What is Freedom of the Press, actually?

I am confused by the support being shown to the Brampton Guardian. Yes, I agree, the current council motion is ill conceived and poorly drafted, and if I had a vote to cast, I would vote to defeat it in its present form. Yes, I love the Guardian and think its doing a great job exposing problems in the city, bringing issues to the public’s attention and bring focus to contentious issues that would otherwise go unnoticed. And yes, ultimately, I think the current proposal has the potential to have unintended consequences that could impinge the Freedom of the Press, so I don’t support it as I have written before.

But so far, that’s not the nature of the support the paper is receiving, or at least, that is not what is being communicated about the reasons for the support. And I am confused by the support, and by who is showing the support.  It seems to come from all the same people that call for increased accountability, transparency and more access to information about the inner workings our City.

Those who are supporting the Guardian are basically asserting that they don’t want to have access to the full text of the questions asked and the full text of the answers given, both of which were originally communicated through official channels and would be discoverable through a Freedom of Information request in any event.

After all, who wants less information? It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, and it seems to miss the nuances at play.   It seems to me that the disconnect boils down to some confusion about the central question “What is Freedom of the Press?”

It is, loosely, the right to publish and circulate opinions.  It is, by extension, the right to be free from having opinions imposed upon it. There are limits, such as classified information, privileged information, slander and libel law, hate speech, etc., but beyond those reasonable limits, the media should be able to say what it wants and not be told what to say or what not to say.

Summarized, freedom of the press has two very basic rules, subject to reasonable limits:

  • Governments shall not prescribe what must be published by the media
  • Governments shall not limit what can be published by the media

To say that the City of Brampton, in publishing the full text of communications between a reporter and a member of the City staff, council or mayor’s office, offends either of these two basic rules is not valid.  It does not prescribe what a media outlet must publish, it does not limit what media outlet can publish.  It simply puts the full exchange on public record, not unlike broadcasting council meetings for the public to view.

The current proposal to set publication on “auto-pilot” is ill conceived.  But not because it in any way directly invokes the Freedom of the Press.  The automatic publication of communications between reporters and investigators and city officials does not actually prevent anyone from doing their job (reporting), nor does it limit or prescribe what can or must be published; so in what way does it offend Freedom of the Press? On its face, the proposal simply makes available full disclosure of third party communications with city officials.

If that alone challenges your job, you doth protest too much. Because how is the publication of communications between city staff and reporters, in pith and substance, in any way different that the exchanges that take place in the White House Press Room, with Sean Spicer answering questions in real time, in a room full of all the media outlets simultaneously, while the whole thing is being broadcast live on tv and facebook live? By the Guardian’s current line of argument, the White House is undermining the Freedom of the Press on a daily basis. The argument doesn’t hold up, nor does the support we are seeing across social media.  It’s a basic but misguided play to the sentiment that city council is at war with the media, because ultimately they must be hiding something.  That may or may not be true, but it has nothing to do with the way this particular proposal is worded.

The fact is, at no time in history has anyone (city representatives included) who has been asked a question by a reporter been unable to disclose the questions asked or the answers given. The only change is technology, which allows dissemination of that information in real time. Voluntarily offering the self initiated disclosure of communications is an exercise in the Freedom of Speech. People are allowed to do with the information what they like. The city has the right to publish those communications, even without this motion.  In reality, this motion does nothing but affirm what is already true: communications with city staff are not a secret, and the information is available if you ask for it.  This motion simply sets the default to automatic publication.

The proposal, and its detractors, are in no way debating “Freedom” of the Press, it’s about “Competitiveness” of the Press.

The government owes no duty to a media outlet to make sure it remains competitive. That isn’t what Freedom of the Press has ever meant. But that is what we are talking about: competitive position in the marketplace.
This not about “Freedom” of the Press, it’s about “Competitiveness” of the Press. I accept, as a legitimate criticism of the proposal (and there are many, don’t get me wrong), that there should at least be included a 7 or 14 day delay, to allow reporters some leeway to “break a story” in a competitive manner. The media doesn’t want full information about inquiries being made public because it undermines their work product and intellectual property, as it gives to the competition all the same information that they have now gathered. That is legitimately unfair from a competition point of view.  In Brampton, with only one mainstream media outlet, that deserves some recognition in our policy if nothing else.

But that isn’t the flag they are waving. The Guardian has fallen back on boilerplate “freedom of the press” arguments. Most of them do not apply to the current proposed rule change.

Do I think the proposal is perfect or necessary? Not at all.  I think it’s a terrible proposal that will cause more problems that just providing free access to the content of conversations.  But do I think it actually attacks “freedom” of the press? Not by any definition of freedom I am aware of.  If the current proposal mandated that the media outlet publish the full transcript (for lack of a better word), yes, that impinges freedom by prescribing what must be published. If the proposal restricted the media from repeating what was communicated via direct communications with city representatives, yes, that limits what can be published.  But it does neither of those things.

All the same people who argue for transparency and accountability are now rallying around the Guardian; because suddenly they don’t really want access to more information? It doesn’t add up.  What makes more sense is that they just want to “pile on” in accordance with their own political motivations.  And if they want to do so, they could at least be intellectually honest about it. I have no problem with people pursuing their political aspirations in any way they feel will get the job done. But be honest about it.

#MayorJackson2018 won’t put up with nonsense motions that are ill conceived, poorly drafted, reactionary and not adequately vetted to guard against the law of unintended future consequences. Then again, #MayorJackson2018 won’t lose sight of the Freedom of Speech, Citizens’ rights to access to information, and the obligation of the City to make a full and frank disclosure of facts to the public. Freedom of Press is a vital component of a free and democratic society.  So are all of the freedoms enshrined in our Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Understanding them and respecting them is a key to solid, reliable governance at every level.

 

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