A couple of weeks ago a group of Brampton councillors, seemingly upset about critical coverage of their doings at city hall, put forward a motion which may negatively impact how media in the city reports on issues and inform the general public.
Councillors claim bias and inaccuracy after recent articles called into question their action (or in some cases inaction) on council. In a fit of Trump-like pique, they are pushing forward a motion that would hobble media activities.
The motion, a collaborative effort by Councillors Gael Miles and Elaine Moore, calls for “copies of all media inquiries received by the mayor, members of council and staff be posted to the city website, along with their responses provided,” and that “all future committee of council and council agendas include a section for members of council to speak publicly on recent media stories which relate to council decisions or issues which may impact the City of Brampton.”
This motion is being pushed forward in the name of transparency, however it’s not only unnecessary given the laws of our country, but is also a hypocritical and rash action.
Canadian law already demands transparency
Every Canadian, politician or otherwise, is already protected by the country’s defamation laws. If someone speaks or writes damaging untruths in the public sphere about any person, that person has a right under Canadian law to pursue legal action.
Any city councillor who feels the media has published libelous untruths in their publications, or has spoken slanderous words, has a right to seek damages for defamation.
A hypocritical sentiment
In the 2014 election, a number of unflattering and unfavourable stories about former Mayor Susan Fennell were featured prominently in the Toronto Star. These stories served, in large part, to inform the general public about questionable and controversial city hall dealings. Most would argue the pieces had a hand in Fennell’s loss of her mayoral seat.
These stories were corroborated by quotes from sitting councillors at the time. Councillor Elaine Moore, for example, was quoted in dozens of articles over the course of 2013 and 2014, usually as a critic of the mayor.
Further, councillors praised the Brampton Guardian last year for exemplary reporting. A letter from Councillor Elaine Moore called its reporting balanced, accurate and representative of the facts.
Now that unfavourable articles about some of them have been released, including the two champions of this call for media scrutiny Councillors Gael Miles and Elaine Moore, the sentiment has changed. Miles and Moore claim the media they once relied on is now untruthful and unreliable, no longer suitable to provide information directly to the public.
The timing of the motion is suspect. Given that it comes from councillors who were criticized in the media recently, it is hypocritical at worst, and disingenuous at best.
There are better solutions
There are two simple solutions which allow the media to maintain its autonomy from council, as it should. As it must.
The first is to make all council and committee meetings readily available online. Council passed a motion months ago to bring these meetings into the online sphere, and little progress has been made.
If the current media motion is truly for transparency, Council should expedite this process to ensure all committee meetings are available online. This gives the public access to anything and everything said at council and is a much more measured response than having the city place barriers in the path of speedy reporting–reporting that is fully in the public interest.
Second, there already exist many mechanisms through which Brampton councillors can communicate directly with their constituents. There’s the time-honoured mailer. There’s email. And the most immediate of all: social media channels, which a healthy majority of Brampton voters regularly use.
These two ideas are far less rash, and more important, do not call into question one of the keystones of an open democracy: a free and open press untouched by elected officials.
If councillors feel the need to clarify anything said in council, or anything reported on by the media, they should do so through existing mechanisms, and reach a wide audience in a simple, direct way. Indeed, one might go as far as to say adding additional complexity to our cherished freedom of the press is the very opposite of our shared Canadian values.
In an open democracy, the media should stay completely separate from elected officials. As mentioned previously, there is already a powerful mechanism in place to keep the media honest and transparent, and it’s the highest court in Canada.
The Miles/Moore motion goes to council on Wednesday, June 21, and it is prudent that council allow the media to continue to do the job they do without unnecessary barriers in place.