Alberta Politics
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney at Tuesday’s COVID-19 briefing in Edmonton (Photo: Screenshot of Government of Alberta Video).

It’s not up to the premier’s staff to decide who’s a journalist — except when it is

Posted on June 11, 2020, 1:55 am
9 mins

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.”

Former Alberta Premier, now Opposition leader, Rachel Notley (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

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.

Christine Myatt, Mr. Kenney’s press secretary (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

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.

Cheryl Oates, Ms. Notley’s Communications Director during the NDP government (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

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.

Retired journalist Heather Boyd (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

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.

8 Comments to: It’s not up to the premier’s staff to decide who’s a journalist — except when it is

  1. Derek

    June 11th, 2020

    It’s very bad that all parties have been trying to prevent being asked questions by people they don’t like. Anyone should be able to ask questions.
    Or they should have clear qualifications which met the requirements to be allowed to ask a questions. The world of media is changing. Bloggers, Youtubers and independent journalism is putting the old guard out of business.

    Reply
    • John T

      June 11th, 2020

      The problem with that approach is that you will see an influx of partisans asking the questions to either support or degrade the person being asked…much like David states.

      Reply
      • Derek

        June 12th, 2020

        Yes but what else can you do? There is no right answer.

        Reply
  2. alan

    June 11th, 2020

    Perpetually stuck in the paranoid 1950’s and the accompanying delusions that are always conspiring in the background, i.e., foreign funded radical ‘Communists’. Conveniently, all of the political failures can be attributed to non-existent, antagonistic, mental phantasms and not to the flawed, often times deluded individuals responsible for inadequate policy choices/implementation.

    Therefore it is standard policy in the land of sub par political intellects, that covertly rely on PR firms as a nearly exclusive guiding voice, that no difficult questions will be answered. Why pull back the curtain on the political charade and its juvenile, lame ‘leadership’? Why not?

    Reply
  3. Dave

    June 11th, 2020

    Well clearly this is not Harry Truman’s administration, it is pass the buck, not the buck stops here.

    I can see how the UCP finds and has exploited, a politically advantageous situation here for itself. The dwindling number of mainstream journalists has no desire to expand its ranks, or put the effort into setting out rules that could potentially result in that. I am sure for the most part there is also no desire for the UCP government to face more journalists either. Therefor, its a win, win – both for the exclusive private club and the government, but unfortunately for the public not so much.

    Perhaps the most egregious thing here, is the government is gaming the system a bit, as they control the virtual press conferences so they can invite or encourage those who are ideologically or otherwise friendly to participate. It is easier to get away with this sort of things in the virtual setting, playing favorites to a room with reporters physically present would look too obviously bad.

    I know Alberta has had a long history as a one party state and that fawning media coverage sometimes goes with this. However, I hope that we have now moved beyond that and are trying to be a real democracy, where the government is regularly scrutinized and challenged, although that is difficult to do if much of the mainstream media is too docile or cozy with the government.

    Perhaps the course of least resistance for some in the mainstream media with its limited and diminishing resources is to mostly just go along with what the government says without challenging it much. Who knows, maybe there will be a future reward for them for this – a government communications job, a position at the war room, etc… However, this it is a dangerous game to play for mainstream media organizations that are already become less and less relevant in our province, to give away or bargain away what remains of their credibility.

    Reply
  4. Abs

    June 11th, 2020

    Keean Bexte of the driveway tantrum on Parliament Hill? Are we calling it a “Kantrum” now? Sorry, it doesn’t have the same ring as a “Shantrum”. (Journalism 101: Don’t become the story.)

    Since when is being affiliated with white supremacy a marker of being a “journalist”? From the article you linked at Ricochet:

    “It remains to be seen whether Bexte’s association with a company that markets memorabilia from white ethnostates and that posted racial slurs to social media will cost him his new job with Rebel Media or his membership in the Alberta and federal conservative parties.”

    It’s Alberta, so no. The article points out Bexte’s affiliations within the UCP, and directly to Jason Kenney. Bexte is said to have worked to move the UCP further to the right. And now he is press gallery worthy. His peers in the gallery must be so proud. They are equals now. They have forgotten their purpose. Maybe they need an intervention by this organization:

    https://www.spj.org/news.asp?REF=948

    Reply
  5. Just Me

    June 11th, 2020

    If it were not for Keean Bexte there would be no clownish humour.

    When CNN reporter Omar Jimenez was arrested for doing nothing, expect reporting while being Black (RWBB) Bexte was outraged, but not because of the obvious racism behind Omar Jimenez’s arrest. No. Bexte was outraged because there was no similar outrage over his arrest while covering PMJT.

    Seems Bexte was trying to get to the PM to ask him a question or two. Bexte’s reasoning was that he was constantly being cut off from the teleconference pool during PMJT’s daily Q&As. It seems that announcing yourself as Keean Bexte will get you shut out of pretty much anywhere.

    So, faced with this obvious affront to his journalistic credibility, Bexte decided to attend a press conference at the PM’s temporary residence at Rideau Hall (Because 24 Sussex Drive is condemned) and question PMJT. Bexte was not only stopped by the RCMP security detail, he was detained and led away in handcuffs. Bexte took to Rebelmedia and denounced the liberal bias that condemned what happened to Omar Jimenez, but ignored Bexte’s own plight. In case no one fully understood the grave injustice that was done to Bexte, it seems he was arrested while being tall, white, blond, and blue-eyed. (TWBB) I mean the outrage and the bias against a person with white-supremacist ties from Viking, AB? What next?

    It should surprise no one that Kenney and the UCP support Rebelmedia as much as they coddle Postmedia journos, because they are the only news outlets who will unflinchingly parrot every single press release they are handed by the Premier’s Office. Who really needs that War Room?

    Reply
    • Derek

      June 12th, 2020

      The war room is just to funnel money to friends. It serves no other purpose.

      Reply

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