Sackville councillors debated a proposed addition to a town bylaw on August 3 that defines the “press” as “an individual reporting on behalf of an accredited media outlet including print, radio and television.”
The definition says that those who write for “personal, non-commercial or enthusiast websites do not qualify as accredited media.”
“When I saw this, it reminded me of the Conservative years in Ottawa when the then prime minister determined what the press was,” said Councillor Sabine Dietz referring to Stephen Harper’s wide-ranging restrictions on journalists who covered his government.
“I feel highly uncomfortable with that approach to limiting who is defined as having access to politicians etc. or receiving information at a certain time,” she added.
“Nowadays press, media includes the entirely online news outlets, bloggers, all of that. That’s what media is nowadays,” Dietz said after suggesting that the proposed definition be dropped from the bylaw respecting the procedure and organization of town council.
Councillor Bill Evans said he supported dropping the new definition because what he called “alternative media” are playing an increasingly vital role in making the public aware of what’s going on.
“In Sackville, with the loss of our traditional newspaper, we’ve had a vacuum, so I would say that our problem isn’t too much media, it’s not enough,” Evans added.
In an apparent reference to The New Wark Times, he said he welcomed alternative media coverage.
“It doesn’t mean I always like it or agree with it, but I think it’s hugely important and the more the better as far as I’m concerned,” he added.
“There could be legitimate reasons on how we acknowledge that or grant privileges to certain individuals so I’m open to this discussion, but I don’t want to do anything that limits, let’s just call it, alternative media,” Evans concluded.
CAO Jamie Burke responded that the “press” needs to be defined in the bylaw because reporters get to go first during council’s public question periods and the town clerk has now begun sending council documents to the media at 4 p.m. on the day of special council meetings.
That means that journalists will have the privilege of receiving the background documents before the public sees them.
Burke said the town has a good relationship with WarkTimes as well as traditional media outlets, but staff felt it was important to define the press in case of future trouble.
“If we get somebody who thinks they are the press and they could have a belief system that is fundamentally different to our strategic plan and our community beliefs, we don’t want to be treating them the same as we’re treating the CBC or CHMA or the Times & Transcript.”
Later, during the public question period, Burke suggested the bylaw definition of “press” would give council more control.
“If there was an individual, maybe it’s a blogger who’s using racist, sexist and other commentary as part of the regular reporting, how do we have the ability to push back a little bit?” he asked.
“Or if somebody wasn’t showing professionalism or respect with the way our meetings are conducted or how they’re respecting individual staff members or members of council.”
Earlier in the meeting, Councillor Michael Tower said the definition of “press” excluded Warktimes which, he said, is now serving as the town’s online newspaper.
He added that if problems arise in future, council could deal with them then.
“I just find it restrictive,” Tower said. “It opens the door so that we can slam it on somebody because we don’t like what they might have published or put on the Internet.”
Councillor Ken Hicks disagreed saying he saw value in the new definition of “press.”
“The difference between [an] accredited media outlet in my understanding and let’s say, a regular blogger is that the accredited person that’s reporting on behalf of the media, they have someone overtop of them that they report to, an editor or something like that,” he said.
“Where a blogger reports to themselves, so there’s considerably less accountability.”
Hicks added that he’s not saying bloggers shouldn’t be able to report on town council.
“Of course, there’s tremendous value in that, but I think it’s important that we have a guideline like this in place so that it’s not the Wild West in here, that there is rules, there is procedures to follow.”
In the end, council agreed to consider the definition of “press” as well as other changes to the organization and procedures bylaw again in September.
Here is the proposed definition: “Press” means an individual reporting on behalf of an accredited media outlet including print, radio, and television medium. (Personal, non-commercial or enthusiast websites do not qualify as accredited media.)
Bruce Wark worked in broadcasting and journalism education for more than 35 years. He was at CBC Radio for nearly 20 years as senior editor of network programs such as The World at Six and World Report. He currently writes for The New Wark Times where this story first appeared on August 4, 2021.