Saturday, April 2, 2011

The Fourth Estate in Peril

Edmund Burk, who is generally regarded as the philosophical founder of modern conservatism, served in the House of Commons of Great Britain for many years.  In his book, On Heroes and Hero Worship, Thomas Carlyle describes the parliamentary debate in 1787 on opening up of press reporting on the House of Commons. He states :

Burke said there were Three Estates in Parliament; but, in the Reporters' Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important far than they all.
British historian Thomas Macauley, in an essay in 1828, said:

The gallery in which the reporters sit has become a fourth estate of the realm.
The three other estates referred to in this context were the Lords Spiritual, the Lords Temporal, and Commons. 

In the Canadian constitution, under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Section 2 states:
Everyone has the following fundamental freedoms: (b) freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication;

In the United States of America’s constitution, of the twelve amendments contained in what is known as the United States Bill of Rights, the first guarantees the personal freedoms such as freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly and freedom of the press.
It is clear, then, that the press and other media of communications have been for centuries, regarded as essential to the workings of democratic governance.  They educate, inform, and report events as they occur.  They challenge our government and its opposition to be forthcoming on issues of the day.  They offer questions on behalf of all of us so we can glean whatever truth may come in their reply.

While some portions of the media can be accused of “Yellow Journalism”, it can hardly be said of any in the parliamentary press gallery.  Some reporters will write stories with their own perspective; some from the right, others from the left and still others from the centre of political thought.  We may come to despise some journalists that report from the side opposite from our own.  And we will praise the integrity, honesty and insight of those that report from our own side.  But what they are, most importantly, is a part of the national conversation – essential to the people’s management of democratic process.  But for the few that sully their reputations, the media are honourable, intelligent and well educated.  We need to listen to them and hear all sides of the argument.
All of which leads to the burning question, What damage to democracy occurs when a Prime Minister and his government choose to limit questions by the press?  During the current election of Canada’s parliament, we have seen Stephen Harper limit questions by the national press to four per day.  Even supplemental questions or follow-ups are ignored.  Only questions that have been pre-approved will be answered.  The press have been placed more than 40 feet away behind a barricade like the “madding crowd.”   Interviews are seldom and are scripted and controlled by the Prime Minister’s handlers.  But this has been going on for years without the vast majority even hearing about it.  It seems the only time we hear from our government is through their propaganda machine that generates personal attacks on opponents or self-aggrandizing ads for programs no longer in effect.

I find the attack ads most egregious.  They are produced in the style of American muckraking – one that reduces our respect for individuals and further distances us from the political process.  Equally important is the fact that our duly elected members of Parliament become distracted and less effective in the work that has been set out for them by the Canadian people.
My sense in all this is that the Conservative Party of Canada prefers to work in secret, in backrooms and dark places.  They seek to control the Fourth Estate and limit their effectiveness. I see this as a violation of rights and freedoms bound in the traditions and legislation of countries around the world.  Indeed, there may be nothing at all nefarious in the work of Stephen Harper and his party but we can only judge their actions by what we know.  If the media and the Canadian people are continually left out of the loop by their government and their knowledge of the workings of the Prime Minister and his cabinet, we can only come to our own conclusions. 

While the abuse of journalists is not the only issue in this election, it must be one of the more important ones.  When we, as Canadians, cast our ballots on May 2, we must consider this as a high priority – an issue that will decide for all of us how future governments practise their craft.

Another point of view:

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