Government has no right to decide who is, or isn’t, a journalist

The Notley government overstepped the boundary of a free and democratic society by attempting to ban Rebel website

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Michael TaubeWho decides whether a journalist is a journalist?

This unenviable Pandora’s box opened its gloomy lid during the recent brouhaha between Ezra Levant’s The Rebel news website and the Alberta NDP government. Getting it shut is going to be a very difficult task.

As some Canadians know, two individuals associated with The Rebel were isolated and pulled out of two recent provincial government events.

On Jan. 29, Sheila Gunn Reid and Holly Nicholas were reportedly removed from separate technical briefings related to Alberta’s Royalty Review Panel. (The former was also told she was on a “no go” list.) On Feb. 3, Gunn Reid was reportedly barred from covering a news conference between Premier Rachel Notley and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at the Alberta legislature.

Why? According to a written statement by the Premier’s communications director, Cheryl Oates, “The government’s position is that if you have testified under oath that you are not a journalist, then we don’t consider you a journalist.” (A lawyer associated with the civil law branch of Alberta Justice and Attorney General confirmed this position in a Feb. 12 letter.)

This was supposedly based on a comment that Levant made a couple of years ago. Except that the Alberta government got it completely out of context.

Here’s what The Rebel co-founder said in a courtroom in 2014, “I’m a commentator, I’m a pundit. I don’t think in my entire life I’ve ever called myself a reporter.” If you look closely, the word “journalist” doesn’t appear anywhere in his statement. While the NDP scrambled to re-adjust its position to Levant’s denial of being a “reporter,” it was far too late.

Besides, a government has no right to decide who is, or isn’t, a journalist. This isn’t part of its role in a democratic society, and it shouldn’t consider overstepping this understood boundary.

Notley and the NDP therefore looked petty and divisive, because The Rebel is a well-known opponent of its political and economic agenda. Levant, who relishes these sorts of political battles, used this situation to his advantage and gained more visibility (and visitors) for his website. The media, both left and right, strongly supported Levant and The Rebel.

End result? The Alberta government backed down, acknowledging that its position was, in the understatement of the year, a “mistake.” The ban on Reid and Nicholas was removed, and the NDP appointed Heather Boyd, Canadian Press’s former Western Canada bureau chief, to make recommendations going forward. We’ll see what she does.

For now, a much bigger issue has to be dealt with. How do we decide, in a non-partisan fashion, what constitutes being a Canadian journalist?

Alas, the word “journalist” doesn’t mean what it used to. Reporters, columnists, feature writers, pundits, bloggers, and even citizens with handheld devices all fit under this massive umbrella. It’s almost impossible to draw a line, because the starting and ending points need to be re-defined in our modern world.

Some people in the media blur the lines, too. For example, if working, or having worked, in a newsroom encapsulates the true nature of being a journalist, then many pundits, commentators and columnists belong there. Levant is one of them. (So am I.)

It should also be pointed out that Canadian journalists have been deciding for decades who is or isn’t a member of their tribe, so to speak.

That’s what the Parliamentary Press Gallery is there for. When they dole out media accreditation for events, they’re effectively giving an “aye” or “nay” to journalists who wish to participate.

Yes, it’s an imperfect process. Press galleries and councils enhance the state’s role, and can potentially lead to partisan bias and/or personal favoritism.

What other choice is there, however?

Without some sort of an archaic mechanism, people from every walk of life could claim to be a journalist. And the Pandora’s box would never, ever close.

Troy Media columnist and political commentator Michael Taube was a speechwriter for former prime minister Stephen Harper.

© Troy Media


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