Why media boycotts don't work

Russell
Russell Wangersky
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In Toronto, the centre of all things Canadian, there are those who are calling it "a Canadian first." Well, no - maybe it's a "Toronto first," but it's just a small-minded action by a self-important politician.

It's not really all that uncommon. And, eventually, it will fail.

Right now, Toronto Mayor Rob Ford is in a dispute with The Toronto Star about some of their pre- election coverage. Ford clearly didn't appreciate the coverage - something about the way he coaches football - and, since his election, he's stomped his feet and the city has stopped sending news releases to The Star.

In a lot of ways, it's a tempest in a teapot.

Journalists are a competitive bunch, but when one journalist is singled out by city hall, his or her compatriots tend to make sure any important information gets passed around pretty quickly.

But back to the idea of this being some kind of first: it isn't.

Heck, I've been boycotted.

Back in the days of The Sunday Express, not only did a sitting premier stop speaking to the paper, but he unabashedly pulled all government advertising from it as well. The paper eventually closed, but not because of Premier Brian Peckford's edict - by then, he was long gone.

The Royal Newfoundland Constabulary tried the same tack here as well (back when it was a very different police force).

Upset with a series on the police in The Express (the weekly paper that followed The Sunday Express), the RNC removed the paper from its news release distribution list. (Other media, by the way, stepped in to let reporters at The Express know whenever the police were holding news conferences.)

One thing worth thinking about in that particular news blackout?

The ban on news releases included ones letting The Express know about direct hazards to public safety - in other words, the police were willing to sacrifice public safety to make a point about being upset.

The CBC was once banned from an NDP convention in St. John's because the Crown corporation was involved in a labour dispute - other outlets refused to cover the event until the CBC reporters were allowed back in.

Even Premier Danny Williams was not above announcing at news briefings that he was annoyed with particular reporters, and that those reporters were being "blacklisted" as punishment for their supposed sins. It wasn't that long ago that Williams refused all interviews with the CBC because he said a commentator on the network had made comments that were "hurtful" to his family.

Well, everyone's human, and it's probably not surprising that even image-conscious politicians will occasionally lash out.

But not only does banning individual members of the media not work, it's actually counter-productive.

Why?

Because people aren't stupid.

Petty politics

Because, in the end, what the police forces and politicians don't realize - but the public does - is that using public resources to privately punish an opponent or a media outlet says an awful lot about how petty you can be.

It also says something about how little you value public resources, and how willing you are to convert them to your private use.

Ethically, using the resources of Toronto City Hall to try and punish The Toronto Star is no different from a mayor ordering city staff to keep charging neighbours he doesn't like with bylaw violations. Telling city staff to harm one business over its fellows is really no different than telling them to favour a particular company doing business with the city.

If you'd rather punish a news outlet than do your job, so be it. You can be a great big sook all you like - there is no requirement that elected politicians act like grownups.

But the reality comes down somewhere else.

They are the city's resources, not the mayor's. It is an elected government, not a personal fiefdom.

Ford has said he wants an apology from the newspaper.

Perhaps Ford should be apologizing himself, for suggesting he views the city's resources as his own, to dispense at will.

And the irony is, he's making news stories about himself in the process, for the very media he's trying to punish.

And The Toronto Star?

It will be publishing Toronto city council news long after Mayor Ford is little more than a petulant footnote.

Been there. Done that. Worn the boycott.

And I'm still writing.

Russell Wangersky is The Telegram's editorial page editor. He can be reached by email at rwanger@thetelegram.com.

Organizations: The Star, The Express, CBC NDP Toronto city council The Telegram

Geographic location: Toronto, St. John's

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  • Pierre Neary
    December 11, 2011 - 18:56

    What purple files?