Blog by John Miller

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Cone of silence

It's been three months since the Quebec government received a blueprint that would almost certainly shake the practice of journalism to its core. Yet journalists there aren't really engaged in much debate about it, and those in the rest of the country are still acting as if this was all happening on Mars.

I'm talking about a report to Quebec's communications minister, Christine St. Pierre, which says urgent government action is needed "to ensure that the supply of information and the conditions of practicing professional journalism do not deteriorate further."

The author is Dominique Payette, a former CBC journalist and university professor who heads the minister's working group on journalism and the future of news. This is her first report, and it's full of bombshells. She recommends things that media proprietors and many journalists have fought against for years, including:

  • A provincial law to create a status of "professional journalist." It would distinguish "professionals" from "amateurs" (such as bloggers and citizen journalists) and confer certain privileges, such as speedier access to court records and access to information. Only professional journalists would be allowed to protect their sources.
  • Only media who employ such journalists would be eligible for tax credits and access to direct subsidies from the provincial government, including a $370,000 Fund for Quebec Journalism.
  • Membership would be made mandatory for all news organizations on the Quebec Press Council, which would be strengthened with the power to draw up a common code of ethics and impose sanctions. If media did not join, they would be denied provincial government advertising.
  • A new body would be set up to determine criteria and training for professional journalists. Ability to speak and write French would be mandatory.

Instead of vigorous debate, the reaction has been muted and predictable. Members of the Federation des journalistes professionals du Quebec (FJPQ) voted to endorse the report, although they said they were uncomfortable with the notion that any limits should be placed on who gets to practice journalism. Former justice John Gomery, chair of the Quebec Press Council, endorsed government support for journalism and said his organization would be happy to draw together ethical principles that all journalists would have to follow.

"Information," Gomery said, "is not a commodity like any other. It is a public good, in the sense that it allows citizens to follow public affairs and to form reasoned opinions on great social issues. That is why it seems absolutely essential to us that all major players in the industry fully and actively participate in the conduct of the only honorary tribunal governing medias in Quebec."

Last year, Pierre Karl Peladeau pulled his Quebecor media out of the Quebec press council, a shameful and short-sighted act.

Gomery called for a public debate on Payette's recommendations, but instead he was accused of leading a "self-serving" attempt to shield traditional journalists from the pressures of new media. "The reasons why traditional journalism is suffering are obvious," Thomas Awad wrote in the Montreal Gazette. "Online news sites and boggers offer content, often of similar quality, free .... The last thing we need is yet more government legislation in this field."

Gazette publisher Alan Allnut also criticized Payette and Gomery and declared: "We will not accept government intrusion into our practice of journalism. Period." He was especially opposed to government subsidies for journalism -- a controversial move that journalists elsewhere in Canada have traditionally opposed.

That is why I am puzzled by the silence of the Canadian Association of Journalists, the national organization to which I and many other journalists belong. It has not said a word about Payette's report, and her sweeping proposals to transform journalism are not scheduled to be even debated at the CAJ's annual conference next month. Are journalists in Canada really that asleep at the switch?

I agree with Payette that journalism is in a crisis and needs support. Unlike most journalists, I am not afraid of government support to encourage quality reporting. The best argument for that is the CBC, which has built a solid reputation for independence even though it runs on $1 billion a year from the federal government. Those like Allnut who argue that the news business should stand on its own ... well, the evidence is plain that journalism is mostly in trouble because the business that runs it cares more for the bottom line than the public's right to know.

I also agree with Payette that access to government information needs to be streamlined, but that should not be restricted to professional journalists. Nor should professional journalists be given a constitutional right to protect their sources. No journalists should. The Supreme Court of Canada has ruled that freedom of the press to do that sort of thing needs to be balanced on a case-by-case basis with other freedoms.

All news organizations should belong to their provincial press councils, and national media like Maclean's and National Post should be encouraged to join. I suspect Peladeau will quietly rejoin the Quebec council to ward off the heavy hand of the state; after all, his papers are still members of the Ontario Press Council. That said, press councils need to be made more democratic and develop more teeth. Though the Quebec council is one of Canada's most active, others in Atlantic Canada and the West are largely moribund and useless.

But I have great trouble with anyone being asked to set criteria for who is allowed to practice journalism, nor should they have the power to stamp them approved by the state. Alan Allnut said it best: "The brave young people in Egypt who used Facebook and Twitter to organize in the streets of Cairo were at times being journalists, reporting to the rest of the world what was going on. Perhaps not professionals, because they were not paid for their efforts, but no less journalists than some of the paid hacks I have come across over the last 38 years."

Don't circle the wagons around the dwindling number of wretches paid to be journalists, especially because most of them can't even work up the energy to debate these important ideas about their future. Let a thousand flowers bloom in the field of news. And let "professional quality" be determined by those for whom it matters most -- the public.