The behaviour of broadcasters organizing the federal election debate is only a very recent example of how the fight for a truly independent– and yes, ballsy– media is one that is never over. The networks appeared to exclude the Green Party from the debate at the behest of Prime Minister Stephen Harper and NDP leader Jack Layton. And only when the politicians reversed their highly unpopular positions did the broadcasters follow suit and find a place, after all, for Elizabeth May in the debate.
The two political parties took most of the public criticism but there’s no question that if the broadcasters stood up strong for principles of democracy and simple fairness, the Green Party would have been in the debate from the beginning.
We know that standing up to the powerful is not easy. Ask Jocelyne Richer of the Canadian Press.
In August, Quebec Sports Minister Michelle Courchesne walked into the Canadian Press newsroom in Quebec City and publicly harassed Richer in front of her colleagues for using an unflattering (but accurate) quote of Courchesne in a story.
Guild members in Quebec were rightly outraged and condemned the attempted silencing of a colleague. And management at the Canadian Press filed a formal complaint. Good for them. We need more action like this.
It’s true that reporters asking challenging questions or telling difficult truths have always been subject to intimidation.
But now the pressure is coming down on entire news organizations from very powerful folks indeed. John Cruikshank, publisher of CBC News, was quoted in The Toronto Star earlier this month as saying Doug Finley, the conservative party’s director of political operations and campaign manager, “was in my face in a big way” regarding a complaint about CBC parliamentary reporter Krista Erickson late last year.
And Finley’s strong-arm tactics appear to have worked.
The CBC went public a short time after Finley’s complaint with an open response, avowing that it had found wrongdoing on the reporter’s part and announcing that she had been reassigned. Not only is it highly unusual for an employer to send out a press release about its private dealings with an employee, but the CBC’s public display fed the impression that the governing party gets its way with news organizations.
When we (media workers, media unions, media managers) don’t stand up to intimidation, we are all more vulnerable, particularly during heated political times like these.
Police can get carried away in this climate and very little is done when they do. South of the border, an Associated Press photographer and three people from the U-S independent radio program Democracy Now were arrested earlier this month outside the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minnesota. Other independent journalists were pepper-sprayed and reportedly held at gunpoint during “pre-emptive” raids. An ABC news producer was arrested outside the Democratic National Convention in Denver. The charges have not been dropped.
At the end of the day, it’s up to all of us to push back. This is one distinct advantage of a unionized environment: it gives us the ability to work as a group to fight significant issues involving our craft. The union is a constant reminder that you’re not in this alone. I urge Guild members everywhere to notify their colleagues, their union representatives and managers if they feel intimidated by anyone in the course of doing their work. You can also write to me directly at email@example.com . The more we all know about this issue, the easier it is for us to fight for a truly independent media together.
Lise Lareau is the National President of the Canadian Media Guild.