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Jailing journalists?

Matt Frehner | The Gateway (University of Alberta) | News | April 10th, 2006

EDMONTON (CUP) -- If backbench conservative MP Colin Mayes gets his way, muckraking journalists Canada-wide could end up handcuffed and jailed. Mayes, in an effort to foster “accurate and true information,” wanted to publish an editorial in his riding's newspapers asking for something akin to the Federal Accountability Act for journalists—for a government body that would hold accountable the actions of the media.

Mayes' comments appeared in the wake of some journalistic hell-raising over Prime Minister Stephen Harper's decision to hold his cabinet meetings in secret. Harper claimed that it's not the public's right to know when his cabinet is meeting, and that if he had something important to say, he'd let us know.

According to the Canadian Press, Harper has also told his ministers that any comments to the media must be cleared by the Prime Minister's Office. Understandably, journalists on the Hill were a bit miffed.

To an extent, though, Mayes has a point—albeit a convoluted one. He claims that journalists have been unduly critical of the new prime minister's media policies; and we can see hints of this in the Globe and Mail's painting of Harper as a secretive, grumpy old man, who “appeared visibly annoyed” when asked about his new media rules.

It's true that biases exist in the media, and it's hard to believe that reporters could remain impartial in the face of what they must have seen as an anti-constitutional act by the PM.

Still, Mayes would have this bias regulated by the watchful eye of parliament—perhaps the only group in Canada with a larger vested interest in media reports than journalists themselves. This splash of irony seems to have slipped past Mayes, along with the fact that his comments were published as an editorial in a number of papers.

Mayes' rashness aside, I find it extremely unnerving to think of the government deciding what fair and balanced reporting should be. The best check against poor journalism is a free transfer of ideas, not accountability and responsibility legislated by the ruling party. Good journalism flows naturally in a nation where a multiplicity of news sources exist to complement and contradict each other. I think Mayes has forgotten that “free press” means, you know, free.

So to Mr Mayes, I have a suggestion: if you want a fair and responsible media, your time would be better spent looking into the impact things like media conglomeration has had on journalism in Canada, which sees newsroom staff halved at major dailies, and, more specifically, things like the Ottawa Citizen's publisher being fired for printing political views contrary to its owners'.

It's here that the government could make a real difference: stemming the amalgamation of media would breed free and open debate, whereas locking up loudmouth journalists serves only to stifle the media's voice.
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