Outraged when Rebel was shut out, Alberta Legislature Press Gallery won’t help with role it said government must drop

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PHOTOS: The Alberta Legislature … no sign of the Press Gallery. Below: Retired journalist Heather Boyd, author of last year’s report on journalist accreditation at the Alberta Legislature; Cheryl Oates, communications director of the Premier’s Office; and Dean Bennett, president of the Alberta Legislature Press Gallery. 

Where’s Alberta’s Legislature Press Galley when you actually need it?

Nowhere to be found.

After Press Gallery members and other mainstream journalists noisily rushed to the defence of Rebel Media in February 2016 – when two representatives of the far-right organization were asked by civil servants to leave government technical briefings about the provincial royalty review on the reasonable grounds they were neither journalists nor stakeholders – no one will now take responsibility for accreditation of people who attend government news conferences.

In the wake of the brouhaha, a report by a respected retired journalist engaged by the province recommended the Press Gallery handle journalist accreditation, as is the practice in Ottawa and at larger Canadian provincial legislatures. The government accepted all of Heather Boyd’s recommendations, even offering to help create and run an independent secretariat to assist the Gallery with this work.

But the Gallery won’t touch it with a bargepole. “They made it clear they didn’t want to do that,” Cheryl Oates, communications director of the Premier’s Office, recently told me.

As a result, Ms. Oates said, at government lock-ups now, “I am not interfering in any way. … People I know aren’t media, I just say OK.”

This shouldn’t be a problem from a security standpoint. The Legislative Building’s security staff still tries to ensure no one who poses a threat gets into the building – although this can be a nuisance for journalists and commentators not regularly seen around the place.

Ironically, though – since members of the Press Gallery contributed to the creation of the problem – it may eventually cause problems for the Gallery. They won’t like it when non-members start asking questions at government press conferences and the like, as is bound to happen.

Back in early 2016, mainstream media political commentators employed by the Gallery’s few remaining members were quick to join Rebel Media in a cacophony of protest that blamed Premier Rachel Notley and the NDP for, as one prominent Postmedia columnist put it, “seeking to muzzle journalists.”

“Rachel Notley’s NDP bans The Rebel from Alberta government news conferences,” proclaimed CBC Edmonton in a web headline, and mainstream media from across Canada – who knew perfectly well what kind of an organization Rebel Media was – immediately joined the chorus of outrage.

Conservative politicians like then Wildrose leader Brian Jean naturally jumped on the bandwagon too, understandably enough since they were the main beneficiaries of Rebel Media’s efforts.

All this looks pretty foolish by the standards of late 2017, with Rebel Media’s reputation in tatters after its provocative commentary praising the deadly neo-Nazi white supremacy rally in Charlottesville, Va. Even conservative politicians who love the organization have mostly abandoned it, for the moment anyway.

But back in 2016, mainstream media and conservative politicians were quick to adopt and lend credibility to the Rebel’s narrative that governments have no business granting accreditation to journalists who attend government events, and furthermore that Rebel employees deserve to be called journalists.

The political level of the Alberta government, which had been completely back-footed by the uproar, dropped the whole accreditation thing like the proverbial hot potato, immediately ceasing to vet journalist accreditation. The government has never resumed the practice.

The Gallery’s executive, despite demanding transparency from everyone else, has very little to say about its own role in the issue or what it now thinks.

In response to my questions, Gallery President Dean Bennett would say only that, “we remain responsible for Gallery accreditation,” by which he meant Gallery membership. He did not respond to questions about why the Gallery will not take responsibility for a function its members’ employers insist the government must not do, and which is done by Gallery members in many other jurisdictions, or if a meeting with the Legislature’s Speaker recommended by Ms. Boyd ever took place.

Darcy Henton, president of the Gallery in 2016, did not respond to questions. He said in a written statement at the time of the controversy that “the Alberta Legislature Press Gallery remains committed to the principle that bona fide journalists should have full and unfettered access to the Legislature to hold the government accountable. We hope to work with the Speaker’s office to see how this issue might be addressed.”

The closest thing to an explanation of the Gallery’s position was provided by Edmonton Journal political columnist Graham Thomson in a column in mid-March, 2016, soon after the initial controversy. He said the government “unnecessarily created a stink with The Rebel.”

“Gallery members are a little miffed about being dropped in the middle of a controversy we didn’t create and one we would rather avoid,” Mr. Thomson insisted.

The legacy media companies that employ most of the Gallery’s dozen or so members apparently lack the funds or the interest to support the institution.

Nevertheless, Albertans continue to subsidize the Gallery through provision of office space in the Legislature Building for only a nominal fee.

Since access is now wide open to government news conferences, scrums and technical briefings in the Legislature and other provincial buildings nearby, it is not clear why.

Categories Alberta Politics