Veteran St. Catharines Councillor To Table Motion In Support Of Press Freedom & Local News Coverage

“BE IT RESOLVED that the Council of City of St. Catharines commends the media for their investigative reporting and in no way supports censorship of news.” – from a motion to be tabled at the Monday, June 11th meeting of St. Catharines council by City Councillor Joe Kushner

A News Commentary by Doug Draper

Posted June 111th, 2018 on Niagara At Large

St. Catharines City Councillor Joe Kushner standing up for local news coverage

There has probably never been a time since the first person chiselled what might be called a news story on a stone tablet, that one politician or another didn’t complain about the coverage they get.

These days though, attacks on the media are far less random or sporadic and have become part of one of the tools of choice politicians and other individuals in government use to paint the news media as just one more ‘elite’ or ‘enemy’ that is working to keep them from dong the peoples’ work.

We see this news bashing tactic employed daily south of the Canada/U.S. border where Trump and his loyalists repeatedly refer to any reporting they don’t like as “fake news” and make less than subtle threats about taking reporters or whole news organizations to court, and weakening age-old laws that support freedom of the press.

In Canada, we heard some of that kind of talk coming from the Doug Ford camp in the recent Ontario election campaign, and we’ve seen more than a few signs of it here in Niagara, especially at the regional government level over the past two the past two or three years.

One sign of it surface in a “memo” that 12 regional and local council politicians, along with one agency bureaucrat, signed in March of 1015, complaining to Postmedia about coverage in the local news outlets it owns, including The St. Catharines Standard, about “unbalanced, partisan reporting, columns and editorials,” and “anti-conservative writing, specifically targeting elected officials who are fiscal conservatives.

The memo goes on to say about “attacks” in the media reports that are “consistent, derogatory and unfounded,” and about “defamatory inferences, using terms like Conservative cabal.”

Niagara Region’s CAO Carmen D’Angelo, then CAO at the NPCA, also sent a letter to Post Media administrators, asking for a change in the management team at Post Media’s Niagara papers.

Along with the memo, one of the 13 individuals who signed it – then Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority (NPCA) CA0 Carmen D’Angelo and now the CAO for Niagara’s regional government – chose to send a letter to Post Media administrators in Toronto, asking for a new management team to be brought in to run The Standard and other then Postmedia newspapers in Niagara (The papers, by the way, have since been bought up by the Torstar media chain.)

In response to this memo and D’Angelo’s letter which, in the case of the memo, saw the full light of day earlier this spring when The Standard got a copy of it, veteran St. Catharines city councillor has drafted a motion, scheduled to go to St. Catharines’ full council this Monday, June 11th, for approval, that “commends” – not condemns – local reporting in the region and that also calls upon the St. Catharines council that oppose any attempt to censor the news.

In his 40 some years in municipal politics, Kushner says there have been more than a few times when he felt the coverage in the local papers wasn’t fair to him, but that pales in comparison to the important role the media plays in a free and open democracy.

In that spirit, here is the full text of St. Catharines city councillor Joe Kushner’s motion –

WHEREAS on April 17, 1982, Canada’s Constitution came home and freedom of the press was enshrined in the Charter; specifically, Section 2(b) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees that everyone has “the freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication”; and

WHEREAS investigative journalism is being attacked, not only worldwide, but also at the local level;

THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED that the Council of City of St. Catharines commends the media for their investigative reporting and in no way supports censorship of news.

Kudos to Councillor Kushner for drafting this motion and let’s hope a majority on the council support it, even though the 2015 memo was signed by St. Catharines’ mayor Walter Sendzik and three members of the council, including Mike Britton, Sal Sorrento and one who recently ran and lost as the Ontario PC Party candidate in the St Catharines riding, Sandy Bellows.

Niagara Region’s chair Al Caslin among the 13 who signed the memo.

The memo was also signed by D’Angelo, Niagara’s regional chair, Al Caslin, Niagara Falls regional councillors Bart Maves and Selina Volpatti, Niagara Falls Mayor Jim Diodati, West Lincoln Mayor Doug Joyner, Port Colborne regional councillor David Barrick and (this is a bit of a surprise because he doesn’t usually line up his support with this group) Thorold Mayor Ted Luciani.

Grant LaFleche, a St. Catharines Standard and columnist who, by the way, recently won a national newspaper award for reporting on some of what seem like high expenses in food, travel, etc. that some of Niagara’s regional politicians, including the Region’s chair, have claimed (reporting that has angered at least some of them), wrote the following in a column this in response to what was charged in the memo – 

“It’s disturbing to learn the lengths to which these local leaders will go to try and influence coverage, to intimidate newsrooms.

The document’s statement that these local leaders want the newspaper to “be a partner” displays a critical misunderstanding of what function newspapers, and the news media, is meant to perform.

We are not partners with politicians — we are there to report fairly and accurately on what they and their administrations are doing.

We are not their cheerleaders. This can be an adversarial process as we expect they will often not like what we are reporting.

But that’s the role of the journalist. And it’s important to democracy because without an informed electorate, governments cannot be held to account for their actions and our system of governance cannot succeed.”

Amen. That’s what I learned from the late great British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge and some of the best journalists in Canada while I was working on my Master’s degree in journalism in the late 1970s at the University of Western Ontario.

It is tempting to view the memo the 13 individuals signed as a “totalitarian sheet” that has no place in a democracy like Canada, and it is important to know that this memo was not an isolated incident.

This past December, we had the very disturbing case at the Niagara regional headquarters of a St. Catharines Standard reporter, Bill Sawchuk, having his notes and computer wrongly seized while he was being ordered out of the building – an incident that soon became the subject of an Ontario Ombudsman’s Office investigation, the results of which we have yet to see.

St. Catharines Standard reporter Bill Sawchuk being ordered out of Niagara regional headequarters this past December after his computer was wrongfully seized. Ontario’s Ombudsman Office has been investigating the matter and has yet to table its findings. File photo by Emily Beth.

There have also been a series of shots at the local media for practicing “gotcha politics” around asking the regional chair and others about the expenses they submit and that we, the tax payers, cover, and for “collaborating” with critics of the regional government in an effort to undermine it.

The local media has also been accused of focusing too much on negative news rather than on positive stories about the region.

With that in mind, an idea was floated at a Niagara regional council meeting this past winter in the middle of another debate over the Town of Pelham’s finances that maybe regional councillors should look to using some other media outlet to get news they consider to be “fair” out.

Some wonder if that hasn’t already happened in Niagara with a certain online “news” outlet that has appeared on the internet in recent months.

More on all of this later.

For our readers information, what follows is the two page Memo signed by 11 Niagara politicians and one local bureaucrat, in March of 2015 – NIAGARA AT LARGE encourages you to join the conversation by sharing your views on this post in the space following the Bernie Sanders quote below.

A reminder that we only post comments by individuals who also share their first and last names.

For more news and commentary from Niagara At Large – an independent, alternative voice for our greater bi-national Niagara region – become a regular visitor and subscriber to NAL at www.niagaraatlarge.com .

“A politician thinks of the next election. A leader thinks of the next generation.” – Bernie Sanders

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