I may be naive but I still believe that freedom of the press is not only possible, but worthy of defending.

That’s why I’ve commented on Facebook and Twitter about the fact that the nominated candidate for the Progressive Conservative Party of Alberta in the riding of Highwood (John Barlow) has NOT yet stepped down from his job of Associate Publisher of the Okotoks Western Wheel newspaper. The newspaper is THE major newspaper in the riding with a circulation of  13,250–the only newspaper in the town of Okotoks. Barlow has stated that he will step down, but not until the writ is dropped (the last 30 days of the campaign). Until that time, he will remain in a decision-making capacity at the newspaper.

When I speculated on Twitter about the impartiality of the Western Wheel newspaper as it covers the weeks leading up to the official campaign period, Barlow tweeted the following response (using his personal campaign moniker of @Barlow4Highwood):

I assure you it will not change. The Wheel prides itself on being fair and that will continue. (See the original tweet)

When asked on Twitter if he was tweeting on behalf of the Wheel via his campaign account, he didn’t respond directly, tweeting enigmatically instead:

The Wheel has a great reputation and it speaks for itself. (See the original tweet)

For those who are unaware of the important role of the media in the effective functioning of a democratic society, the Canadian Newspaper Association has stated it thus:

Freedom of the press is an exercise of every Canadian’s right to freedom of expression guaranteed in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It is the right to gather and disseminate information, to discuss, to advocate, to dissent. A free press is essential to our democratic society. It enables readers to use their Charter right to receive information and make informed judgements on the issues and ideas of the time. (Source: Canadian Newspaper Association’s Statement of Principles)

This is not about John Barlow as an individual (he’s a very likeable fellow, by all accounts) or the Western Wheel newspaper in particular (although I’ve taken exception to some of their news coverage in the past), it’s about the Charter rights of the citizens in the riding of Highwood and how they make an informed decision on voting day. They are entitled to an objective source of news, information about their community’s issues and concerns and unbiased coverage of the election in the days leading up to the official dropping of the writ.

Barlow is in a leadership capacity at the town’s only newspaper, while also representing one of the political parties on the ballot of the next election. This raises a conflict of interest question, leaving the community lacking an assured, reliable, and unbiased newspaper to find out what they need to know to make a decision about who to vote for.

The fact that he is representing the party that has been in power for 40 years makes it even more disturbing. Some have countered by claiming that his main opponent in the upcoming election, Danielle Smith, has her own connections (0r at least her party does) in the media. My argument here is that media bias is bad, no matter where it exists.

I’m not going to try and unravel Smith’s media connections (feel free to submit your comments about this but please be prepared to back up with your sources and I’ll consider posting them). All I’ll say is that the voters in Highwood should be even more enraged by the apparent lack of impartial information available to them. (Full disclosure: I am a member of the Alberta Liberal Party and a former resident of the riding. However, at the time of this post there was no ALP candidate nominated in the riding).

So what is the big deal, really?

The Canadian Association of Journalists examined the ethical issues of journalists seeking public office thoroughly in a paper delivered in October of 2010. Their conclusion:

There is irony in all of this careful consideration of political disengagement in that some media organizations and their owners publicly engage in direct and indirect political activity on a regular basis without apparent consideration or concern about it reflecting poorly or otherwise on their organization, its product or its employees.

However, as chroniclers of history who help citizens make well-informed choices, working journalists bear the burden of a higher public expectation that they submit personal bias and political view to the demands and disciplines of their work. And, perhaps that is exactly as it should be. A range of independent, unencumbered and trustworthy media is a valued asset in any democratic society.

If journalists accept that the “objective method” contributes to the public trust, and that “impartiality” is not just a noble ambition but a relevant goal to honour our democratic responsibility, then it is important to strive to preserve the integrity of the ideal – even if it may sometimes mean voluntarily surrendering some personal freedoms.

The paper states that:

The real question becomes: if and when they do exercise their fundamental political rights, do journalists have special responsibilities as journalists to their employers, peers, or the public? The short answer seems to be: “yes.”

Much of what a journalist does is report on, chronicle or comment upon the activities and behaviours of others, including on occasion, the political activities and integrity of individuals, governments or organizations. The journalist’s works are by definition public and therefore can directly or indirectly influence other people and society’s perception of his/her subject.

If a journalist engages in outside political activity or espouses a particular political viewpoint, this activity could create a public perception of bias, or favouritism that would reflect on the journalist’s work as well as on the media organization for which he or she may work. As a result, many media organizations have policies to govern a journalist’s engagement in outside political activity.

Fortunately, there are now many alternative news sources online and other media outlets in nearby Calgary, but this does not change the fact that the local newspaper gives the appearance that it is on side with the current government. The paper’s credibility and brand is now under suspicion. Citizens in Okotoks may feel they have no truly independent LOCAL newspaper to turn to for coverage of the election and beyond.

This is why I believe PC candidate John Barlow should step down immediately (not wait until the writ is dropped), until after the election. To do otherwise is a clear rejection of his own profession’s standards of ethics, is damaging to the reputation of his employer (whether the Western Wheel understands this or not) and does a disservice to the democratic Charter rights of the people in his community.

As Reporters Without Borders states emphatically on its website:

“Don’t wait to be deprived of news to stand up and fight for it”

Further reading:

The Twitter exchange in full here.

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