Journalism, petitions and activism
Like many political/media junkies, I've been watching with fascination this whole, evolving controversy over the Avaaz petition against SunTV. Kady O'Malley at CBC has the best summary of the whole thing and she's not a disinterested observer.
For those who aren't junkies, a quick recap: Avaaz, an American-based organization, started a hotly worded, online petition against a CRTC licence for SunTV. Margaret Atwood entered the fray, engaging in debate with SunMedia bureau chief David Akin at the first part of the week. But by week's end, the whole thing devolved into a bigger mess.
Fake names -- including those of some well-known Hill journalists as well as Conservatives and fictional characters -- were added to the petition sometime on Thursday. The head of business development for SunTV wrote a column for Friday's paper, slamming the petition because of the existence of fake names. Problem -- Kory Teneycke seemed to have inside knowledge of the fake names on the petition, and thanks to some dogged inquiry by O'Malley and Avaaz, we learn that these fake names were submitted by one person -- either known by Kory or Kory himself. (Kory did say on TV last night that he didn't do it, but he does seem to know who did.) Conservatives say the issue is the validity of the petition. Avaaz, and those whose names were appended to the petition without their knowledge, say the issue is forgery/fraud. Here are my two cents:
* First, let me say that I find myself in moderate agreement with some of the petition's critics. It baffles me why an American organization, not a Canadian one, is whipping up opposition to SunTV. Worse, the rhetoric in the petition is over the top and the goals scattershot. It asserts that the head of the CRTC is to be replaced, based on a highly speculative Globe and Mail column, and alleges that SunTV will propogate "hate speech." This is the problem about trying to do political activism at a distance, based on newspaper reports. There is absolutely no evidence whatsoever right now that the head of the CRTC is going to be replaced and there's even less evidence to connect that to CRTC deliberations over SunTV's licence. Seems to me that if you're an ordinary citizen against a licence for SunTV, a simple No, said to the cable carriers, would suffice. Why start a petition against what may or may not happen at the CRTC? Why all the personal insults and talk of "hate speech"?
* On the issue of the fake names, I'm in agreement that the issue here is fraud -- not the validity of the petition. I think there should be an investigation into who submitted the names and the person who did it should be punished. This isn't high school here; we're talking about people's jobs and reputations.
* Now. On this business of how much Teneycke knew about the fake names before writing his column. In journalism, we try (not always successfully) to draw a distinction between commentary, advocacy and activism. Commentary is the usual business of columnists and many journalists, but advocacy is not unusual either. Some pundits feel passionately about some policy issues (the Afghanistan war, poverty reduction, etc.) and wear their cause on their sleeves.
What is forbidden, however, is to create news for the purpose of writing about it, or worse, to promote a cause. That's why we're not allowed to feed questions to the opposition at committees or in Question Period.
On the road this summer aboard the "Liberal Express", I witnessed several occasions where Sun reporters in the regions produced a piece of paper with a question for Michael Ignatieff. They would read this query, sometimes saying they'd been told to ask the question by their bosses. Funnily enough, the questions mirrored Conservative talking points that were also sent by email to reporters aboard the bus. Then we had stories in the paper the next day saying that Ignatieff's tour was being "derailed" by questions about his candidates. The "derailing" (which was a bit of an overstatement) came from journalists' questions, nothing else.
This is where journalism strays into activism. We are supposed to be in the business of writing about protests, not instigating them. And this, it seems to me, is where we want to be cautiously observant about SunTV's proposed blend of politics and journalism. Advocacy for a cause or an ideology is fine, even admirable at times. But if the idea is to create news, well, probably we don't want to call that journalism. Entertainment, maybe? Whatever your issue is with SunTV, I think that's what we want to get sorted out before it gets a licence.