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Journalists Must Debate Press

By Esther Crandall

Ottawa politicians, led by Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, want to entrench our freedom of the press in a human rights charter of a new Canadian constitution.

Canada's journalists may have bought, holus-bolus, this part of the proposed constitution package. If so, there's no problem. But journalists being the way they are, I can't image them as a group buying anything, just like that, once they've thought about it.

What bothers me is that I can't tell how much thought this nation's journalists may have given this part of the Trudeau proposals. I don't believe anyone else can either ,the reason being that next to nothing has been said publicly about journalists' views on this aspect of the constitutional proposals.

Mind you, this is not to say there is anything wrong with the proposal. I simply have the unsettling feeling that as a group, we really may not have turned our minds to it. Understandable. Gathering reactions and comments from others on the proposal Trudeau revealed on nationwide television last October 2 can't have left many with time to look at it themselves.

But I think it would be great to meet with a lot of journalists from all corners of the country at some central location where we could talk about the thing. If journalists gauged interest locally/regionally, then linked together, a meeting should not be that difficult to arrange.

Late last October, in six cities between Saint John, N.B. and Vancouver, B.C. I met with close to 100 journalists. A large majority expressed the view that journalists should be talking together nationally, at the very least should be asking questions.

Are we happy with the context in which politicians have proposed the entrenchment of our freedom? If not, what should be the context? Do we want our freedom of the press entrenched in the constitution in the first place? Should this freedom be defined? Would freedom of the press, entrenched in a new constitution, take precedence over existing laws (libel, defamation for example)? Or, would the reverse be true? Are we content to leave the whole thing in the hands of politicians? Or is this our responsibility? And so on ...

After all this is our freedom of the press we're talking about; that freedom, vital to working journalists, and important therefore to the people we seek to inform. We can expect that whatever way it is handled, whether inside or outside of a new constitution, it will govern journalists for generations to come.

I acknowledge, as quickly as anyone, that journalists tend to become preoccupied with what goes on out there; we are not given to looking over our shoulder at what Big Brother might be doing within our own business. But this preoccupation may be a luxury we can no longer afford, notwithstanding it could go against the grain to behave otherwise.

Remember when somebody sneezed twice a while ago, and two major Canadian dailies disappeared? How many stories did you read or hear then which quoted newsroom people with those dailies as saying they didn't know their newspapers intended to stop publishing until it happened?

Then there's the so-called poor image of the press; every time we turn around, it seems, somebody is saying that our credibility is suffering. Should we take this lying down, or should we stand up and be counted at least among ourselves, as we expect others to do, then work to correct the situation?

We know we are not the most popular people in the world with politicians. And it would probably come as a distinct surprise to us if the public rallied behind any cause we might have.

Yet here we have the government proposing major moves affecting our all-important freedom of the press. My question is: if we don't look after ourselves, who else will?

Having gone this far, I'll put my money where my mouth is to this extent: anyone interested in a national meeting on the proposed entrenchement of our freedom of the press in a human rights charter of a new constitution, can say so on a postcard addressed to me, 999 Seawood Lane West, Saint John, N.B., E2M 3G8 or by telephoning me at (506) 672-2617. But time's passing, so do it soon.

Esther Crandall is national president of Media Club of Canada. On Dec. 11 she and Alison Hardy of Ottawa, the club's historian, personally presented a brief to the joint committee on the constitution on behalf of the club. The brief was simple: it requested more time for journalists to consider their responses to the government's constitutional proposals as they affect freedom of the press.

 Published in Sources, Winter 1981 

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