Commentary: Celebrate freedom of press
Editor, The News:
March 4 was the 75th anniversary of the first legal recognition of an implied bill of rights in Canada, and of legal recognition of “freedom of the press.”
Prior to 1938, there was very little limit, other than constitutional “division of powers arguments,” on governments’ ability to discriminate in any way they wanted.
But that changed in 1938, in the Supreme Court of Canada decision of Reference re Alberta Statutes (known as the Alberta Press Case).
The Alberta government, under premier William Aberhart (Social Credit), had mandated that where a government board (theirs, of course) considered any story to be “inaccurate,” the “offending” paper would have been forced to reveal to the government all sources, including, names and addresses of reporters who had written articles for the paper.
As well, the paper would have been compelled to give to the government, at no charge, equal space and prominence to rebut that criticism of the government.
The government could also have prohibited the publication of papers or articles making use of the “offending” source information.
Six Alberta dailies and 90 weeklies, led by the Edmonton Journal and Canadian Press, took court action.
On March 4, 1938, the Supreme Court ruled that the law was beyond the powers of the Alberta government.
In 1938, the Edmonton Journal (and those other papers) became the first non-American newspapers to be honoured by the Pulitzer Prize committee, receiving a Special Award and Citation “For its editorial leadership in defense of the freedom of the press in the province of Alberta, Canada” and special bronze plaque, for defending the freedom of the press.
I am not aware of any Canadian journalism Pulitzers since.
Until that decision 75 years ago, the government, at least in Alberta, could control criticism by the press.
However, still today, governments continue to try to control and manipulate the information the citizenry can get.
Some acts of those governments include use of strictly controlled “talking points,” use of professional communications departments and spin doctors, muzzling bureaucrats (as if they worked for the government, and not the public), shielding party members from public interviews or all-candidates forums, selective “leaking” of their own information, dispensing information only to favoured reporters and news outlets and the strategic dispensation of advertizing contracts (both from the political party itself and from the public service – again, as if the public service answered only to the political masters).
As in 1938, all these acts have as their purpose the control of the message and the making of the government look as good as possible, while limiting actual real scrutiny and public knowledge.
That case was just the beginning – since then, the U.N. Charter, federal and provincial bills of rights and human rights legislation, and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms have all evolved to protect individual Canadians from arbitrary use of power by our governments and their agents.
It all started 75 years ago on March 4, a day we should all remember and celebrate.
As an aside, the owner-publisher of the Red Deer Advocate back then was Francis Philip Galbraith, later chancellor of the University of Alberta (1964-1970). He was a key figure in challenging the Alberta government, and maintained an extensive record of the proceedings. He even accepted the Pulitzer on behalf of the winning media consortium.
In the mid-1980s, I worked in a major Vancouver law firm with his son Michael, and to this day, I socialize regularly with him and his wife.
Ian C. MacLeod