Are facts inflammatory?

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CensorshipInflammatory is the word I was told the Connection used this week in rejecting an ad by mayoral candidate John Trude*. That ad challenged some of the claims of one of his opponents by stating what actually happened at council this term in four areas: open and accountable government, the hospital redevelopment, working together with our municipal neighbours and sole-source contracts on major expenditures.

All of Trude’s comments are backed up by facts taken from the media, town agendas and town staff. Take for example, sole sourcing. You may recall back in 2014 that deputy-mayor candidate Brian Saunderson promised when elected he would oversee…

Change the purchasing policy to ensure there can be no sole sourcing of any contract for goods or services over $25,000, no exceptions.

But as the Trude ad points out, that never happened. In fact, just for sole-sourced legal consultants, the costs have ballooned every year of this term to more than $1.8 million: 2014 $268,000; 2015 $374,000; 2016 $414,000; 2017 $761,000,  and invoices are still coming in until at least year-end. By 2019 they will have topped $2 million – and that doesn’t include costs for sole-sourced consultants to create reports to justify the secretive Collus sale or the sole-sourced PR consultant hired to sell the town’s anti-hospital stance.

Is this inflammatory? Or simply truth that someone on the Connection staff didn’t want the public to read? How can the public engage in a conversation about these or other issues if the media hides them?

I suggest you ask a member of Trude’s campaign for a copy to decide for yourself. I’ve read it – it’s not an attack ad, it doesn’t call anyone names or make the sort of accusations and false allegations some candidates have been making as they go door-to-door (one council candidate was even served with a cease-and-desist letter from a lawyer for doing this!). The ad simply states the facts – unlike some posts on social media about local issues and candidates, many of which spin conspiracy theories wildly distant from any semblance of factuality.

Since when does local media decide what the voters get to read or see or hear in an election campaign? Since when does local media decide for the voters what is appropriate? Isn’t that using the media’s position and power to unfairly influence the election in favour of one candidate?

Was the decision made because of personal bias or associations? Regardless of why, it’s still censorship.

If you think that censorship discredits the paper and taints perception of it as a source of fair reporting, I agree. Back in 2014 under a Conservative government, the then-Minister of Heritage commented:

Heritage Minister Shelly Glover suggests news organizations who object to political parties using their content for free in attack ads are trying to “censor” their own content… Glover defended the move in the House of Commons Thursday by arguing that this would ensure politicians are held “accountable” for what they say in public settings.
“There is a public interest in ensuring that politicians are accountable for their actions and accountable for what they say in public settings,” Glover said during Question Period.

Why isn’t the Connection concerned about holding local politicians accountable?

In their book The Elements of Journalism, third edition, authors Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel identify the first of ten essential principles and practices of journalism as: “Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth.” But more to the point is principle number two: “Its first loyalty is to citizens.”**

The publisher of journalism – whether a media corporation answering to advertisers and shareholders or a blogger with his own personal beliefs and priorities — must show an ultimate allegiance to citizens. They must strive to put the public interest – and the truth – above their own self-interest or assumptions.
A commitment to citizens is an implied covenant with the audience and a foundation of the journalistic business model – journalism provided “without fear or favor” is perceived to be more valuable than content from other information sources.
Commitment to citizens also means journalism should seek to present a representative picture of constituent groups in society. Ignoring certain citizens has the effect of disenfranchising them.
The theory underlying the modern news industry has been the belief that credibility builds a broad and loyal audience and that economic success follows in turn. In that regard, the business people in a news organization also must nurture – not exploit – their allegiance to the audience ahead of other considerations.
Technology may change but trust – when earned and nurtured – will endure.

The Canadian Encyclopedia states that Canadians expect their media to be free from political interference in order to retain any credibility:

The free flow of a meaningful account of political events and issues is necessary for the public’s understanding of politics, the formation of PUBLIC OPINION and the public’s participation in the political process. The freedom of the media from political interference; the vitality of the media and the way they conduct their political functions; the way freedom of the media is reconciled with the pressures of the commercial system that finance media institutions; and the openness of the government in providing information all influence the health and vigour of Canadian democracy.

But what about when it’s the media itself doing the influencing? Principle three of the Elements of Journalism states, “Its practitioners must maintain an independence from those they cover.” To which the authors add, “…it means not becoming seduced by sources, intimidated by power, or compromised by self-interest.”

Wise advice, but it seems apparently unheeded.

This term the Connection has not commented on the issues Trude raises in any of their editorials – the staggering number of in-camera meetings, the privatization of public assets without public consultation, the two-years of roadblocks against the hospital. Is that not censorship by omission? When did local media cease to become the watchdog of power and governments? 

I’m sure there are those who hope the public forgets all of this council’s abuses of public trust and governance issues when they vote. And I suspect they would see Trude’s ad as a too-uncomfortable reminder to the public of the council’s actual behaviour this term. But it’s not up to the media to decide the public should not be awakened.

From my perspective, the refusal to print the ad violates our Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which states (emphasis added):

2. Everyone has the following fundamental freedoms:
(a) freedom of conscience and religion;
(b) freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication;
(c) freedom of peaceful assembly; and
(d) freedom of association

Commenting on the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Publications Canada notes:

…given the importance of freedom of expression in a free and democratic society, and the absolute manner in which this freedom is guaranteed by section 2(b), the freedom should be restricted only in the clearest of circumstances.

Inflammatory is not a circumstance that should affect any decision to dismantle a basic right of expression. It’s simply a personal opinion. Every day columnists in major media papers write what some readers might consider inflammatory pieces about Canadian politics and politicians – Conrad Black and Rosie DiManno for example. But no one censors them. As Canadians, we respect their right to express their beliefs whether we agree with them or not.***

This is further explained on the federal government’s own guide to the Charter:

These freedoms are set out in the Charter to ensure that Canadians are free to create and to express their ideas, gather to discuss them and communicate them widely to other people. These activities are basic forms of individual liberty. They are also important to the success of a democratic society like Canada. In a democracy, people must be free to discuss matters of public policy, criticize governments and offer their own solutions to social problems.

Sure, you can argue that the readership of the Connection is minimal and that its influence in pretty much anything has diminished considerably since the death of its competition, the Enterprise-Bulletin. But that doesn’t make censorship right and it doesn’t make it any less appalling that someone in a local paper would decide for its readers what they are allowed to see in an election campaign. 

Maybe I’m old fashioned; maybe the print-based newspapers and magazines I worked for are anachronisms now; maybe my views on media’s responsibility to the public are out-dated and overly optimistic,  but to me, by refusing to run an ad from a political candidate, the Connection is ignoring the basic freedoms of expression in our Canadian democracy and violating the basic principles of journalism.

To me, this is very, very troubling – and very un-Canadian -indeed.

~~~~~
* The identity of the person rejecting the ad was not revealed to me.

** Although I am no longer working in the media, I still pay attention to media trends and issues. The Elements of Journalism, third edition, is not only a superb resource that should be required reading for every journalist, but also a book I highly recommend to everyone concerned about democracy and the role the media has in it. See Indigo to order or Amazon. 

*** Yes, I am aware that my own blog posts are often considered “inflammatory” – mostly by those whose abuses of power and position I criticize.

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