Liberal majority means newspapers must fight for fairness

Not everyone is concerned about the massive Liberal victory in B.C.  Liberal leader Campbell, for example,  doesn’t seem to be worried.  But after a decade in opposition, I guess he should be happy to see his nemesis reduced to non-party status.

paper dog

Nor do six out ten B.C. voters seem worried.  They knowingly reduced the opposition to virtually nothing.  The lack of opposition worries me, although the company I keep in worry is a concern as well.  Margaret Thatcher says “If you get a very big majority, you really have got an elected dictatorship.” That’s what she thought of the massive win of Tony Blair’s centre-left Labour party last Thursday.  When I find myself in agreement with Britain’s Iron Lady, I have to think twice.

I wouldn’t go as far as calling the giant B.C. Liberal win a dictatorship, but it’s certainly a concern.  With 97 per cent of the seats in government, the Liberals have imposing power.  They have domination to do what they want.

But who is going to speak for British Columbians who disagree with the largest majority government in B.C. history?   Many look to the media to speak in opposition.   But the preoccupation of media for the last decade has been to bring down premiers.  Some B.C. media have treated politics more as a blood sport than as an opportunity for balanced and fair coverage.

For example, BCTV demonstrated questionable tactics.  In March, 1999 they showed up in the middle of the night at former premier Glen Clark’s house.  Cameramen videoed the ex-premier and his wife though the windows and doors of their home.   Sneaking around with a camera in the night strikes me more as voyeurism than journalism.

Of course, Clark didn’t endear himself with the media.  He was arrogant and manipulative.  Early on in his career, Clark boasted that he knew “what the media likes. It likes to be fed fresh news, and not too much at once.  I learned how to keep it fed.” He went on to play the media card like a pro in 1996 stealing the election from Gordon Campbell, to the horror of Howe Street and shocked editorial boards.

Can BCTV now objectively present the views of the lonely two NDP members now that they form the official opposition? After all, these are the same NDP that they went to great lengths to get rid of.  It will take a great deal of objective professionalism for them for them to turn from predators to sympathizers of the NDP.

Some newspapers have not done much better than BCTV when it comes to fairness and balanced reporting.  David Black, who owns over 50 weekly newspapers in B.C. directed his editors not to publish editorials supporting the NDP government’s proposed Nisga’a Treaty.  Not exactly balanced.  The government of B.C. didn’t think so either.

Ted Hayes and the NDP government complained to the B.C. Press Council that Black was censoring democratic debate. The Council ruled that Black had later “clarified” his directive — it turned out not to apply to letters to the editor, news reporting, or existing columnists — and Black’s newspapers did in fact “carry a diversity of opinion on the Nisga’a Treaty,” although most it would have to come from letters to the editor.

Such “clarifications” do little to assure newspaper staff that they are free to express a variety of opinions, especially when views are contrary to owners.  Black’s directives had the desired chilling effect as soon as they were issued.   What reporter or columnist is going to go up against the owner of the newspaper by writing opposing opinions to those expressed by his boss?

Freedom of the press should go beyond the dictates of newspaper owners. The Canadian Daily Newspaper Association says that “The operation of a newspaper is in effect a public trust ….The newspaper keeps faith with its readers by presenting the news fairly. Fairness requires a balanced presentation…of all substantial opinions in a matter of  controversy.”

B.C.’s media will have to try hard to find a balance between badgering the premier out of office and agreeing with everything the B.C. Liberals do.  As a life-long fan of newspapers, I’m optimistic that print media can find that balance.

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