Ezra Levant is at it again. Only this time we aren’t rolling our eyes and quickly closing the Internet browser. No, this time we actually agree with him. Hear us out.
Last week Levant’s right-wing online news and opinion outlet The Rebel complained to the Alberta premier’s office about three incidents where Rebel staff were allegedly barred from government events. In its response last Friday, the government defended its policy.
“Our client’s position remains that your client (The Rebel) and those who identify as being connected to (The Rebel) are not journalists and are not entitled to access media lock-ups or other such events,” read a response from an Alberta Ministry of Justice lawyer, posted by The Rebel.
After a few days of outrage, the Alberta government lifted its ban on reporters from The Rebel.
“We’ve heard a lot of feedback from Albertans and media over the course of the last two days and it’s clear we made a mistake,” the premier’s office said in a statement.
While his “reckless disregard for the truth” and bigotry don’t make Levant the best crusader for press freedom, he’s right to argue that the Alberta government should not be in the game of determining who is and who is not a journalist. That opens the door to the government or press gallery of the day to disallow journalists it disagrees with.
The whole affair strikes a chord with us because DeSmog Canada has been on the receiving end of the same kind of treatment here in B.C. — stuck in the middle of a shifting debate about what constitutes a “media outlet” or a “journalist.”
Who Has The Right to Access B.C. Press Gallery?
It first happened on Dec. 16, 2014, the day the B.C. government held a press briefing on its final investment decision on the Site C hydroelectric dam. DeSmog Canada had published dozens of articles on the proposed dam, including a 12-part investigative series.
We were unable to gain access to that press conference and were provided with the following explanation by Tom Fletcher, president of the legislative press gallery: “It was not the press gallery executive’s decision to refuse you entry. Legislature security determined that your organization is not a media outlet for the purposes of issuing press credentials for restricted areas.”
I was surprised to hear that security guards are now responsible for determining which organizations qualify as media outlets — since this is a decision typically made by the press gallery itself.
I wrote back asking if the decision would be re-visited and told Fletcher:
“Myself (and DeSmog for that matter) has an exemplary track record. In 2011, Time Magazine named us one of the Top 25 blogs of the year and we were the first online media organization to be accredited by the United Nations to attend international climate negotiations. I have personally worked as a journalist at the Calgary Sun, Calgary Herald, Cambridge Evening News and BBC Essex. We may not be part of the traditional media, but we are most certainly part of the burgeoning new media world.”
Next, I followed up with security.
Randall Ennis, the deputy sergeant at arms, quickly replied, with this explanation: “We did attempt to contact the Legislative press gallery president (Tom Fletcher) on your behalf to ascertain if he recognized you as a journalist, however were unsuccessful in contacting Tom until after the event.”
Ennis provided the following advice:
“Emma, for the future on the occasions you’d like to attend the Legislature for press conferences, I suggest that you contact the press gallery president (Tom Fletcher) in advance and make him aware of your intentions and request Tom advise the Legislative Assembly Protective Service (LAPS). This procedure works well and is used by other visiting journalists.”
That sounded perfectly reasonable to me and I could see how, in the hustle-bustle of the day, a misunderstanding might have prevented me from gaining access to the press conference. Had I realized it would be an issue, I would have made arrangements in advance.
Fast forward to March 2015, when DeSmog Canada published an exclusive in-depth interview with Harry Swain, the man who chaired the joint federal-provincial panel tasked with reviewing the Site C dam. The comments he made to us were being debated during Question Period, so I contacted Fletcher about attending.
Fletcher’s response: “I’ll contact them and ask them to give you a guest media pass for today, although I am inclined to agree with their initial assessment that Desmog is an advocacy organization and not a media outlet.”
So, there it was again — who gets to decide who is and who is not a journalist? It’s long been thought that the people best positioned to make that decision were the journalists themselves. However, our situation raises questions about that procedure.
It should be noted that Fletcher frequently publishes columns that promote denial of climate change and his company Black Press is owned by the same David Black who is proposing to build an oil refinery in Kitimat. So it’s safe to say he’s not a huge fan of DeSmog’s work.
And therein lies the risk in allowing a press gallery president or the government to decide whose work qualifies as journalism. What is journalism to some is advocacy to others and vice versa.
Sean Holman, journalism professor at Mount Royal University and former member of the B.C. press gallery, says determining what constitutes a journalist nowadays is incredibly complex.
“I think it’s a difficult question to answer and it is becoming more and more difficult as we see the collapse of legacy media and the growth of activist media that is picking up the jobs that journalists are no longer able to do,” Holman said.
On my way out of the press gallery last March, I noted the press gallery photos hanging on the wall. They started in 1912, the groups expanding over years, until they started into a perilous decline, leading to today’s state of affairs where there are often only a handful of reporters at the legislature.
Given the dwindling numbers, you’d think new members would be welcomed so long as they conduct themselves professionally and in the public interest. Wouldn’t it be a pleasant problem if too many bloggers/journalists/whatevers were to show up to report on happenings at the B.C. legislature?
Holman argues that journalists enjoy the rights and privileges they do because they act as proxies for the public, asking questions of officials and keeping the public informed.
“In the absence of traditional newsrooms, we are going to need organizations and people who are willing to hold public institutions and officials to account in the public interest,” Holman said. “And so long as they are doing that function, why exactly should they enjoy rights and privileges that are any less than that of a journalist?”
In terms of who should make the call on whether someone is working in the “public interest,” there’s no perfect answer.
“The question is: who has the right to make that decision? Is it government? Is it journalists? It strikes me that there are problems with both parties making that determination,” Holman said.
And voila, this is where the democratizing force of social media comes into play. In the old world, the powers that be could sit pretty and make these determinations quietly in a musty room.
Now, however, no one owns the means of distribution. And a disgruntled party, like Levant, can take his case online, putting the power into the public’s hands — and we’ve all seen how that works out.