Responding yesterday to criticism for letting Alberta Premier Jason Kenney take a question from a reporter for a controversial right-wing news site during Tuesday’s virtual COVID-19 update, Press Secretary Christine Myatt tweeted defensively that “I don’t think anybody wants the government deciding who is or is not a journalist.”
Taken to task by Alberta Liberal Leader David Khan for Rebel News’s Keean Bexte getting time to ask a silly question about whether Mr. Kenney was worried “that Communism is leaching into the mainstream media,” Ms. Myatt huffily tweeted: “It’s not up to me to decide who is a ‘credible’ or ‘real’ journalist.”
Lately, for what are presumably partly defensible reasons, the Alberta government has taken to holding virtual news conferences with reporters restricted to phoning in, asking a question, and getting no follow-ups.
Needless to say, though, this has allowed Mr. Kenney’s staff to control the tone and the direction of news conferences in ways impossible during the hallway scrums and press conferences of yore.
That in turn has led to suspicion journalists friendly to the government are getting favourable treatment — it’s been noticed, for example, that Postmedia’s Rick Bell often gets the chance to ask the first question, often a windy, double-barreled invitation to the premier to run out the clock.
Ms. Myatt’s response to the criticism raised eyebrows because this government most certainly has tried to control who gets to call themselves a reporter.
As regular readers of this blog will recall, for example, in late February Progress Alberta had to go to court to be allowed to attend the government’s pre-budget lockup in Edmonton.
The Edmonton-based progressive news and advocacy organization sought an injunction after it was informed by government officials its application to attend the lockup had been rejected on the grounds “your organization has been reviewed and determined to be an advocacy organization. As such, your request for media accreditation as been denied. The media embargo is for members of the media only.”
Court of Queen’s Bench Justice Paul Belzil ordered the government to admit Progress Alberta Director Duncan Kinney to the lockup the next day and awarded Progress Alberta $2,000 in costs.
In fairness, Ms. Myatt claimed yesterday the government had learned from that mistake and would scrupulously no longer try to pick winners and losers among the journalistic fraternity. We’ll see how that works out — especially once the Legislature Building reopens to business as usual.
The fact is the question of who gets to go to news conferences, have the run of the building to question politicians, and practice journalism however you want to define it is a hot mess that needs fixing.
Mainstream journalists noisily rushed to the defence of Rebel News back in February 2016 when a civil servant turned a couple of its operatives away from a stakeholders meeting on the NDP government’s royalty review.
Whether or not that should have happened, the situation turned into a major brouhaha with respected news organizations that should have known better charging to the defence of the Rebel and attacking the NDP.
Postmedia’s Lorne Gunter accused the NDP of “seeking to muzzle journalists.” Even the CBC proclaimed, “Rachel Notley’s NDP bans The Rebel from Alberta government news conferences.” This was almost entirely baloney.
The NDP vowed never to get caught in that situation again and hired Heather Boyd, a respected former Canadian Press journalist, to find a Solomonic solution and write up a report recommending it. Her idea: toss the hot potato to the Alberta Legislature Press Gallery and let it handle journalist accreditation, as is the practice in Ottawa and at larger Canadian provincial legislatures.
The government of the day accepted all of Ms. Boyd’s recommendations, and even offered to help create and run an independent secretariat to assist the Gallery with the work.
No soap. Having largely created the problem by its rush to defend Rebel News, the Gallery refused to touch the job with a bargepole.
“They made it clear they didn’t want to do that,” a disgusted Cheryl Oates, then communications director to premier Rachel Notley, told me at the time. As a result, she confessed, “I am not interfering in any way. … People I know aren’t media, I just say OK.”
Now, it would seem, the United Conservative Party Government, having been bitten by Progress Alberta, has adopted the same policy.
The problem is that no grownups are taking responsibility for deciding the reasonable question of who in fact has a legitimate journalistic reason to attend government media events.
This doesn’t work because, practically speaking, especially when news conferences are taking place inside the building, it means any independent journalist will have trouble doing her job because deciding who has access falls to the Legislature’s security staff, which is not equipped to separate journalistic wheat from chaff.
This presumably suits the Gallery. Nowadays it’s a small private club made up mostly of remnants of the once powerful legacy media. It jealously guards its access to perks that go with membership, among them, hassle-free access to politicians and subsidized office space inside the best address in the city of Edmonton.
This can’t go on forever, though, and it’s said here that eventually the Speaker’s Office is going to have to fix it, whether it likes it or not.
In the mean time, it makes for occasional bouts of entertainment and opportunities to point out UCP inconsistencies.
Speaking of which, responding to the same questioner, Premier Kenney took the opportunity to chide participants in last Friday’s Fight for Equity rally for going to a crowded event when other Albertans have sacrificed personal freedom to slow the spread of COVID-19.
“What they’re saying is that those sacrifices are somehow less worthy than their own desire to gather in large groups,” Mr. Kenney piously pronounced, trivializing the important issue that prompted the march.
Meanwhile, the UCP communications team continues to produce angry memes blaming the NDP and damning the rally’s organizers for not inviting Kaycee Madu, Mr. Kenney’s minister of municipal affairs, to speak at the same event.