Freedom of the press should win this round 

Canada may lack proper journalist shield laws, but law makers are working on that;  and as a lawyer, I find it odd to see my own city council seriously seeking to implement rules to curtail freedom of the press. It’s very Emperor Commodus trying to bury Maximus in the Gladiator pit. It doesn’t look good on them. And that’s because it’s widely accepted that an important aspect of a free and democratic society is that journalists be free to engage in investigative journalism. And that means that people, even politicians and staff, should be free to have off the record conversations with the media.

Now, in fairness, I do sympathize with any politician that feels the media are not giving them a fair shake. And I have my own frustrations about the way some stories get covered, or ignored, in this town.

Also in fairness, I sympathize that not everyone has the media savvy of a Rob Ford to turn the tables on a reporter, or the financial resources to put their own show on TV in rebuttal to bad coverage like Rob Ford, or the charisma to take on the trained and skilled reporters and come out with even stronger support like only Rob Ford could. For those without such tools, it may feel like they are getting bullied with no recourse. That has to be frustrating. I get that. But laws are about balancing the rights of competing interests. And the freedom of the press is a key right in a democracy.

So, if council feels (for example) the local media is playing favorites with the mayor (no opinion on that expressed herein), the answer is not curtailing freedm of the press (that’s the Table Flip move you may remember from every Monoply game ever). To suggest that the city should change the rules to allow for a) the airing of all communications and b) a personal soap box in council meetings to personally address topics reported on … it goes too far in my humble opinion.

The first problem: it goes against the concept of journalistic shield laws, and all the reasons those exist. Let’s assume the rule would survive Charter scrutiny (and by assume, I mean I let’s not assume that at all, cause I a Tim’s Card it wouldn’t) … it would have a chilling effect on everybody to know that every word is not only being recorded, but reported online in real time. The long term effects of such a policy are clearly not being considered. It’s burning down the house to kill a spider: it may kill the spider, but at what cost? You have to think about the long term implications of such proposals.

The second problem is:  it’s all unnecessary. Embattled mayor Susan Fennell, as she was then,  found plenty of time and mechanisms to convey her side of the story, without formally setting aside time in council meetings. Ultimately, her message was heard, though apparently too little or  too late to change the outcome of the 2014 election.  On top of that, Councillors are free to prepare for council meetings in advance. To have prepared statements written in advance. To circulate written materials in advance. To write press releases and media kits in advance that fully and completely explore an issue that is likely to come up, in advance of any and all meetings. They even have their own staff to do it for them if they see fit. The deck is actually quite stacked in council’s favor here. Will a Councillor occasionally be blindsided and thrown under the odd bus (or lack of adequate busing it seems)? Sure. That’s politics. But Twitter, WordPress, Facebook and even a phone call to a reporter are powerful tools too. There are so many viable and legitimate means of messaging that a Councillor shouldn’t need a special time at the end of a council meeting to deliver their message. Unnecessary.

Basically what I am saying is:  If they need that time, frankly, it’s too late anyway.  Great messaging is very rarely delivered in the “surrebuttal” stage. By then, the fight is usually long over.

Finally, I would add that the job of council is not to decide upon the merits of a news story, to rule upon the question of whether a news report is fair and balanced (Maybe the story is, Maybe it isn’t). It’s not council’s job to decide that. Since there is no “decision of council” to be made, there is no need for council to discuss it. It’s a waste of time and city resources to convene city council to listen to a councillor or mayor pontificate on the merits of one story or another. That’s not what council is for.  They have a job to do, their time needs to be spent doing that job. They are city councillors, not hosts of the Daily Show.

In closing: I may not always agree with the news coverage I read.  But the answer is not shutting down the news. That’s not “prudent city management,”  that’s “revenge!” And there is no room for it in Brampton or any other City in Canada.

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