PHOTOS: Right-wing commentator Ezra Levant in a typical pose, photo by David Stobbe of the University of Saskatchewan. Below: stringer Sheila Gunn Reid in a screen shot of The Rebel’s approach to journalism; Mr. Levant in another familiar pose, a few months before Sun TV folded its tent; and Edmonton Sun-Journal political columnist Lorne Gunter, also in full rhetorical flight.
Can we get one thing straight? The fight with Ezra Levant the Notley Government got itself sucked into this week is not about is freedom of speech.
Anyone who tells you otherwise – and that’s now a large group that includes Mr. Levant, the army of online trolls he appears to command, some conservative politicians and many in the mainstream media who really ought to understand the difference between access and censorship – is probably pulling your leg in the hopes it’ll get you mad at Premier Rachel Notley.
But this is not actually about muzzling journalists, as the headline on a tendentious column by anti-NDP Postmedia political columnist Lorne Gunter claimed yesterday.
It’s about privileged access to information and government officials by people who are not journalists in the traditional sense of the word, but who nevertheless are now playing in the journalistic sandbox. This group includes Mr. Levant at his far-right online publication, The Rebel, and it includes me, here at AlbertaPolitics.ca.
It’s an important question in an era when traditional media are dying off faster than we’d expected, and it deserves to be considered thoughtfully so we can ensure access to information by non-traditional journalists is balanced with the need to ensure order and public safety at events like government and private-sector news conferences.
Of course, nothing of the sort is happening. Doing what he does best, Mr. Levant has led government and mainstream media down a psychedelic rabbit hole in which he claims the government is trying to censor crusading journalists like him who don’t agree with them and that Ms. Notley is a bully. Here’s Mr. Levant’s version, which you can also reach, tellingly, by clicking on irfansabir.com.
This is all a bit rich coming from a fellow who, in my personal experience with him, is one of the biggest bullies in Canadian public discourse, although I certainly admire his ability to spin public relations silk purses out of factual sows’ ears.
What’s astonishing to me, though, is that the Alberta Legislative Press Gallery – which not so long ago kicked out a political newsletter editor for basically the same kind of sophomoric bloviating Mr. Levant regularly provides to his online audience – seems to have taken the former Sun TV talking head’s bait, hook, line and sinker.
In reality, everyone, including the Notley government, recognizes Mr. Levant’s fundamental, Charter-protected right to say pretty much whatever he pleases about the Notley Government.
What is at issue is the far thornier question of who in the media – broadly defined to include traditional journalists, Press Gallery members, bloggers, Twitterati, Youtube video publishers, Facebook posters and unapologetic political activists like Mr. Levant – has privileged access to the government. Reporters and commentators with such access have never been clearly defined in Alberta, but historically have required some connection to mainstream media.
One would have thought any government has a legitimate need to exercise some control over who has the run of the Legislature Building as well as government events at other locations.
Until Mr. Levant came along and sprinkled gullibility juice in their eyes, the Press Gallery also worked hard to preserve its traditional monopoly on access to government media-relations information and access to politicians.
Meanwhile, bloggers and their ilk with a following – Yours Truly and Mr. Levant alike – want to be able to attend government media functions and have access approximating that of Press Gallery members.
Rebel Media claims that one of its freelancers was thrown out of a government “lock-up” at which advance technical information about the royalty review was made available to journalists, and that another was denied access to a meeting of stakeholders to which, government sources say, no media were admitted.
The circumstances are murky and several well-known mainstream media journalists who were there and presumably know what happened have been conspicuously silent about what actually went on. Alas, I wasn’t there, so I can’t really say. But I’d bet that if I’d tried to get into the same stakeholder meeting room as did Sheila Gunn Reid, one of The Rebel’s reporters, I would have been tossed too.
In his piece yesterday, Mr. Gunter stated that “the NDP government doesn’t question the legitimacy (nor should it) of online lefty journalists such as David Climenhaga of the NDP-friendly Rabble.ca or Dave Cournoyer, a communications advisor for the United Nurses of Alberta, whose Daveberta.ca blog is a must-read on Edmonton and Alberta politics.”
While I was grateful for the shout-out, this is not strictly true. I have been consistently treated with respect by both the NDP and the Tories before them, but I do not have the same access as Gallery members or mainstream media journalists.
So, for example, like Ms. Gunn Reid, I was also on what Mr. Gunter termed the “no-go list” for the news conference with Ms. Notley and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. The policy, I understand, came from the Prime Minister’s Office. Unlike The Rebel’s reporter, I chose not to whine about it.
Mr. Gunter, it must be noted, didn’t bother to check with me about any of this.
So does this mean I think the NDP is playing this the way they should, or the only way they could? I’m afraid not. They walked right into a fight with a skilled agitator determined to make monkeys of them, and they should have known better.
As Liberal commentator Warren Kinsella, also no admirer of Mr. Levant, said on his blog yesterday: “Ezra lives for this stuff. In a battle with bureaucrats, he always wins.”
I don’t know who advised the government to get in this unwinnable fight, but it was bad advice. If it had been me making the call, I would have welcomed The Rebel, and waited for its representatives to misbehave sufficiently to be tossed with cause. This wouldn’t have taken long, if you ask me.
One only hopes Heather Boyd, former Western Canada bureau chief for the Canadian Press asked by Ms. Notley to examine how this is dealt with in other jurisdictions, can find a reasonable way out of this that balances the needs of the public, the rights of non-traditional journalists, and the government’s responsibility to provide security and order. With Mr. Levant stirring the pot expertly, I am not optimistic.
Right now, remarkably, Mr. Levant has the mainstream media to a man and woman cheering on his effort to establish the principle that no one, least of all the government or the Press Gallery, has the right to determine who is and who isn’t a real Legislature journalist!
He claims he’s going to sue the government to allow access to him and, presumably, anybody else with a website, a video camera or a pencil behind his or her ear. Not doing so, Mr. Levant says, “violates our constitutional freedom of the press.”
If that argument succeeds, good luck to the mainstream reporters who are now cheering Mr. Levant on! How will this new competition help their claim – stretched rather thin of late as it is – that the Legislature’s accredited media are the only unbiased, professional, reliable source of information about politics?
Plus, they’ll need to arrive early if they want to get a seat at those news conferences!