By Lise Lareau
I was happy to see Rob Ford got a reaction when he called reporters “maggots”. There were buttons, comments on social media and jokes – all evidence of professional pride in knowing that if it wasn’t for the work of journalists, two of the country’s biggest scandals would be hidden from view. The public and if we believe Stephen Harper, even the PM would not know about the $90,000 cheque. And without the Toronto Star and Gawker, Rob Ford’s alleged crack smoking would be secret.
Journalists should be insulted by being called “maggots”. And they need to learn to fight back. Because based on my recent experience – no one else will.
We at the Canadian Media Guild have learned the hard way how hard it is to convince journalists to take a stand – even if the issue is about their own professional interests. As a union with thousands of members at the CBC, we have spent the last few weeks trying to inform Canadians about the disastrous implications of the Conservatives’ latest omnibus budget bill – Bill C-60. That’s the bill that, among other things, allows the government to interfere with collective bargaining at crown corporations, including the CBC. Since much of the language in contract talks touches on CBC as a news organization – the interference allowed under BC60 could impact news decisions. And the other anti-journalism legislation is Bill C-461, the private members bill. It would mean reporters’ sources and notebooks would no longer be exempt from Access to Information requests of the CBC.
We understand when reporters actively covering Parliament Hill don’t want to speak out about federal legislation that’s in play. But what about everyone else?
While a handful of retired journalists and people now in academia did sign an open letter against the bill to the PM –I was shocked how many said no to being part of a news conference to speak out against Bill C-60. You’d think CMG members and others would be calling us, demanding we do something and asking how they could help. We got no such call. From anyone. About either Bill C60 or Bill C-461.
When the issue is CBC-specific, it’s even harder to find people to speak out. The CBC, as a crown corporation, cannot spend public money doing lobbying for itself. Its president/CEO and all its board members have been appointed by this government. Thus, they walk a fine line and they rarely overtly oppose a government initiative.
Add in the fact that journalists don’t like taking positions. And other media employers rarely talk about what’s in the professional interests of their news gathering staff.
Yet the most effective people at fighting back against measures that are bad for the media industry and in this case, the country’s biggest news organization, are the people most knowledgeable about it.
This is journalism’s Achilles heel. Its defenders appear to be silenced. Advocating for a cause appears to be an instinct that has been driven out of most journalists and many of their bosses in this country – out of some belief that their lifetime role is to be on the objective sidelines of history.
We have to start rethinking this. As a group, we cannot let stuff happen to us while we are silent out of some sort of professional code. We cannot rely on others to be our voice. CMG is one voice in these hallways of power – but that voice should be amplified by its thousands of members on social media and in conversation with family and friends.
There are many who would like to see journalists muzzled. Let’s not make it so easy for them.
Lise Lareau is the Vice-President of the Canadian Media Guild