publishers of “false information.” Any opportunity for him to do that was denied when all three bills were declared unconstitutional.

Six weeks later on May 2, the United States Pulitzer Prize committee awarded a special bronze plaque to the Journal for its defence of press freedom plus special certificates to the Calgary Herald, the Lethbridge Herald, three smaller dailies and 50 Alberta weeklies for their robust defiance of bad law. They were the first Pulitzer awards outside the USA.

This story is retold here as a memorial of times past when newspapers were strong, their reports reliable, the communities they served the richer for their presence. And, with regret that the electronic world has drowned so many once clear voices with its endless vanity of social gossip.

And the people who once supported their strong collective voice don’t seem to know what they have done – or care.

Take Sol’s “McWord” For It

My copy of Sol Steinmetz’s book There’s A Word For It is a little tattered these days after close to a decade of heavy use.

It is a hardcover, pocket-sized book jammed with a dazzling array of new words as they were created, and records the year they were born and grew to become part of everyday English. Thus, I learned a number of new words and discovered many I thought new had been around for decades before I adopted them into my vocabulary.

For example, I started speaking and writing Ms. as a safe title of respect for women back in the 1970s when feminists insisted a word as neutral as Mr. – for married or unmarried men – be coined for women. Thus, Miss for single women and Mrs. for married women were blended into one size fits all Ms. I was one of the ancient males who struggled through that little transformation clinging to Miss and Mrs. until we realized Ms. was here to stay.

I was quite prepared to accept the change as another feminist triumph until Steinmetz informed me “the Oxford English Dictionary traces the first use of Ms. to 1901, when a writer in the Humeston, Iowa newspaper New Era reported that ‘as a word to be used in place of Miss or Mrs. when the addresser is ignorant of the state of the person addressed; the Sunday Republican (a newspaper of Springfield, Mass) suggests a word of which Ms. is the abbreviation with a pronunciation like Mizz …”

It was a surprise to find that Ms. had been around for 70 years when women’s lib claimed it for themselves and persuaded male dinosaurs it was an acceptable form of address. (I should note that as far as I know, Humeston was not founded by my branch of the Hume family. But in this age of genealogical discovery, who knows?

Steinmetz is fun to read as he takes his audience through more than a century of new word creations, many of which delight and educate the reader. At least for me, there were very few pages lacking a new word – or a history of a word which surprised.

As the dust jacket promises, Steinmetz “takes us on a supercalifragilisticexpialidocious (1949) joyride (1908) through our cultural history as seen through the neato (1951) words and terms we’ve invented to describe it all.” The bracketed dates mark the years the word was first used.

He estimates that by the 1900s, the English language had adopted around 90,000 new words since dictionaries were born and that by the end of the century, the list had grown to 500,000. He admits that is just a guesstimate (1936).

I found Steinmetz most fascinating when he moved into the 1950s, and I learned how many of the words I thought commonplace were newly minted. Academia was coined in 1956; nerd a few years earlier. The world didn’t have paralegals until 1951, and while we were aware of traffic jams, gridlock to describe a big one wasn’t used until 1980, the same year we added the high-five to describe congratulatory greetings – and infotainment became an acceptable way to present television news. And regrettably shows no signs of changing.

So it was that in the past few years I have learned a metrosexual is “a fashion-conscious heterosexual male;” a flexitarian is “a vegetarian who occasionally eats meat;” and, that tanorexia “is the condition of being addicted to tanning.”

There’s A Word For It can still be found in a good book store or quickly ordered. Come to think of it; I should find a new copy before the one I have disintegrates. I need one close at hand to prevent further decline to the status of a McWord – “a writer who serves up words as standardized as fast food.”

Please resist the impulse to comment.Thank you.

An Age of Great Pretenders

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.”

That’s the way Charles Dickens described his world as he opened his epic description of the confused world in which he lived, and the great French Revolution exploded. We haven’t quite reached Dickens’ point of ignition in his 1859 Tale of Two Cities, but with U.S. President Donald Trump’s trumpeting south of the 49th Parallel about to be joined in chorus by vaudevillian Boris Johnson, newly elected Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, our world is getting close.

We remember other times when major nations had bouts of insanity and elected leaders of doubtful morality and boastful national pride. We remember the control the people of Germany and Italy gave to their leaders in the 1930s for the promise of restored national glory, better lifestyles – and trains that ran on time.

Some of us are old enough to remember how we grew up shaking our heads that the people who elected such leaders could be so easily deceived. And, we assured ourselves, “it could never happen here.”

As we voice that assurance and re-assurance, we do so in ever softer voice as we witness what could never happen in our world – happening.

In the U.S. we see a Commander-in-Chief President who appears to be searching for a reason, however remote, to launch a “total destruction” attack on a middle east nation; who thinks and speaks racist observations and believes women who have complained about his wandering hands and intent are all lying or envious. He seems convinced the world rejoices when he spits out social media messages, apparently unaware the world is laughing at him, not with him.

On the other side of the Atlantic sits newly sworn Prime Minister Boris Johnson, elected a few days ago by the Conservative Party of Great Britain. In the UK, the party with the most elected seats forms the government with its leader is automatically the PM. (And, yes, that means the Tory Party membership, comprising roughly .02 per cent of voting age population, elected Johnson PM.) 

So be it, Boris is in until he solves the Brexit problem or he’s defeated in Parliament on a confidence motion and forced to call a general election.

Media in the UK has already taken to referring to his “predictably slapdash” speeches as “pifflepafflewifflewaffle” and is still laughing at his acceptance speech promise to “deliver, unite, defeat” – a phrase to which he hastily added “Energize” to change DUD to DUDE.

I leave you with a Guardian assessment of his first brief speech as PM: “The Tory MPs who backed him, the party members who voted for him so overwhelmingly, the media cheerleaders who hail his accession – they all know exactly what he’s like. They don’t believe him – they just willfully suspend their disbelief. They cannot say they were taken in by a plausible charlatan – they choose to applaud the obviously implausible, to crown the man they know to be the Great Pretender. They go along with the fiction that Johnson is a Prince Hal who will metamorphose into the hero to lead England to a new Agincourt while knowing damn well that he will always be a Falstaff for whom honour is just “a word.”

It would be safe now to think Trump-Johnson and add “interesting and scary times” to Dicken’s version of a world in angry turmoil.

A Masterpiece of Confusion

“Confusion now hath made his masterpiece” was first used by Shakespeare in Macbeth. I’m sure he won’t mind me borrowing it for a few minutes while rattling on about the great divorce between the United Kingdom and the European Union.

It was one of those marriages that started with loving intensity between nations that had spent centuries killing each other’s young and pillaging border towns at will. It was after the largest of blood baths – WW2 – that some of the more sensible leaders who survived that fracas decided if they could all get together as trading partners, they could proposer, live longer and enjoy more of the freedoms they always seemed to be talking about but never achieving.

So, it began with the big boys – Germany, France and England – leading the way and no shortage of other countries clamouring for a seat at the ever-richer table. Life was good, but not without problems.

There were minor issues when bureaucratic experts from the larger nations tried to exercise rules for the size of potatoes and the acceptable curve in bananas, but such irritants were either quietly deep-sixed or laughed to oblivion.

And there was one factor among the major concerns that seemed to be working but was causing major complaints: immigration. One of the most enjoyable benefits of belonging to the EU was the virtual disappearance of border checkpoints plus a new fact of life that “foreigners” from an economically deprived state could find work and live in other EU nations.

Great Britain became a favourite destination and Brits of what we call “the older generation” were not impressed when they found their favourite pubs and restaurants, parks and favoured seaside resorts, flooded with strangers having more trouble with English than a northern Scot.

The politicians listened and tried to assuage the rumbling concerns. But they couldn’t get rid of the fear that a lot of Britons were no longer feeling British.

In June 2016, then Prime Minister David Cameron decided to bring matters to a head via a referendum. It would ask a simple question, a “yes” or “no” to stay with the EU and sort out the problems. Or leave.

The decision was close – but clear: some 13,266,996 million voted to stay – 46.6 per cent of the vote. But, 15,188,406 million – 53.4 per cent – voted to say goodbye.

Prime Minister Cameron resigned as PM and leader of the Conservative Party to be replaced by Theresa May who had supported the “stay” side in the referendum.

She surprised parliament and the country by calling a snap general election. She said she was preparing for her first conference with EU leaders and needed a show of people strength behind her. She won the election but with a reduced majority and the need to ally herself with a rump party to stay alive in Parliament.

Three times she returned from Europe with what she thought was a progressive deal. But none of her proposals received EU or British parliamentary support, and she finally admitted defeat and said she would resign and clear the way for a new Tory leader and PM. And more divorce settlement proposals.

Those events are scheduled for next Tuesday, July 23, with Boris Johnson, expected to replace her. He is a flamboyant, high-ranked politician who is being described as a President Donald Trump clone. The experts are forecasting Johnson in No.10 Downing Street will spell the end for the Conservative government — and the historic Tory Party.

As I wrote when I started this piece — confusion now hath made his masterpiece.

(Anyone interested in detailed chaos in high government can find it described at https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-49008826. A fascinating and frightening tale.)

When Rabbit Pie Helped Save a Nation

When my first wife and I packed our modest earthly acquisitions in 1948 to head halfway ‘round the world in search of a future with promise, food rationing was still being strictly enforced in the UK. It was one of the major factors in our family debate, “should we stay, or should we go.” A soon-to-be second mouth to feed tipped the scales when, one month, we gave up our meagre meat ration for a double ration of bottled orange juice for Joyce. We left with some heavy concerns for our future.

It was 1954 before rationing ended in the UK and we enjoyed everyone of them, but eased our guilt by sending modest food parcels home pre-Christmas.

While far from being gourmets or diet conscience diners, our income (read lack of) precluded over-indulgence. But we could, if we spent cautiously for a few days, afford a decent Sunday roast once in a while and pretend we were rich. And after a while we didn’t even miss what had been our faithful fill-in during those meat deprived war years – rabbit in pie or roasted, in stew or sliced and stuffed between two slices of unbuttered bread.

To ask a Victoria butcher if he ever got any rabbit was to invite a strange look, and a head shake. I understand it’s a little different these days, but not much. You can find rabbit if you can find a good butcher. But it’s easier to find lamb chops.

So, it was with a mild degree of surprise a few days ago to view my evening dinner menu at Berwick Royal Oak and read that “Rabbit Pie” was one of the two dinner choices. We live well at Berwick with a main dining room, a Bistro and an in-house “village pub” to feed us, each with a different menu. The main dining room is full service; the Bistro casual “build your own stir fry or pizza;” the Shield and Dragon pub is casual with fish and chips as good as you’ll get anywhere.

Rabbit Pie: If you are of British Islands birth and lived through the troubled years 1939-1954, when we survived on a tough government imposed and enforced diet, you may remember the old ditty the BBC used to play endlessly when imported meat supplies were diverted to the military – or were lost in transit by the shipload courtesy of the U-boats.

On the Net readers can find a painful and I think ridiculous explanation of the ditty made popular by The Crazy Gang and designed to boost British morale when we thought air raids would never end. The “jingo” interpretation has the farmer as a German, the rabbits as the English running away presumably to be able to fight again another day. I prefer my theory that it was an effort by people of goodwill who thought there were better ways to feed a hungry nation in dire distress than by killing rabbits.

I remember that on wartime Saturday afternoons I would spend two or three hours helping small farmer Bill Dellahay “harvest” rabbits, skin them, clean them and wrap them in a soft damp cloth to take home to my mother who had assisted the local midwife in the delivery of Bill’s firstborn son. Bill was convinced my mother’s post-natal care saved his wife and son.

When I got home on Saturday evening with a suitcase full of dirty laundry and clean, well-wrapped rabbits, my sister would be dispatched to bring three neighbouring wives around. Each would be presented with a plump rabbit leaving two for mother.

While today that might seem overly kind, my modern readers should understand our fridge was a walk-in pantry. Shelf life was short. A walk down Bottrill Street around 2 p.m. on a given Sunday would tantalizingly confirm that three rabbit pies or casseroles were approaching perfection in coal-fired ovens while a fourth simmered in what would eventually be rabbit stew.

And the Berwick Rabbit Pie? A little embarrassing, so let’s keep this to ourselves. Fighting an attack by my old enemy gout, I sat pre-dinner with the offending foot elevated watching depressing news and fell asleep. Dinner was long over. My home-made sandwich could not be described as great. And my friends tell me, gleefully, the rabbit pie was “pretty good.”

But I’ll wager they could never be as good as Bill Dellahay’s wartime treats when we briefly laughed at rationing.

Snake Oil and Democracy

In customary style on June 12, The Guardian columnist, Polly Toynbee, succinctly described Boris Johnson’s appeal to Great Britain’s Conservative Party to elect him their new president and thus, automatically, UK Prime Minister. It was delivered, she wrote, with “charm, the magic; the charisma was well polished.”

And then, before Johnson supporters could reach for their ballot papers, she added: “His snake oil of choice is optimism so miserably lacking in politics now, radiating out of him like sunshine. All fake, all sun-ray lamp that turns off in private, but it outshines his rivals and dazzles anyone willing to ignore everything we know about his rotten-to-the-core character.”

In the UK and online, The Guardian and its reporters and columnists support the old and proud philosophy of honest journalism; “get it fast, get it first, but first, get it right.” (For the record I’m a Guardian subscriber, but am not on the payroll and never have been. I think that online or in print, it’s among the best in the world. And, I’m happy to be able to read it for a few pennies a day.)

What attracted me to the Toynbee column and a few days later (June 24) a piece by Max Hastings, former editor of the Daily Telegraph and the London Evening Standard, was the similarity, although never mentioned, in the public portrayal of Johnson with USA President Donald Trump.

Here’s Max Hastings on Johnson: “There is room for debate about whether he is a scoundrel or mere rogue, but not much about his moral bankruptcy, rooted in contempt for truth.” And later in the same article: “Dignity still matters in public office, and Johnson will never have it.

Yet his graver vice is cowardice, reflected in a willingness to tell any audience whatever he thinks most likely to please, heedless of the inevitability of its contradiction an hour later.”

Substitute Trump for Johnson and nothing else need be changed.

The same rule can be applied to Hastings’ note that Johnson, like Trump, has had a “lurid love life.”

Hastings: “We can scarcely strip the emperor’s clothes from a man who has built a career, or at least a lurid love life, out of strutting without them.” He forecast that, if Johnson should win the PM’s job, “the experience of the premiership will lay bare his absolute unfitness for it.”

For Canada, stuck between “absolute unfitness of Trump” ruling just to our south and the pending possibility of an “absolutely unfit twin” in charge of our mother country, life could be about to take another interesting but unhappy turn.

The UK, once the mightiest of Empires will soon to be Brexit divorced from Europe; Scotland is still fretting for full separation; Wales must wonder if it should leave or stay; Ireland might ask if anyone is interested in a homecoming for the northern counties. And England would be a small left – alone country in a world where what we call western democracy wobbles on its foundations in the old world and the new.

In “the old country” the once world power is considering asking a man with a well recorded embarrassing conduct record to shuffle it off stage. In “the new world” United States of America Republicans have already made one bad leadership decision and are considering repeating it, believing a man whose main interest in life appears to be his own fame and gratification can win back lost leadership respect.

Quo Vadis? is all we can wonder.

Righteous Anger Is Hard To Find

“Anyone can become angry—that is easy. But to become angry with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose and in the right way—this is not easy.” Aristotle 384-322BC

I was reminded of the old philosopher’s thoughts a few days ago when chatting with a gentleman just back from an extended visit to Ottawa and Toronto. He had, he said, never experienced, so much outspoken criticism “of the West—especially Alberta—for its hunger for ever-larger pipelines to export oil.”

While the criticism of “western cowboys who don’t give a damn for the rest of Canada” was irritating, it was the anger with which the words were spoken that really disturbed him. And, it wasn’t just one or two people, he said. “It seems everywhere I went, I ran into the same anger, the same bitterness.” Nasty, and for a Canadian born native westerner, disturbing. “They were angry with me, suggesting we might like to separate from Canada.”

It was back in 1960 that Quebec started talking of splitting from Canada—in anger and because it felt it was getting a bad deal from the rest of the country. The Parti Quebecois was formed, but it took until 1980 before a first vote was held on separation. It failed, and the Parti Quebecois tried again in 1995—and failed again as Quebec voters opted to remain in Canada.

Four months ago, Angus Reid conducted a poll in Alberta to measure how serious the electorate was on burgeoning talk of separation. Fifty percent of those polled were in favour of breaking free from what they regarded as Ottawa’s unjust demands (supported by BC) on the development, sale and shipment of one of Alberta’s natural resources.

Pollster Reid said Albertans felt they were not being listened to; that their interests were being ignored. Many felt it was time to leave the family. But, at the same time, he urged observers to “slow down before drawing parallels” with the old Quebec situation.

I’m sure that appeal included cooling the rhetoric when debating how to best involve Indigenous original landowners in the extraction of natural resources; how to safely ship the product to market; and, how to ensure environment protection, a fossil fuel extraction and shipping issue that tends to inflame Canadians outside Alberta.

Only when we shout “fill ‘er up” at the gas pump do we accord respect to this now cursed natural resource, which a hundred years or so ago brought us freedom of movement we had never dared dream of; it made it possible to stock our grocery stores with the freshest and the finest foods and every other kind of store with everything we need to maintain decent life standards.

The need for fossil fuel to power transportation will pass; indeed, it is diminishing every day. We can urge greater speed to bring an end to the internal combustion engine. But, when we feel a need for angry confrontation, we should make sure we have picked the right target, the right time, right way and right purpose.

And always remember when challenging another’s point of view:

“Non semper ea sunt quae videntur.” Google will translate.

Relax,Listen,Consider and Pray

When it comes to local public project spending, there’s not a lot of good news these days. We seem doomed to cost overruns whether we’re replacing an antiquated sewer system or a rusting bridge spanning a modest harbour waterway, or re-designing and building a new intersection on Vancouver Island’s lone north-south highway.

It has become a depressing fact of life that original estimates will often close to double when the final tallies are made public. The most recent announcement that the new intersection on the Island Highway on the outskirts of Victoria will cost at least $10 million more than initially estimated was received with mumbled grumbles, tempered by relief that the provincial and federal governments will be sharing the cost.

Native Vancouver Islanders, especially South Island dwellers with mild winters, early daffodils and cherry blossoms the envy of Japan, appear to believe that Canadians who don’t live in the southern island banana belt are generous people who will happily send them financial tax relief when projects rocket into the red.

They seem to have difficulty believing my old, oft-quoted, friend Pogo who said he had seen the enemy, “and it is us.” “Us” are the various publicly-funded governments who pay the original “estimated cost” plus the “unanticipated” $10 million more in overruns.

Canada’s governments – municipal, regional, provincial and federal – have only one source of income … we, the people. Whether we own big companies employing a thousand workers or run a one-person cottage operation, we make payments to those we elected to guard, protect, collect and distribute our taxes, our collective earnings.

Governments, minor and major, seem to forget that in the months and weeks leading to an election we think about the taxes we pay, and we decide whether to trust our government leaders with another mandate and unrestricted access to the vault.

We have one of those decision days coming in October when we could give the Liberal Party another four years of control of the vault, or give the keys back to the Conservatives we fired a few years back.

We could indeed take wild leaps into the unknown with the Greens or the NDP in charge of spending while, hopefully, the economy continues to expand. But, only a long-shot, reckless gambler would consider taking that chance.

What can we anticipate between now and election day?

The Liberals: Still in control of spending, they will be doing a lot of just that … spending. Every time they announce that the government will generously support a long-awaited project, we need to remember that the money comes from … we, the people.

The Conservatives: They will be making many project promises across the country. Remember that each promise must be accompanied by “if elected” because they don’t yet have a key to the vault. And, from experience, we know that campaign spending rhetoric without our cash is rarely binding post-election.

The NDP: We have to wait and see what emerges as a clear-cut platform. At present, we have a horse with a jockey that isn’t sure which way he’s supposed to run on the track.

The Green Party: It will be interesting to hear a clear-cut industrial climate change policy that would not create massive plant closures and job losses; and, what projects they would create to replace the lost businesses, jobs and tax contributions their present plans appear to eliminate.

It’s going to be a long hot, promise-filled summer. Relax. Listen. Consider the realities. And Pray.

With All Our Faults We’re Better Than We Were

“I think that those who report politics, and by and large that would be members of that group of journalists called the lobby (in England; the Press Gallery in Canada), I think they are a very inward-looking, very incestuous bunch of people, who are overly preoccupied with process rather than policies.”

It is something President Trump would like to say today, but his vocabulary can only get him as far as bleated “fake news.” It was the well-known Brit politician Peter Mandelson who voiced that razor-edged criticism in a parliamentary speech a few years back – and he was just re-echoing William Windham, Minister of War in the UK in 1798, who had lamented the quality of press reporting on a war with France.

It was a time when parliamentary proceedings were not supposed to circulate beyond the walls of the debating chamber but were being “smuggled” out to unscrupulous publishers of news sheets.

“Newspaper writers are not the best judges of political affairs,” said Windham. “Their reports are evil in nature” but are being believed as true “by a great mass of readers who are not the most discerning class of society … newspapers are being carried everywhere, read everywhere by persons of very inferior capacities, and in common alehouses and places frequented chiefly by those who were least of all accustomed to reflection, to any great mental efforts …”

Oh dear, oh dear, what a bad bunch my forefathers in the news writing business were, “scattering poison where they could, bringing virtue to discredit … teaching the ignorant and credulous to despise every man and every measure that was respectable …”

Windham said he could not look at a man “of low condition with a newspaper in his hand” without comparing him to “a man who was swallowing poison under the hope of improving his health.”

There are more than 200 years between Windham’s tirade (1798), Mandelson’s scalpel slice-and-dice (2002), and the childlike trumpeting of President Trump to please his base support. But the theme remains unchanged. The masses – the people – could never be expected to understand what politicians were doing or why. And reporters should never be trusted to properly explain a government’s thinking.

For a hundred years or more, the contents of parliamentary debate were confined to parliament. MPs could not publish their speeches without special permission of the House. It was resolved in 1641 that “no Member of the House shall either give a copy or publish in print anything that he shall speak here without leave of the House.”

Lord Digby was caught distributing a printed copy of one of his speeches and reprimanded. All copies of his speech were collected and ordered destroyed by “the public hangman” as a gentle warning of what could have been much tougher justice for publicizing a parliamentary speech without permission of the House..

A year later, Sir Edward Dearing had a collection of his speeches printed and in the process of distribution when he was apprehended, expelled from the House, and imprisoned in the Tower “for acting against the honour and privilege of the House.” His speeches were bundled and “the public hangman” ordered to arrange another bonfire.

But the need for the censorship created to keep the King from punishing MPs who spoke against him was slowly diminishing. In 1660, parliament passed a licensing act for regulating printing and printing presses, though debate reporting was still not allowed.

It wasn’t until 1771, after riots, arrests, hasty trials, and imprisonments of printers in the Tower, that the Commons caved and parliamentary reporting as we know it today was established. The House of Lords followed in 1775.

It’s called one of our greatest freedoms – freedom of the press, but one thing has never changed: the lingering suspicion that “the press” can’t really be trusted; that reporters, columnists and editorial writers are told what to write by never-seen editors and publishers once described as “holding power without responsibility, the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages”.

It isn’t true,but the doubts linger. Not a perfect arrangement, but as De Tocqueville wrote in defence of democracy and our free press: “In order to enjoy the inestimable benefits that the liberties of the press ensures, it is necessary to submit to the inevitable evils that it creates.”

(Andrew Sparrow’s Obscure Scribblers –a history of Parliamentary Journalism, is an entertaining read – if you can find a copy.)

Free Speech – But Be Careful

Thursday, May 30, 2019, should be circled on anniversary calendars, the day 38 members of the Legislative Assembly rose in succession on personal points of privilege to condemn the conduct of Speaker Darryl Plecas. And, failed in their mission.

One or two of the protesting MLAs altered portions of a prepared text, but the majority stayed with an unprecedented flood of identical criticism with most stating he or she had been personally offended. They intoned: “I have become aware of behaviour and conduct undertaken by the Speaker with respect to senior officers and employees of this Legislative Assembly that I believe to be improper and compromises the ability of those officers to independently do their duties.”

The actions referred to had been made public hours earlier with the revelation that Speaker Plecas had authorized the seizure of hard drives from senior staff computers. A seizure, Plecas claimed, he had the power to make anywhere in the Legislature precinct for “security reasons.” He had been reported as saying in interviews earlier that he had the authority to walk into offices and request hard drives from all over the Legislature.

The massed chorus of Liberal MLAs challenged that power with: “I believe that activities undertaken by the Speaker, including the seizure of records including electronic records … constitutes improper conduct with respect to my right as a member of this assembly and impedes my personal freedoms as a member of this House.”

In their final assault, they accused Plecas of the serious offence of breaching “the individual and collective privileges of this House and contempt for this House.”

And, that is just about the most serious charge any MLA can level against another member – or anyone in the public for that matter, including news reporters, pundits, editorial writers, and even lowly bloggers who may slip from fair comment to “bring into contempt” the democracy we all claim to cherish, but hardly understand.

Standing Order 26 in the rules governing conduct in the BC Legislature is brief when it first mentions “privilege.” It simply states: “Whenever any matter of privilege arises, it shall be taken into consideration immediately.” That’s it. No messing around.

Plecas brushed aside the 38 repeated charges and the House adjourned and MLAs began their summer barbecue break.How could he do that?

Immediacy is not the only requirement when dealing with “privilege.” In George MacMinn’s Parliamentary Practice in BC, Volume 3) there’s an advisory note following the actual order. It reads, with a note of despair: “To give a concise definition of privilege would be impossible … There are thousands of Speaker’s decisions on privilege throughout the Commonwealth and an abundance of decisions on the subject in British Columbia.”

He then provides several pages of advice on procedures to be followed “on raising a matter of privilege” and supports that advice with a special 46-page appendix detailing with debates and findings over the years when abuse of privilege has been charged.

Back in the early-90s, an unnamed newspaper ran a lead editorial accusing the Speaker of partisanship. The matter was raised in the Legislature and a motion put forward, mildly stating “this Legislature regrets the publication of the editorial in the newspaper.” A mild rebuke only, but with Speaker Norman Whittaker sounding a warning bell that harsher punishment could have been applied.

He said while no offence could be taken by a newspaper’s attack on government policy, the charges of partisanship against Speakers “of this Legislature … and what it is pleased to call ‘the progressive decadence of the membership’ is unacceptable.”

“The freedom of the press is a precious thing, but newspapers have a responsibility not to exercise that responsibility in such a manner as to bring into contempt our democratic institutions and systems of government.”(BC Journals,Nov 28,1938)

He echoed the warning note that while the House had held back from “calling the author of the article before the Bar of the House” it was an option – and remains an option today – if the Speaker, with support of the Legislature, ever decides to play hardball with “the press.”

Does this mean the Speaker has free reign; that any criticism of his actions could be construed as a breach of privilege in the form of a smear on the House? Speaker Whittaker seemed to think so. He said he was quoting “from a recognized authority on parliamentary practice’’ when he ruled “the Speaker is the representative of the House itself, in its powers, it’s proceedings and its dignity … And reflection, therefore, on the Speaker is a reflection on the House itself …”

Today’s Speaker remains in office until voting day in the next general election. He can only be challenged by “substantive motion” which some experts say could include a non-confidence vote.

But didn’t we witness 30 plus non-confidence votes on May 30? Not really. There may have been numerous attempts to do so, but the Speaker apparently decided they technically failed to meet the specific criteria demanded by the rules – and his ruling cannot be challenged.

And be warned, as you mutter or rage against the goings on under the Big Dome of the Legislature, do not use words that impinge on the dignity of the Speaker or a rank and file MLA. They are “privileged” and protected and the bar of the House is a fearful deterrent.

Stay tuned. Remember the day will come when you can tell them what you really think of their dignity and their decisions with a series of simple ticks on a ballot paper.