Three panellists offered three quite different perspectives on Canadian press freedom in the second session of Ryerson University’s conference on press freedom Thursday morning. The session, entitled You can’t say that! Press freedom and expression of opinion, featured two newspaper columnists and one former theatre critic.
Margaret Wente, columnist for The Globe and Mail, said Canadian journalists face relatively little pressure to say or not say anything. The major problem, she argued, is journalists themselves. “It’s our own self-censorship, which is almost unconscious when it comes to certain issues.”
She cited three issues as examples. On aboriginal issues, Wente said, the media always portray First Nations as the victims and blame government for problems such as those at the Attawapiskat reserve that were in the news recently. On climate change, while she said she was not questioning the underlying science, she accused reporters of “uncritical coverage of hysterical predictions” about the long-term effects and of accepting environmentalists’ policy prescriptions that she called “totally unhinged from reality.” And she accused the media of portraying the Occupy movement as “the moral equivalent of Tahrir Square” and being too ready to blame inequality on the rich.
Kamal al-Solaylee, former theatre critic for The Globe and Mail and now undergraduate program director at Ryerson’s journalism school, offered a bleak view of Canadian arts journalism even in quality publications. Arts is “seen as a soft beat where the standards of integrity and the separation between advertising and editorial do not apply,” he charged.
At The Globe and Mail, al-Solaylee said, Stratford Shakespeare Festival General Director Antoni Cimolino once met with an arts editor, who immediately afterward came to al-Solaylee and asked him for a summary of his ratings of all Stratford shows he had reviewed so far that season and commissioned three feature stories on the festival. Reviews – particularly ballet and opera reviews – often avoid outright negative comments. Large arts organizations like Stratford, the Art Gallery of Ontario and the Royal Ontario Museum have a direct influence on what is covered, he said.
Ottawa Citizen columnist Susan Riley focused on access to information, which she said is a greater problem in Canada today than media outlets’ freedom to say what they wish. Canadian governments have never been free with information, she said, but it’s getting worse.
Riley said Canadian reporters at international conferences often attend U.S. press briefings because they know they will learn nothing at Canadian ones. And even simple questions must now go through media relations officials who check everything with the Prime Minister’s Office and take hours if not days to provide responses, which often turn out to be “no comment” or a repetition of what a minister has already said in Question Period.
“The government could save a couple of million dollars right off the top and nobody would notice, if they just got rid of them,” Riley said.