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

Posted on September 11, 2017, 1:35 am
7 mins

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.

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

  1. Death and Gravity

    September 11th, 2017

    Well this raises gall and insouciance and self-serving bullshit to a level seldom seen in a backwater like Edmonton:

    “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,”

    Unless by “didn’t create” he means “were largely responsible for, out of some combination of shamelessness, cowardice and corruption”.

    Reply
  2. jerrymacgp

    September 11th, 2017

    While journalists quite rightly resist any suggestion that governments should have any role in determining whether an individual is or is not a journalist, I fail to understand why they cannot set up some form of professional governance model which could develop a set of objective criteria for such a determination.

    There are a number of varying definitions of a “profession”, but all of them share a number of themes. A profession must share a unified body of knowledge, and must require a prescribed course of formal study for entry into the profession; a profession alone controls who can enter into that profession, by setting educational, practice and accreditation standards for candidates to pass and may include an entry-to-practice exam (in the modern era, this is often a function delegated to the profession by government, under some form of enabling legislation); it must have an agreed-upon code of ethics. Therefore, while lay people often tend to consider journalism to be a profession, it clearly fails to meet those criteria.

    Reply
    • David Climenhaga

      September 11th, 2017

      Many journalists talk like this too – though, I suspect, it’s because they’d like the perks and privilege of a professional lifestyle – but journalism is not and cannot be a profession, in my view, in the sense that nursing, lawyering or engineering are. I am not referring to Hunter S. Thomson’s famously profane and politically incorrect assessment of the occupation, which contains the words “journalism is not a profession or a trade…” I’ll leave it to readers to look that up themselves, and say only that it contains enough truth, notwithstanding the rough characterizations and offensive slurs, to be dangerous. The problem is that professionalizing journalism means those who are not members of the club cannot practice it, and anyone and everyone being able to be a journalist in some form is essential to a functioning democracy. Making journalism a profession inherently limits and regulates free speech to an unacceptable degree. DJC

      Reply
  3. J.E. Molnar

    September 11th, 2017

    When Ezra Levant denied media access to a Canadaland reporter for a Rebel event in June, that other news outlets had been allowed to cover, the Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ) took exception in the same way they chastised the Alberta government for denying the Rebel access to government events. The CAJ has since recanted its claim that the Rebel is a source of news and released this statement in finally questioning Rebel media’s authority as a bona fide news outlet after recent Rebel coverage in Charlottesville:

    “Rebel Media’s conduct at Charlottesville protests and accusations of impropriety leveled at the organization from former employees have both raised questions about Rebel’s legitimacy as a news outlet, and reignited a debate about what counts as journalism in a rapidly evolving media landscape. We do not allow our own biases to impede fair and accurate reporting. We carefully consider our political activities and community involvements—including those online—and refrain from taking part in demonstrations, signing petitions, doing public relations work, fundraising or making financial contributions if there is a chance we will be covering the campaign, activity or group involved.”

    When you’re an organization that shills for Jason Kenney by fundraising and reportedly accessed a Wildrose membership mailing list to improve its viewership, it’s extremely difficult to be taken seriously as a source of journalism, unbiased or otherwise.

    For more on ethical journalism in Canada visit:
    http://caj.ca/ethics-guidelines

    Reply
    • David Climenhaga

      September 11th, 2017

      I thought the CAJ’s return to this issue was lame, to say the least, nothing more than an attempt to whitewash their embarrassing and ill-considered support for a really unsavoury organization without actually admitting they were wrong. Their press release certainly doesn’t concede that governments need some way to control who comes to their own media events, if only to keep out front groups for the opposition parties, and that the decision of the Alberta officials to exclude the Rebel was the right one at the time and has been proven to be the right one since. If a mistake was made by the Notley government, it was not standing by their own officials’ recommendation. I don’t view the CAJ as a credible organization, which is why, even in the days when journalism in Canada was a going concern, they had only a few hundred members. I have more time for the Rebel, actually, because it doesn’t pretend to be what it is not, and whatever we may think of the poison it dispenses, it is a business success. DJC

      Reply
  4. September 11th, 2017

    Maybe they should abolish the press gallery altogether since reporters and journalists seem to be a vanishing breed.

    Most of the journalism school grads these days appear to be working as corpotate PR flaks writing press releases. I fact, the entire media landscape is domiated by press releases.

    Reply
  5. David

    September 11th, 2017

    I suspect those that were so vocally supporting the Rebel are now strangely silent and perhaps a bit embarrassed.

    If the Press Gallery doesn’t want to deal with accreditation, I suppose the solution is simple. There are a limited number of seats and it becomes first come, first serve open to anyone who can clear security. If Sheila from Olds who has a nice little blog happens to get there and take the last seat before say someone from Global National who was stuck in traffic, oh well too bad so sad. They were offered to opportunity to deal with it and they punted it back to the government. What are they then going to do then complain? Probably, but it will look silly. In my opinion any organization that is offered any opportunity to self regulate and throws it back to the government is already silly.

    Reply
  6. Kuri

    September 11th, 2017

    So does this mean that as a blogger, you could also get access to the office space and to events as long as you obey the rules re: security and keeping information like budget details secret until the appointed times? I’m not sure this is necessarily a bad thing.

    Reply
  7. Jason M

    September 11th, 2017

    Time to ban all the ‘Journalists’ from the Ledge. Take the reason for them being employed away and they’ll change their tune right quick. They don’t want to govern themselves. They don’t want the Gov’t to interfere. Shut the doors to them and send out a blanket press release for them to all fight over.

    Reply

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