Fallout from the ‘Rebel Media’ brouhaha: maybe it’s time to abolish Alberta’s anachronistic Press Gallery

Posted on February 19, 2016, 1:35 am
11 mins

PHOTOS: A screenshot of some of the partisan materials sold on Ezra Levant’s Rebel Media website. Below: Another image of a sale item from The Rebel, in this case a T-shirt with the website’s logo on the back and a slogan supporting the Conservative Party on the front. Below that: Alberta Legislative Press Gallery President Darcy Henton and Mr. Levant.

Members of the Alberta Legislative Press Gallery will rue the day they jumped on Ezra Levant’s bandwagon and demanded the province open wide the doors to government news conferences and other events to representatives of the partisan conservative agitator’s video blog.

The dispute started when Mr. Levant’s so-called Rebel Media website, set up after the closing of Sun TV where he had worked, accused the government of throwing one of its “journalists” out of a media news briefing and not allowing another to attend a private stakeholders meeting when the government announced its decision not to raise resource royalties on Jan. 29.

REBEL_BLAME-JPGI place the word “journalists” in quotation marks because Rebel’s freelancers are clearly not journalists in the sense most Canadians understand the word. Rather, they are partisan political operatives whose website runs petitions against government policies and sells campaign materials with such slogans as “Don’t blame me, I voted Conservative” and, under a picture of former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper, “Miss me yet?” Back in the days when I worked in what we quaintly called the press, even unserious journalists disdained such partisan activities.

Mr. Levant himself, of course, is well known for interjecting such sentiments as “f**k your mother” into mainstream commentary, albeit to date only in Spanish.

Nevertheless, after the events at the Royalty Review briefing, Mr. Levant hired a lawyer who wrote a letter pleading his case, and made public the reply of a government lawyer who stated that “those who identify as being connected to your client are not journalists and are not entitled to access media lock-ups or other such events.”

That was the moment the stuff hit the fan.

Columnists at Postmedia’s Edmonton and Calgary operations, the Globe and Mail, the Canadian Press, the CBC and many other still-respectable news organizations associated with the Press Gallery jumped to the support of Mr. Levant, accepting uncritically his characterization of a fight over access to officials and information as a dispute about “free speech,” which it was not.

2014-canadian-hillman-darcyCondemnation of Alberta’s NDP government by media associated with the Gallery was universal and excoriating. An Edmonton Sun columnist characterized it as “the NDP’s war on free speech.” The Globe compared the Government of Premier Rachel Notley to those of Russia, Egypt and Iran that called the exclusion of Mr. Levant’s agitators as “beyond deplorable.” The Canadian Association of Journalists, which no one is required to join, issued a particularly sanctimonious statement calling the government liars.

As blogger John Baglow observed, this was “rather like a College of Physicians and Surgeons demanding that faith healers be licensed.”

Indeed, one really has to ask: did any of these professional journalists actually look at Mr. Levant’s website? Or are they so determined to attack the Alberta government that they paid no attention to what they were arguing about?

The Alberta Press Gallery itself issued a carefully parsed news release that nevertheless backed Mr. Levant’s fundamental position. “The Press Gallery supports the right of journalists to provide vigorous and diverse coverage of the Alberta Legislature,” it said.

The premier, obviously nonplussed by the nearly universal support of Mr. Levant by mainstream media, quickly backtracked and announced Rebel Media would be admitted to news conferences, at least until a review of media accreditation practices by former Canadian Press Western Canada bureau chief Heather Boyd is completed in about three weeks. Observers in media and the blogosphere expect Ms. Boyd to deposit the hot potato in the lap of the Press Gallery, as has been done in other jurisdictions.

EzraIf so, however, the Press Gallery’s own members have just shot their institution in both feet, and the poop-storm Mr. Levant let loose won’t end any time soon.

For starters, since Mr. Levant’s operation falls so far short of the Gallery’s basic standards for its own members, the Gallery is justly going to wear some of the blame for Rebel Media’s future excesses, which they are determined to enable.

God help them, though, if they turn him away! Mr. Levant is completely consistent, and disapproves as much of other journalists acting as gatekeepers as he does of government officials in that role. “Journalists are people who do journalism,” he said to me yesterday in an email. “It has nothing to do with the approval of a third party.

“We tolerate exclusionary cartels in other professions, like doctors and lawyers, because of the objective skills and knowledge necessary. Journalism is simply commenting on the events of the day. It is not a profession.”

But if partisan Conservatives like Rebel Media are admitted to all government news conferences and events, then so must be all other partisans. If the Press Gallery now tries to enforce the mainstream media’s traditional monopoly on access to politicians and information, it will feel the full wrath not just of Mr. Levant’s activist supporters, but of many of the rest of us who cover political events from other perspectives for non-traditional media, not to mention many lawyers.

In other words, the Press Gallery should have been more careful about what it wished for. Once opened, this door is going to be hard to close.

The Gallery’s own rules state: “Active membership in the Association shall be open only to journalists, photographers, camerapersons, soundpersons, and other professionals whose principal occupation is reporting, interpreting, editing or analyzing Alberta Legislature or provincial government news on a continuing basis who require the use of Gallery facilities to fulfil their functions.”

Another rule forbids membership in political parties, and a Press Gallery member was thrown out last year when he was spotted at a members-only party function. (I got the reason for this expulsion wrong in a previous post, for which I apologize both to readers and the unfortunate reporter.)

“Membership in the Gallery … is not open to part-time bloggers employed by unions or public interest groups,” sniffed Gallery President Darcy Henton in a note to me.

It is true, as the Gallery said in its news release, “it has long been the practice in Alberta that reporters and photographers who present their news credentials to Legislature security can acquire visiting media passes to cover news conferences.” (Emphasis added.) But Mr. Levant has sought, successfully, to render even that broad definition meaningless. And if he’s in, then everyone else must be in too!

Nowadays, of course, even the most respectable media operations are heavy on the opinionating and light on actual reporting.

So perhaps the time has come to throw open the doors and abolish the Press Gallery, which in this day of openly politically partisan mainstream media is really just a private club to enforce the information monopoly of its original members.

Moreover, thanks to the generosity of the public, I am told Gallery members pay just $70 a year for office space in the beautiful and historic Legislative Building in the heart of downtown Edmonton. That’s less than $6 a month for the best address in town!

This public subsidy came about because, many years ago, the press was seen as essential to democracy. But how can that be argued now, when, more often than not, mainstream media plays an openly partisan role in favour of conservative political parties, as did Postmedia, owner of all of Edmonton’s and Calgary’s daily newspapers, in the last federal and provincial elections?

Indeed, a strong case can be made the Gallery itself is no longer the charming anachronism it appears but an actual impediment to democracy. Certainly, it is very hard to argue it should be allowed to be the gatekeeper to government information, able to blackball inconvenient information interlopers.

Since we’re now all journalists, according to the Press Gallery, then we should all be permitted to take notes in the public galleries as long as we don’t throw spitballs at the MLAs below.

And if that creates a security problem, the democratic solution can only be placed in the hands of the state, not privatized to the beneficiaries of a broken institution.

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

35 Comments to: Fallout from the ‘Rebel Media’ brouhaha: maybe it’s time to abolish Alberta’s anachronistic Press Gallery

  1. PIGL

    February 19th, 2016

    The damage is done, the one way ratchet downwards spun freely for a while, and Levant will be crowing over this until the end of time. If the NDP had not backed down in the face of this tempest in a teapot, the absurdity of the situation would have manifested eventually.

    Reply
  2. Sam Gunsch

    February 19th, 2016

    re: ‘…mainstream media plays an openly partisan role in favour of conservative political parties…’

    And of course, since the 1980’s, MSM has been lending its op-ed and business sections daily to endless advocacy columns by corporate spokespeople, RW thinktanks, RW academics, Chambers of Commerce spokespeople for anti-government, anti-democracy, climate-deniers, flat-taxer’s, anti-union, anti-environmental protection, etc., etc., etc.

    While the MSM op-ed pages at the same time have been virtual deserts for advocacy commentary on labour, healthcare, education, social services, poverty, environment…but hey…any of these lesser ‘public interests’ have their own newsletters…so no big deal.

    Reply
  3. jerrymacgp

    February 19th, 2016

    I’m torn on this one. Of course, Levant is a xenophobic, fascist, hateful blowhard to whom the term “journalist” cannot be applied without a mountain of salt. However, it is unhealthy to set up a situation when the government, any government, is given the authority to make decisions on who is or is not a legitimate journalist.

    And yet, there also needs to be some standard. There are government events that are not open to the general public, but only to the media; budget lockups come to mind as the most obvious example. Without some objective standard governing who is admitted into those events, how do we ensure not only the security of the venue but simple fire safety and the occupancy limits of the room? First came, first served? In that direction lies chaos and a stampede.

    I think that while your misgivings about putting this in the hands of the Legislature Press Gallery, analogous to the Ottawa situation, are well taken, I still think it to be the least objectionable among a set of imperfect solutions.

    Reply
    • David Climenhaga

      February 19th, 2016

      Jerry: All governments on this planet pick and choose to some degree who is a real journalist and who is not. They have no choice. The mark of a democracy is public rules and a clear appeal process, not the lack of any controls, which are required simply to ensure the safety of legislators and maintenance of public order. The website in question permits and has left in place for a long time threats of violence against Premier Notley and other politicians. I have several screenshots. Notwithstanding the existence of threats from nuts of all political flavours on social media, Rebel Media is one of the few sites approaching the mainstream in volume of readers if not subject material that allows this. At least one of Rebel’s freelancers has made “joking” references to violence against politicians. That said, there is no question the Press gallery exists to preserve the monopoly on access of a small group of “legacy” news operations, many now in financial difficulties, and Mr. Levant has done us all a favour by forcing this problem into the open. For that reason, putting this in the hands of the Gallery, in my view, is the worst possible solution.

      Reply
      • Sam Gunsch

        February 19th, 2016

        re: gov’t’s picking and choosing

        PCs history of exclusion/favoritism…Press Gallery was fine with… below from #ableg.

        ===================
        https://twitter.com/edmontonsun/status/699431875505491969

        Ian Gray ‏@IGnobillytee Feb 15

        Agree 100% but must point out the hypocrisy. For years Tory govts banned union and environmental journos. #ableg

        Ian Gray added,

        Thomas A. Lukaszuk @LukaszukAB

        As much as I disagree with much of TheRebelMedia & Ezra editorials, #ableg press events must allow diverse reporting

        Reply
      • anonymous

        February 19th, 2016

        “…Mr. Levant has done us all a favour by forcing this problem into the open.”

        What problem would that be? Not allowing hate filled, racist bigots into public legislatures?

        Reply
        • David Climenhaga

          February 19th, 2016

          No, sorry if I wasn’t clear. I meant the non-functionality of the Press gallery system, and the lack of a role for bloggers and like commentators.

          Reply
  4. Simon Renouf

    February 19th, 2016

    David, Spot-on as usual. There is no way the government is going to re-engage with this issue The Press Gallery as an institution has succeeded in bringing about its own demise.

    Reply
  5. Cathie Reid

    February 19th, 2016

    Really great article… and thank you for posting the facts surrounding Gallery rules. It certainly appears that the Partisan and Corporate agenda of MSM ownership has been revealed through public support of Mr. Levant. The interests of the profession and the public were certainly not served.

    “As blogger John Baglow observed, this was “rather like a College of Physicians and Surgeons demanding that faith healers be licensed.”

    Indeed, one really has to ask: did any of these professional journalists actually look at Mr. Levant’s website? Or are they so determined to attack the Alberta government that they paid no attention to what they were arguing about?

    Reply
  6. Lorenzo

    February 19th, 2016

    I look forward to the press gallery’s members taking full responsibility for their part the next time Ezra tells someone to go f his mother or launches an openly racist attack on a religious or cultural minority group.

    Reply
  7. MRM286

    February 19th, 2016

    I think that I might just declare myself to be a “journalist”

    Reply
  8. cd

    February 19th, 2016

    Rebel is providing a needed service. People should take notes from them. Have an open mind.

    Reply
    • Mary Jane

      February 19th, 2016

      Great point, CD. How else would we learn perpetrate hate?

      Reply
  9. PJP

    February 19th, 2016

    Good grief. I have resisted exploring RebelMedia, cuz obviously, but the artefacts and nonsense it has been suggested they spout reminds me of my older brother who, when he was 17, discovered the juvenile fun in swearing at mom, driving too fast, drinking, weed, and generally sticking it to “the man”. We all figured his eventual comeuppance would help him learn the errors of his ways. Unfortunately, bad went to worse and he did not learn … addiction demons being hard to shake.

    What is the nature of Levant’s mind, what are his fears and weaknesses, that make him so? And what do we, society, peers, the public do to help him figure it out?

    Reply
    • Val Jobson

      February 19th, 2016

      I think Levant’s strongest emotion may be hatred of Muslims. I heard him on local CBC radio years ago talking about a dispute he was in with a Muslim man. Ezra said “He’s a Jew-hater.” and the loathing in his own voice sounded real to me, not a performance. I don’t think he’s as funny as some think.

      Reply
  10. Vladimir Poutine

    February 19th, 2016

    As soon as Rebel Media screws up by false reporting, they can BOOT rebel media out and the NDP can sue for Libel and Slander.

    Reply
    • David Climenhaga

      February 19th, 2016

      Not really. First, I doubt the Gallery will have the balls to boot Rebel. Second, for political reasons, no politician is likely to sue Rebel or its proprietor for defamation, as the political costs outweigh the benefits. Third, a defamation would have to be proved, which is harder than it sounds in the rough and tumble of politics.

      Reply
  11. Linda

    February 19th, 2016

    The public right to information will be irreparably damaged by the msm/ableg Press Gallery backlash. I expect limited media availabilities and questions since the decision to let ‘anyone’ in will result in a circus.

    Reply
    • David Climenhaga

      February 19th, 2016

      This is what I expect as well. From the government’s point of view, though, the Gallery will have to wear it.

      Reply
      • David Sands

        February 19th, 2016

        What DJC predicts is precisely what I told both Darcy Henton and Graham Thomson was going to happen if the Gallery didn’t get its act together – about three years ago. You cannot enforce an embargo on someone who faces no commercial penalty for breaking one. And you cannot expect professionalism or common courtesy from someone whose schtick is to flout both. Only the Gallery can police the Gallery. If they refuse to do so, it’s a completely useless institution on all sides. – David Sands

        Reply
  12. Filostrato

    February 19th, 2016

    Support for Ezrant from various media organizations surprised me, too. He says racist and obscene things about other people but blows up like a puffer fish (fugu to you, Ezrant) when anyone dares to disagree with him. I’ve heard the whole “free speech” thing compared to the freedom of a person to swing a fist around, that it stops where another person’s nose starts.

    There were a few “Don’t blame me. I didn’t vote Conservative.” signs around here a couple of elections ago. Someone who displayed one in the rear window of their car had the back windscreen smashed. Free vandalism – does Ezrant support that too? Words can be just as destructive as brute force, particularly when it fires up the neuron-challenged to acts of violence.

    Another bumper sticker that caught my eye a few years ago around here was, “I miss my ex-wife – but my aim is getting better.” It was embellished with a tasteful illustration of a gun sight with crosshairs. Oh, yeah – the pickup in question had a set of cojones attached to the trailer hitch at the back. Good times…

    As for Harper and the “Miss me yet?” – nope.

    Reply
  13. Dave

    February 19th, 2016

    I think the press gallery should open up membership to bloggers and commentators – it is 2016, however the issue of membership or active support for a political party might be troublesome if they want to preserve the facade of impartiality. Perhaps they could resolve that by having different name tags – some that say independent and some that say – Member (or supporter of) of X party, so any bias could be obvious to any observer. Perhaps the independent members could get priority access to seating and the blogger would be on a first come basis.

    It might be best to approve Levant’s membership application initially, but if he does or says something stupid later (any bets on that happening?) then they can revoke it.

    Reply
    • Chris

      February 19th, 2016

      Many on the “left” consider anything a conservative says to be stupid, and vice versa. That is the whole point. We are debating whether to ban certain ideas and those who hold them and we are using their tone-of-voice and comportment as excuses to do so. This is highly dangerous.

      If a journalist or blogger threatens or becomes violent at a media event or in the legislature gallery then kick him out. Do not try to ban her/him altogether using the possibility of violence as an excuse. This kind of thinking has brought us the internment of Japanese Canadians during WWII and other historical injustices.

      Reply
  14. David Climenhaga

    February 19th, 2016

    Thanks to my readers who noticed my embarrassing arithmetical error. As they say, “Math is hard.” To my conservative friends I say this: Don’t hold Joe Ceci responsible for my errors! DJC

    Reply
  15. Athabascan

    February 19th, 2016

    I love the NDP, and I think they are the best party to lead Alberta. I think Rachel Notley is an intelligent and reasonable person.

    If I had been advising the NDP, I would have recommended keeping Rebel Media out of the press conference, based on security concerns and not whether he is or is not considered press.

    In this day and age of heightened alertness this would have been an easy sell. If pressed, I would have revealed all the online threats that have appeared on the Rebel Media website to support my decision.

    Reply
  16. Spaceman Spiff

    February 19th, 2016

    Excellent analysis, David. I didn’t know much about the ins and outs of press gallery “membership” or “accreditation” at the legislature. I’m a former member of the working media in Alberta, but I never set foot in the old place as a reporter.

    I have to admit, my feelings are torn on this.

    I bet if you ask any NHL team, I’m sure they’ll tell you that one of the biggest challenges at the start of each season is determining who should get a press pass and who shouldn’t. There are all kinds of fan sites and blog sites that are applying for full press access to NHL games and I’m quite sure they’re not all successful. But NHL teams also have it easy because they can make that call, unilaterally. They’re private businesses restricting who gets to cover post-game scrums, not the government/gallery determining who gets to sit in a budget lockup.

    So … in light of that … in my opinion … no matter how odious Ezra and his band of Quebecor/Sun Media refugees are, they are “the media.” They are reporters. They are journalists. As awful their slant is on things, if you click at their website and look past all the stupid ads for anti-NDP, pro-Harper, pro-Ralph swag, you can make the argument that they’re practising a “form” of journalism. And more importantly, they believe they’re conducting a form of journalism, as slanted and stupid as it is.

    As much as I love your quote from John Baglow comparing surgeons to faith healers, I’d suggest to you that there’s a bigger gap between a doctor and a faith healer than there is between a working journalist and what the wingnuts on Rebel Media are.

    That means they probably deserve media credentials to various government budget lockups and events (by the way, you do, too, David, if you don’t have them already). And it also means they shouldn’t be kicked out of events that they’ve already been credentialed for. I do think the NDP government was wrong to boot out the credentialed Rebel “reporter,” but I’m also not convinced that the previous Tory government(s) wouldn’t have done exactly the same thing.

    Now … all of that said … it’s also incumbent on Rebel Media to act like a credentialed member of the media. That’s the tradeoff and it means less about the slant of their coverage and more about how they conduct themselves at events. Basically, it means they act like professional adults and sophomoric morons who are only there to act like the proverbial fecal-matter-in-the-punchbowl.

    They might have a long way to go on that.

    The other day, I saw the selfie photo on Twitter of the Rebel “reporter” holding her nose while, in the background, you could see Alberta’s agriculture minister speaking at a podium about Bill 6, the controversial legislation aimed at moving Alberta’s farm safety laws away from 19th-century rural England and closer to 21st-century rural Canada.
    Her tweet was something cheeky, along the lines of, “this is what it’s like to be in the same room with the Agriculture minister while he’s speaking.” If I’m not mistaken, she was the same “reporter” who tried to enter the lockup, even though her … uh… co-rebel…was already in the room, presumably with proper credentials.

    So yeah … if Rebel Media wants to be able to news-gather, they’re going to have to learn to do it like adults, even if the mere thought of acting professionally with the MSM makes them hurl. It can be done.

    I know a lot of people won’t like this comparison, but in many ways, Rebel Media is like a student newspaper at a university. There isn’t a student newspaper out there that doesn’t slant in favour of students and, as a result, fairness and balance of their content can fall by the wayside. I can’t claim to know what kind of credentials are extended to such publications at the U of A, U of C, or any of the colleges, but my guess is they’re allowed in as long as they sit quietly in the chairs and ask their questions politely when acknowledged by the press secretary, like the rest of the grownups.

    As for what they write after they get their clips… well, that’s their business. Online news outlets have as much right to slant as the printed or broadcast ones.

    If news-printed-on-dead-trees is going the way of the passenger-pigeon, then we all have accept the fact that crowd-funded vanity websites operated by bloviating buffoons like Levant are as much a part of the “new media” as anyone else is.

    I’m glad the government has changed its position on The Rebel, but next time one of its “reporters” is in a government lockup, I’d suggest the government members be the ones holding their noses.

    Reply
  17. Frank

    February 19th, 2016

    lol, oh. my. lord. If the NDP weren’t so thin skinned and ignored the blowhard it would all blow away. Instead, over-react, cover yourselves in ashes and “micro-aggressions”, wail, lament and build it bigger than it needs to be.

    Reply
  18. Expat Albertan

    February 19th, 2016

    The victim-narrative that Levant has been able to spin for the right-wing is truly sickening, particularly given the anti-democratic shenanigans his friend Harper got up to over the last 10 years. If one wants to avoid losing their cookies over this, I think the only thing to do is to take lemons and make lemonade. To wit: there will be a very narrow window of opportunity for those on the opposite end of the political spectrum to take advantage of this faux-outrage about freedom of the press. This means that anybody who is anybody (or nobody, for that matter) in the progressive media should push their way into media events to which they were traditionally excluded. For starters, why not get a bunch of NDP-friendly bloggers to fill the next government press conference to capacity and lob softball questions at the Alberta government (or better yet, ask tough questions whose true purpose are to denigrate the likes of Rebel Media). How about Press Progress and Rabble filling up Brad Wall’s next press conference and asking him why he hates the environment so much or why he wants our grandkids to breath dirty air? Let’s get creative and make Ezra reconsider his wishes.

    Reply
  19. Larry Connell

    February 20th, 2016

    I’m leaning to think that those who “miss Ralph Klein” are welcome to go see him today. Ralph was no blessing to Alberta and left this province in a disastrous state of infrastructure and program deficit.
    My second thought on this Ezra Lavant product page is if he hates the “left” so much why would he steal and use some of their best slogans .

    Reply
  20. Terry Smith

    February 20th, 2016

    Well said. There is a vast difference between a journalist and a lobbyist, and that distinction is the point we should focus on.

    Reply
  21. K from Edmonton

    February 21st, 2016

    I do not generally comment on things like this. My personal belief is that everyone in the media slant what they write based on their personal opinion or to that of the outlet they work for. If the NDP wanted this to blow over they should have allowed entrance to the rebel media and ignored them once they were inside.
    To me this is a case of censorship run amok with both sides blowing it out of proportion.
    Censorship based on not wanting an opposite opinion too yours getting out in the public is just wrong. Having said that racism in any form should be decried.
    The rebel my not like the sitting government but that government does not have the right to try and silence them unless they are spouting balant lies.

    Reply
    • Val Jobson

      February 21st, 2016

      They do spout blatant lies.

      Reply

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