Letters from Green Island

October 23 2007

The Canadian Press - Free enough - but is freedom enough?

Dear Ms Toughill,
Re: Press must remain proud and free Oct 20 2007, Toronto Star
(original article also copied at the end of this letter)

Certainly you folks at the Star and other Canadian media seem 'free' enough to write what you want, and 'proud' enough about doing so, as your several-times-a-year reminders to your readers/listeners remind us of how lucky we are to be 'served' by such a free press - but although we've been seeing lots of freedom the last few years, there is another aspect to journalism that seems to be a bit harder to find - responsibility.

A 'responsible' press, to offer a short definition, would, in my opinion at least, be one that reported, to the Canadian people they are supposed to be serving, the things going on in their country and world they needed to know about to make informed decisions about what things their country should be doing, and/or have informed discussions about such things with their fellow citizens. A responsible press would not, I think, try to think for the citizens, and/or push them in any particular direction regarding any issue, but simply offer factual information on relevant happenings in the country and world (insofar as such often illusive/elusive things can be ascertained, of course, with proper qualifications when things are uncertain, and with a full recognition that there might be any number of definitions of 'relevant' ) and a variety of opinion from commentators on those facts from people who are perhaps a bit more knowledgable about the various issues.

As far as I can see, using a definition anything like this, the Canadian press, despite your assertion of how wonderful you/they are, fails quite miserably as far as 'responsible' is concerned.

Let me see if I can come up with a few examples.

1. The recent Ontario election might be a good place to start.

Do you really think that most Ontarians wanted the major issue of the campaign to be Tory's school funding proposal? I think a lot of people thought a lot of other issues were at least as important, and many moreso - but you would never have known it to listen to, or read, the Canadian media - every day, half the news coverage was about the school funding 'issue', what people thought, how people were reacting, what it was going to mean, how Tory's own supporters were unhappy, etc and etc - by halfway through the 'campaign', everyone knew that the Cons were going to be blown out of the water because of this.

And any honest look at this can only conclude that this dominance was almost 100% due to the media focusing on it to the almost exclusion of everything else. There were many other issues that could have been talked about - imagine if the media had of devoted the same day after day coverage to, for instance, McGuinty's broken promises and a lengthy series of interviews with people who were unhappy about one or another of them, or the still broken health care system in Ontario in spite of McGuinty's much-unliked 'health tax', or who was promising what about the future of electricity in Ontario, or the still rising fees for university education in Ontario, or what about the hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs lost and being lost, or what's going on with the falling water levels in the Great Lakes, or the fact that most people in Ontario do not want pot to be illegal but the feds are promising even harsher penalties for simple possession, or many others I could list if I wanted to. Wouldn't it have been a bit more honest of the media - not to mention responsible - to maybe do a survey of a largish sample of Ontario voters sometime early in the campaign, and ask them to list their major concerns from a list formulated by a consensus of party spokespeople together with you at the media, with then at least a couple of blank lines so the people surveyed could add whatever things you were overlooking (which, if there was any issue getting a lot of mention you would add for the next survey), and then do stories on whatever was at the top of the list, and get the reactions of the party leaders to those issues, and maybe weekly repeats of this - rather than YOU decide what the main issue was, and hammer it day after day after day with no apparent care at all as to what people themselves were thinking? Wouldn't that be a bit more journalistic than the approach that was taken? Shouldn't the media report the news, rather than try to create it?

Really - is it your job to tell people what the issues are? - as you are certainly 'free' to do! - or would it be a bit more 'responsible' if you asked people themselves what THEY thought the issues were, and reported from that perspective?

And the related referendum on MMP - well, there's not really any other way to put it, that was a total disgrace, in terms of the media coverage, very free of course, but about as irresponsible as you could be in terms of fair presentation to the voters - and I will even admit that the Star did better than most of the others, but this was a very low bar, because as far as the Canadian/Ontario media were concerned, it was a full frontal attack on MMP - YOU CITIZENS DO NOT!!! WANT TO CHANGE VOTING SYSTEMS!!!! - and you cannot deny that. And do you honestly think that was 'responsible' journalism? It's not up to Father (Big Brother?) MSM to tell citizens what they want - and then present a highly unbalanced picture of what the referendum was all about to push people in that direction as well. It's one thing for uninformed or half-informed citizens to be spreading around stupid ideas about what MMP was all about, but it is positively dishonest for major provincial newspapers or radio stations to be doing so. You may have freedom of opinion, but surely any sense of responsibility would ensure that your coverage was at least factually accurate and balanced - but no. Your editorials in the Star were inflammatory and full of worst-case possible scenarios in the extreme, dissemination bordering on outright lies at times (I wrote a letter to the Star about this - not published of course) - and that, I am telling you, may be your 'freedom' in action, but it sure as h*** could never be called 'responsible' - quite the reverse, actually.

2. Every day there are examples of the media pushing a certain POV, in essence apparently trying to 'create' news rather than report - here is one from today, as I write - Oct 23 - Harper, Tories riding high - quoting the first couple of sentences - "...OTTAWA–It was a buoyant, confident Stephen Harper who basked in the chants of Conservative MPs shouting, "Harper, Harper. .... Addressing caucus, he introduced the newest Tory MP to a rousing welcome. In a by-election stunner last month ..."

Do you teach your students that this kind of writing is 'journalism', Ms Toughill? The story is leading and opinionated in the extreme - any journalist student would (in any class of mine) get a failing grade for this kind of thing - yet the country's biggest newspaper apparently considers it front page stuff. This does not even remotely qualify as 'giving Canadians facts they need to understand what is going on in their country' - this is the process of creating a narrative for a country full of passive tv watchers to absorb unquestioningly. There is a HUGE difference. The latest 'chapter' in this narrative is that Dion is a terrible leader, untrusted and unliked by his fellow Liberals, and Harper is becoming more acceptable, etc - and this is what we see, day after day in the papers - pictures and stories about Dion looking beleaguered, and Harper looking triumphant. And very soon there will be an election, and although everyone will pretend to be in suspense, there'll be no question as to the outcome, as it is being decided now through the 'news' coverage, and the voters will react accordingly.

3. What about your coverage of Afghanistan the last 2-3 years, since it became somewhat more controversial with the larger military role? Same thing - shameless, absolutely shameless, boosterism and jingoism, day after day after day in every major Canadian media outlet, about as one-sided and unbalanced as coverage could be of something like this. Telling Canadians, day after day after day after day, that no matter what misgivings they were feeling about marching halfway around the world to appease the American juggernaut to the south of us, it is their duty now to support the troops and the mission, to show appropriate sympathy and honor to the brave soldiers killed (and killing) fighting for freedom and democracy, and to never question their government when it decides to go to war.

Responsible journalism? Only a propagandist would so label what you have been doing 'responsible' in the Afghanistan coverage, or many other things (the 'war on terror' coverage (UNDER THE BEDS WE'RE ALL IN TERRIBLE DANGER!!!!) has been equally unbalanced, to say the least, with virtually no space at all to voices calling for moderation and sanity), knowing well he or she was lying brazenly as s/he did so. Yes, there have been one or two exceptions, where you offered a column to someone to criticize what is happening, but the odd exception does not qualify as balance, especially when the editorial content, and the spin of the 'news' coverage, is so one-sided, and so overwhelming day after day after day on all media outlets speaking with one voice - a voice that most Canadians do not share, as you must well know.

Oh well, I shan't carry on any longer wasting my time with the long list of examples of irresponsible 'journalism' emanating from the Canadian media I could easily put together - as you folks have been demonstrating for years now, one of your great 'freedoms' is to ignore people like me, whose opinions you do not apparently want anything to do with. Which doesn't quite strike me as 'responsible' either, but it certainly is understandable in the light of your 'freedom' to shape the Canadian narrative as it suits you, with little regard for 'the truth' or what most Canadians might prefer.

But I will add a short comment on your final thoughts in this piece, about how your 'freedom' is under attack because the Prime Minister won't cooperate quite as much with your 'questions' as you would like.

Certainly asking questions is central to getting information, and I don't really have any quarrel with your notion that all politicians ought to be a lot more forthcoming with what they are up to - but you have no limitations on your 'freedom' to ask questions, you're simply faced with a government that doesn't want to answer them, which is something of a different problem. (Not to mention more than a bit ironic, really, because this is exactly the same problem I and many others face when dealing with the Canadian media - if you don't like our POV, you won't answer our questions, or talk to us, or even acknowledge that we exist, as you single-mindedly create your own Canadian narrative, ignoring facts or what others might have to say that you don't want to hear.)

You say "..The real issue is not who gets to ask questions, but what questions get asked..." - and I couldn't agree more, which is why I keep writing these apparently fruitless letters, year after to year, to politicians and media both. For example, here are a few questions that would probably evoke some interesting answers if pursued, but that I have never seen in the Canadian mainstream media - and, sad to say, don't really expect to:

** Mr PM (or finance minister, or anyone else - nobody is going near this one) - Why is the government of Canada allowing privately owned banks to create 95% of the nation's money supply, charging interest for so doing and making huge profits? How can we call ourselves a sovereign country when we do not even control our own money supply? Using the Bank of Canada for the purpose for which it was created would greatly ease the hardships faced by our provincial and larger municipal governments, making interest-free loans available to them, rather than forcing them to assume huge commercial debts. So using the Bank of Canada 25-30 years ago would have prevented the huge national debt we currently have, which has eaten up over a trillion dollars in 'service charges' during that time, and been the excuse for the gutting of the nation's social support system during that time, and upon which we still pay tens of billions of dollars in 'service charges' each year. Who is really running the country, Mr PM, the banks and wealthy Canadian 'investors' - or the Canadian government?

or -

** Mr PM - since surveys have been consistently showing for decades that a solid majority of Canadians do NOT want the possession or use of cannabis to be criminalized, how can we call Canada a democracy when the government continues to persecute people for this activity a majority of Canadians do not want them persecuted for? (there would be quite a long list of similar questions, of the government doing things most Canadians do not approve of)

or one from the last election in Ontario -

** Mr McGuinty, when barely 10% of the people of Ontario voted for you, do you think it is honest to be claiming a 'massive majority' for whatever it is you plan to do for the next four years? Do you think it is honest of the media to call your 10% 'victory' a 'massive majority'??

or one more -

** Mr PM, since almost half of Canadians do not vote these days, and you yourself enjoyed the ballot support of barely 5 million people of the 30+ million in Canada, why aren't you undertaking a serious study into why Canadians are losing faith in their government, and their media, and taking some very serious steps to restore faith and trust in our Canadian institutions, of which the first step must be removing power from the financial elite of Canada and returning it to the people of Canada where it rightfully belongs?

- well, I could go on, but as above, I expect I'm wasting my time. But if such questions were ever asked, of course, there would need to be a corresponding determination to follow them through - that is, any politician will have some glib answer and empty promises to any difficult question - that's Basic Political BS 101 for these people - and it's also one of the great failings of the media, that they allow the politicians to get away with this so much. When there are serious questions to be addressed, you need to keep them front and center in the pages of your papers, even if the politicians do not want to answer them. You are certainly capable of such things when you want something - the smear campaign against MMP or John Tory, for instance, or many, many, many other things going back many years - recall the so-called 'free trade' election of 1988, for instance, when the media en masse told Canadians we Must Do This!!!! - or Mulroney's Meech Lake Accord a bit later, when the media once again tried to tell Canadians what they must do?

Alright, enough for today. I don't suppose this letter will have any more impact than the dozens I've written before, but the state of the media in Canada, like the state of 'democracy', is like a festering wound that keeps nagging at me, as a Canadian citizen, and citizen of the world, who actually cares about such things, and I keep trying to do my bit to help improve it. There are, actually, a lot of us out here - you'd just never know it from reading the Canadian mainstream media, who have their own ideas about the direction the country should be going in, and aren't interested in acknowledging those with any sort of contrary view.

These are not trivial things I speak of - it is up to the citizens of a province or country to choose their government on the basis of fairly presented information from the media they rely on for such information, not be herded into favoring one party over another by media manipulation and spin, as we saw during the Ontario election recently, and are now seeing in terms of Harper and Dion. The change of voting systems could have been very important in increasing voter participation and democracy in Ontario and Canada both - as you know, after a lengthy discussion leading to a full understanding of everything, the citizen's commission on MMP was almost unanimous in suggesting MMP - imagine what the citizens of Ontario might have done had they had an equally full and informative discussion, rather than a brief period of lies and scare tactics and a unified media chorus of 'DON'T GO THERE DON'T GO THERE!!!!'??. The money supply thing is also extremely important - control of the money is fundamental to a sovereign country, as noted, and it would seem that the media is complicit in keeping this great scam from Canadians by refusing to speak of it, or using your 'freedom' to question politicians about it.

I don't know who all you think you're fooling with your 'we're so good it hurts!!' act - but I bet, for starters, not many among the 50% of Ontarians who chose not to vote in the last election, or the 40%+ and growing who have not been voting in federal elections the last few years. You are probably aware that trust in the media has been dropping over the last bunch of years along with trust in politicians, and your growing irresponsibility as I've briefly discussed above is related to this very directly, whether or not you want to admit it or face it publicly.

It's about time you people got off this 'we're so free and great' kick, and tried out the 'let's try being responsible to the people we're supposed to be serving' gig for awhile.

I shan't, however, given your history, be holding my breath.

=================================

Press must remain proud and free Oct 20, 2007 Toronto Star Kelly Toughill

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Another reason to be smug: Canada is a shining example of press freedom. This country does less to censor the news than all but 17 other nations in the world.

So says Reporters Without Borders, which monitors how the news is strangled and mangled around the globe. In many countries, reporters who cross powerful politicians, business leaders, paramilitary groups or crime syndicates risk being kidnapped, beaten or killed. In others, the censorship is more discreet: laws prohibit full reporting or laws shut down the private press in favour of state-owned media that report only state-sanctioned news.

Eritrea is the worst in the world, according to the annual report released this week. Iceland is the best. Canada is number 18, above the United States (48), France (31) and the United Kingdom (24).

Of course, no international index should be taken too seriously. This one is based on a questionnaire sent to 15 international organizations and more than 100 journalists and press observers. Some will quibble with the questions asked or how they were weighted. Others will question the integrity or knowledge of those who filled out the form.

No doubt many will be offended that the United States, with its celebrated First Amendment, ranked below Nicaragua and Bosnia. (A U.S. blogger was jailed for refusing to turn over photos to police, U.S. courts have ordered several reporters to reveal sources and an Al-Jazeera cameraman is being held at Guantanamo.)

But the trends are clear – and valid. The stable, prosperous countries of northern Europe generally won the highest ratings, and countries at war had the lowest. In Iraq alone, more than 200 reporters and media assistants have been killed since the war began in 2003.

Not quite time to break out the champagne at home, though. The day before the report was released, the Toronto Star revealed that the Prime Minister's Office had plans for a new media centre in Ottawa. At first glance, this appears to be an ego-driven tussle between the Prime Minister and the reporters who cover him.

It is not. The friction between Harper and the parliamentary press gallery is an important issue that goes to the heart of maintaining a free press.

The background: Shortly after he was elected Prime Minister, Stephen Harper tried to change the rules for press conferences at the National Press Theatre in Ottawa, which is controlled by the press gallery. He insisted that his staff be allowed to choose which reporters could ask him questions, instead of the reporters themselves deciding.

It is important to note that this is not a partisan issue. Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin launched the same system outside Ottawa. When he held press conferences with regional reporters while travelling, he insisted his staff call on reporters by name.

The battle over who gets to question the prime minister turned into a feud that created an enduring chill between the Prime Minister's Office and the reporters who regularly cover him.

The Star's Tonda MacCharles reported this week that the Prime Minister's Office asked civil servants to draw up a $2 million plan to renovate a vacant shoe store in downtown Ottawa into a new press conference centre, this one to be controlled by the Prime Minister. The plan has been shelved, at least for now.

This is the system used by the president of the United States – and many other countries. It is a bad one, and here's why.

The real issue is not who gets to ask questions, but what questions get asked.

If Canada adopts the U.S. style, the Prime Minister will be able to call on friendly reporters and avoid reporters who ask difficult, necessary questions.

Most of the world wishes U.S. President George W. Bush had been asked a few more pointed questions before the March 2003 invasion of Iraq. Many wish he could be asked some now.

Questions are not just important, they are fundamental to democracy. Even before writing, publishing or broadcasting, the work of journalists begins with questions. If reporters can't freely question political leaders, press freedom is diminished, and so is democracy.

Canada may be a proud number 18 in the Reporters Without Borders annual index, but it must be vigilant in protecting that freedom.

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Kelly Toughill, a former Star writer and editor, is an assistant professor of journalism at King's College in Halifax.
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