Day after day we all work hard, try to provide for ourselves and our families and as tired as we get in the face of rising taxes, demanding government and crumbling services, we comfort each other by repeating the mantra that we should be grateful we live in a free country. But freedom isn’t automatic. It has a price. And that price is vigilance. It’s on each and every one of us to be on guard. President John F. Kennedy was fond of repeating the words of James Madison that, “There are more instances of the abridgment of the freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments of those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations.” Today, we would like to use this space to rally our readers to be aware of the threat of just such an abridgment to one of our most sacred freedoms, the freedom of the press. And the threat comes from Ottawa.
Ten days ago it was revealed that the Trudeau government had an ongoing commission on media headed by Janet Yale. Last Sunday on CTV’s Question Period, newly-appointed Federal Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault sparked a firestorm by informing Canadians that among the 97 recommendations of that report was one that called for all companies that deliver “audio, audiovisual, and alphanumeric news content” to Canadians be regulated through some form of licensing. Guilbeault stated to Evan Solomon that, “If you’re a distributor of content in Canada and obviously if you’re a very small media organization the requirement probably wouldn’t be the same if you’re Facebook, or Google. There would have to be some proportionality embedded into this, but we would ask that they have a license, yes.” Those last ten words unleashed the torrent of opposition.
In the days following, both Guilbeault and Prime Minister Trudeau tried to walk back those words, the latter pledging his commitment to an independent press following some searing questions from Opposition Leader Andrew Scheer. But the fact remains that the report has not been trashed. It’s still out there. And until it is disavowed the threat remains. Guilbeault’s words would apply to all websites. Including those of newspapers. Every paper has one. And it’s only a skip and a jump from “licensing” electronic media to licensing hard copy. There was even a suggestion that the state-owned CBC determine who gets a license.
This Is not the first such threat against a free press in this country and in this decade. Just nine years ago The Suburban’s publisher Michael Sochaczevski and Editor Beryl Wajsman led the successful fight to defeat Quebec’s Payette Plan. That Plan called for “registration” of all journalists, and that without the approved registration no reporter could write. One component of that registration was passing a French language test even if you didn’t write for a French paper. Just replace the word “registration” with the federally-proposed “licensing” and you get the picture.
This newspaper will fight the Yale Report as we did the Payette Plan. Some of the words we used then bear repeating today. At public hearings in from of the Culture said, “If you reliably and consistently deliver the truth, it doesn’t matter if you have a degree or pay a fee to an association. No amount of school makes you a journalist. Only writing stories makes you a journalist.” Wajsman said, “Citizens have an inalienable right to a free battleground of ideas unfettered by the heavy hand of the state. It is the shield of a strong democracy.”
The Yale Report’s licensing recommendation are as illegitimate an idea as that of any state taking any hand in determining who is a journalist, how media is produced and who gets to produce it. The suggestion puts Canada in the company of countries including Cuba, Zimbabwe, North Korea, and China. Freedom in a society is grounded in a respect for private property. The Yale Report seeks to dictate to private owners of media everything from how to produce to what to pay to how to hire. If these recommendations are adopted, there will be wholesale closures of media properties.
The press, since the French revolution, has been the fourth estate of government. For politicians to allow bureaucrats to determine who is “licensed”, is the same as allowing them to determine who may stand for public office. A free society cannot have two levels of citizenship or two levels of expression.