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Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Paul Stanway, media independence and the Wildrose Alliance

There should always be friction between media and government. In fact, this friction is what captures the essence of an independent press.

It’s the media’s job to expose government failures, and even an honest government will fail, especially given the infinite, competing preferences of the public. If the government spends more than it should, it fails fiscal conservatives. If it spends less than it should, it fails collectivists. If it exists at all, it fails anarchists. And it’s ultimately the media’s job to point out these failures on behalf of its customers, the public.

Even if members of the press happen to agree with the general ideology of the government, which is normal, they should be on the look-out for things like corruption and waste, issues that offend conservatives and progressives alike. They should also be critics when the government strays from its ideological objectives in favour of political expediency.

Journalists and bloggers with a libertarian bent are in a unique position in that they can find fault with the authoritarian impulses found on the right (conservatives) and the left (progressives), the two camps that compete for power in Canada while libertarian politicians generally watch from the sidelines. So the friction between the mainstream libertarian media and the government should always run hot. The hotter the better, I would argue.

(At the Western Standard, we aim to be fiercely and openly loyal to libertarian ideas without being partisan. Whether or not we achieve this is a judgement I’ll leave to our readers.)

What keeps the relationship between media and government civil is access. Journalists want access, and to get it they must treat government more gently than they might others want. Access is especially important to journalists when the governing party has been in power for almost 40 years, as is the case in Alberta. If you’re out of the loop in Alberta, you can expect to be out of the loop for a very long time.

So when the relationship between media and government is too friendly, it is fair to conclude that members of the press have given up too much independence in exchange for access. When the relationship between media and government is hostile, it is fair to conclude that members of press don’t have access and, perhaps, don’t want it, favouring independence instead.

In Alberta, there is little evidence of a healthy friction between media, particularly the conservative media, and government. In fact, the recent resignation annoucment of Paul Stanway, director of communications for Premier Ed Stelmach, provides evidence to the contrary.

Stanway, 59, joined the premier’s office February 1, 2007, after Stelmach won the leadership of the Progressive Conservative Party in December 2006. Before this, Stanway, who the Premier calls a “good friend”, was publisher of the Edmonton Sun.

In the press release announcing Stanway’s resignation – Stanway is looking for new opportunities – media are invited to contact Tom Olsen for more information. Before joining the Office of the Premier, Olsen was the senior political reporter for the Calgary Herald, covering the legislature.

Both Stanway and Olsen are more than qualified to work for the Premier, but when two of the most senior political writers (Stanway was also a columnist) in the province – whose job it was to make life uncomfortable for the government – end up in that same government, it raises concerns about media independence.

In politics, people are rewarded for loyalty. Loyalty is more important than talent or experience. The staff in the premier’s office – any premier’s office – generally have a long history of loyal partisan work. They are known and trusted. That’s the way political hiring works, begging the question: Were both Stanway and Olsen hired for their loyalty? (The answer might be "no" but perception is important here.)

What does all of this say about political reporting in Alberta? Do journalists take low paying media jobs only to become well paid communications staff for the government? Do they feel pressured to write positive stories to gain critical access to key government insiders? Are scandals going unreported or under-reported?

I’m also curious as to how the rise of Danielle Smith and the Wildrose Alliance might change political reporting in the province. Who has access to Smith, a former columnist for the Calgary Herald and host of Global Sunday? Will a serious contender for the premier’s office give legislative reporters more latitude to criticise the government? Or will Alberta’s embedded media defend the government against this upstart party? And how will Smith’s libertarian views go over in the press corp.?

Here’s something else to consider: If there is a problem with media independence in Alberta, should a “cooling off” period be implemented that would prohibit journalists from working for the government for five years after leaving a media job? Similar laws exist to restrict senior government officials from becoming industry lobbyists after immediately leaving government jobs. (I would rather see laws making it less attractive to leave the private sector for the government sector than the opposite.)

I’ve got more questions than answers this morning.

Posted by Matthew Johnston

Interested in media bias? Meltdown looks at bias in environmental reporting on global warming. Coloring the News exposes political correctness in the media, especially when it comes to reporting on radical Islam. Going Rogue is Sarah Palin's personal story of dealing with a press corp loyal to Obama and the Democratic Party in the U.S.. You can buy these books below. 

Posted by westernstandard on December 8, 2009 | Permalink


As tempting as it sounds, a free press would be chilled by restricting employment opportunities for former journalists regardless of when they actually attained "former" status. There would be a potential slippery slope including business relationships as well, which could be extended to every corporate rent seeker. And when one considers all the potential sleazy relationships within a typical mixed economy, there would be no end to regulatory potential, in fact it might be easier to convert the masses to libertarianism.

BTW, did you mean to say an independent press as opposed to "an independence press" in paragraph one?

Posted by: John Chittick | 2009-12-08 10:00:40 AM

Independence of the media is important, but I expect most people take media reports with a grain of salt. I am more concerned with the lack of independence of so many think tanks, and the false credibility it gives their 'unbiased reports'.
The Canadian Taxpayers Federation: The former leader goes to work for media relations under Harper and the new federal leader is someone who wrote in the NP about "Harper's superior record as a fiscal conservative" and then claimed this was "hammering" the Conservatives on their extravagance and people who thought any different were "insane" and "delusional".
The National Citizens Coalition, I think everyone breathing knows that sad story of praise Harper or be fired.
When I questioned a speaker from the Frontier Centre on why Alberta was being held up as the shining example of small government when they were tied for the highest spending province (this was two years ago) I was told "they can afford it". Wow - wrong twice in one short sentence if you did not have political blinders on.
I can count on some fingers of one hand the number of think tanks in Canada that are anything like politically independent.

Posted by: VMS | 2009-12-08 11:34:46 AM

Thanks for catching that, John.

Posted by: Matthew Johnston | 2009-12-08 11:57:12 AM

Good points Matthew as the media here are just lackeys of the PC"s

Posted by: Merle Terlesky | 2009-12-08 12:12:20 PM

That's one for the record book: Merle Terlesky agreeing with me. :-)

Posted by: Matthew Johnston | 2009-12-08 12:28:25 PM

Matthew Johnston is alive? He can type, but, I wonder if he can return calls?

Posted by: Craig B. Chandler | 2009-12-08 2:17:56 PM


Posted by: Matthew Johnston | 2009-12-08 2:48:33 PM

Matthew is not good at returning calls that is true Craig Lol. I know I worked for him for a long time.
Matthew I only disagree with you when you say silly Libertarian nonsense.
Where were you for the Huckabee event tho?
You freind from the Bosnian war was there getting a pic with Huckabee-LOL.

Posted by: Merle Terlesky | 2009-12-08 8:45:00 PM

Funny how Ezra applauds the ruling that Boission does not have to pay $5000 to the HRC or to Lund, but Ezra is fine with forcing me to pay him ( Ezra) $5000.00 as punishment for writing a letter to FFWD here in Calgary.
Hmm seems like censorship and using the state to silence an opponnet to me?? Libel chill as its commonly called Ezra!!!
Sheer hypocrisy!!

Posted by: Merle Terlesky | 2009-12-08 8:48:09 PM

I'm not a Huckabee fan, Merle. But more importantly, I didn't know about the event. Or more accurately, I didn't diarize it and, therefore, didn't have the details.

I hope the event went well for the organizers.

Posted by: Matthew Johnston | 2009-12-09 9:45:20 AM

nods ok.

Posted by: Merle Terlesky | 2009-12-09 10:27:33 AM

It was a good speech tho and the leader of the Libertarian party of Canada was there too eh.

Posted by: Merle Terlesky | 2009-12-10 7:42:44 AM

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