POLITICS CHATTER: Contributing editor Mark Bourrie reports that Prime Minister Stephen Harper has decided to declare war on the press. Will the party faithful buy in?
On August 13, 1941, Canada’s chief press censor sat down at his desk and typed a memo to the head of military intelligence.
The two men had just come from a rancorous meeting. The military wanted a tougher censorship system. The censors, backed by the federal government of William Lyon Mackenzie King, were opposed.
This was a time of total war.
France had fallen. The Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark, Norway, Czechoslovakia, Austria, Yugoslavia, Albania, and Greece were under the Nazi jackboot. Most of the rest of mainland Europe was in the hands of Nazi puppet rulers. The Panzers were fighting on the plains of the Ukraine, encircling entire Soviet armies.
The United States was still sitting out the war, smug in its isolation.
Any betting person would have put their money on the Nazis.
So it was important to make sure the media in this country wasn’t a useful source of information for the Nazis about troop movements and convoy sailings. And there was a dire need to maintain morale in this country in the face of more than a year of defeat laid upon defeat.
But Wilfrid Eggleston, the head of English censorship, dug in his heals. The people needed to know what was happening in the country. Giving them pap, happy talk, and lies could make life easier for the government and the military — until the day came that Canada was under attack. It would not help Canada win the war.
Eggleston wrote in his memo that the press plays a vital role in any democracy, including Canada. It provides truthful feedback to governments, the kind of information that bureaucracies are loathe to tell their masters.
Eggleston pulled out some paragraphs from the latest issue of Fortune magazine: “The press in a democracy is still the fourth estate; it is almost a fourth branch of government. It is not, as in Germany or the U.S.S.R., a branch of the government, but a part of our constitutional system.
“There is the legislative, the executive, and the judicial branch — and there is the press. It is impossible to imagine governmental processes in the U.S. without a press. Its first function is to inform, its second to criticize. Censorship is a direct threat to both functions and hence a direct threat to effective democracy. Without information there is no basis for criticism and without criticism there is, as the saying goes, tyranny.”
The struggle that Eggleston so eloquently outline continues to play out today.
Last week, the Tories sent out a fundraising letter saying the party needs cash to fight its real opposition — the Parliamentary Press Gallery.
And at a speech during last weekend’s Conservative convention, former Canadian Alliance leader Stockwell Day went after the national press corps.
Day said the media engages in too many personal attacks.
“Oh, listen, we made mistakes absolutely that we should be and should have been taken to task for. But for some of these personal things, for which the attacks were so incredible, I hope that just as there is a maturing in the process in the House of Commons, I say at some risk, to my dear friends in the media, that there could possibly be a maturing of that process also,” Day told the Tory faithful.
Day did get a rough ride from the media over the years. His arrival on a jet ski at a Lake Okanagan press conference was truly mock-worthy. On the other side, a Liberal operative’s use of a Barney doll to mock Day’s religious faith was a sleazy low blow, which was broadcast on national TV.
But attacking the media is as ill-advised now as it was in the worst days of the Second World War. The media, despite its faults — and people make entire academic and legal careers pointing those out — is as much part of our system of democracy as it was 60 years ago.
Stephen Harper has worked hard in the past eight years to de-legitimize the role of the media in the political system. He deliberately worked to create bad feeling with the Parliamentary Press Gallery, then hammed up the role of victim when the press fought back.
And the press didn’t fight hard. Very quickly, they rolled over and allowed Harper’s flacks to decide who asks questions. They didn’t complain much when the cabinet began meeting at secret times and in hidden places so the press would not buttonhole ministers. Very few complained when the bureaucracy was gagged.
And, except for the Toronto Star, every major newspaper in Canada endorsed Harper in the election campaign.
But the press makes a good whipping boy. Public support and understanding of the media has shriveled as neo-cons continue to smear the media as elitists, a charge that rings true as some major media, like the CBC and the Globe and Mail, become ever-more unbearably smug.
The U.S. press gets more access to the President of the United States than the Parliamentary Press Gallery gets to Harper. Being premier of Canada is a nice job, but, really, the entire country has about the same population and GDP as California. Time to deflate a few egos around here.
But that won’t happen. The Tories have made their plan quite clear. Parliament is no longer important, now that Harper has his majority. The public service is gagged. The courts are being filled with Tory appointees, as are any boards and commissions that might have tried to act off-script.
The press still has the potential to be a loose cannon. It looks like we’re going to get the full blast of the smear machine, once the Tories are finished passing the hat.