By Alexandra Posadzki
A journalist in the rural community of Clinton, Ont. claims a local councillor tried to have her banned from covering council meetings, a subject the Ontario Ombudsman deemed illegal for an in camera meeting.
If the allegation is true, it would constitute an attack on the Charter-guaranteed right to freedom of the press, says one journalism expert.
The Ombudsman’s report, released March 13, found that councillors in Central Huron broke provincial and municipal laws when they went in camera to discuss the work of a local reporter from Clinton, a town 100 km west of Kitchener. The report doesn't name the councillor or the journalist in question. However, minutes from the May 7, 2012 Central Huron council meeting indicate that councillor Brian Barnim requested the in camera session for “personal reasons.” And journalist Cheryl Heath says other councillors present later told her that the complaints were about her.
“These things shouldn't be happening,” says Heath, 44, a former reporter and editor for the Clinton News Record*.
“You can't just pick and choose who the reporter's going to be in the room based on who you like and don't like.”
The Ombudsman’s investigation
The Ombudsman’s office launched the investigation after receiving two written complaints. Ombudsman Andre Marin concluded that the topics discussed – including the headline on a newspaper story – were not appropriate for a closed-door session. He also noted that council's discussion about “making a formal complaint to this journalists’ employer” wasn't urgent enough to warrant being added to the meeting's agenda at the last minute, without proper public notice.
Councillor Barnim declined to comment on the allegations. “I respect the [Ombudsman's] report as presented and changes have already been implemented in how Central Huron Council conducts 'in camera' meetings,” he said in an email to J-Source. “I see no reason to further discuss the questions or allegations that you have presented and have no further comment at this time.”
The newspaper’s response
Barnim had a history of complaining about Heath's work. Neil Clifford, the Record's publisher, says he received a complaint from Barnim about a story Heath wrote roughly two weeks before Barnim called the in camera meeting.
Heath wrote that Barnim failed to show up at a Huron County Council meeting where he had been expected to return his county-issued laptop.
“Obviously he took umbrage because I was the only one who even reported on it,” says Heath.
Barnim also complained about an incorrect headline which, according to Heath, was discussed by councillors during the closed-door meeting.
The editing team had cut off the first three words of the headline “Pool advocates learn Central Huron is financially drained.” As the editor for that story, Heath says she didn't catch the unattributed statement in time but ran a correction in the following issue.
Clifford says he investigated the complaints and defended Heath, who he says did an “excellent job” covering council meetings. Heath and Clifford both say that Barnim wanted not only for council to lodge a formal complaint but also to have Heath banned from covering council meetings. Clifford says he didn't receive complaints from any other councillors.
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Freedom of Press
This incident is “cut from the same cloth” as the dispute between Toronto Mayor Rob Ford and the Toronto Star says April Lindgren, founding director of the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre. In that case, The Star claims that the mayor has stopped sending them official news releases because of his displeasure with the coverage he's received.
“Efforts to ban journalists from covering public meetings would be laughable if they weren't so anti-democratic and so contrary to the interests of the community,” says Lindgren, who is also a journalism professor at Ryerson.
“The best that can be said is that, to the credit of the (Huron County) council, they didn't pass the motion,” she says. “But shame on the councillor for even thinking that this was an appropriate thing to be doing.” Councillor Alison Lobb says the root of the councillor's issue with Heath was “very personal.” Lobb says she has never had any issues with Heath's work.
The situation now
Heath was let go last November when Sun Media, the Record's parent company, went through a restructuring. Clifford says Barnim's complaints played no part in the decision. Heath is currently looking for work.
“There should be some kind of universal code of conduct for councillors in Ontario,” says Heath. “I'm sure all kinds of small communities have councillors or mayors or deputy mayors that there could be an issue or two with, but when push comes to shove, you have no recourse.”
Alexandra Posadzki is a multimedia journalist based in Toronto. She's covered everything from business to politics to crime for news outlets like the Canadian Press, the Toronto Star and the Globe and Mail.
*Correction: The newspaper was referred to as the Clinton Record News in a previous version of this article. We regret the error.