Better reason needs to be given, especially with hostile political climate

Journalists are having a rough time lately.

News organizations are being shut out of White House press briefings south of the border, and a recent Gallup poll found that only 32 per cent of Americans say they have “a great deal” of trust in the media.

But this kind of media dysfunction is not just relegated to our neighbour from the south. Disputes between Canadian journalists and their government over protecting the identity of their sources are far from being uncommon. For example, who could forget the fate of Montreal journalist Michaël Nguyen, whose computer was seized by the police in September, or revelations that La Presse’s Patrick Legacé had been under police surveillance.

Despite this hostile climate, the House of Commons administrative committee still thinks it’s a good idea to get the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) to fingerprint journalists and run background checks before they can enter the parliamentary press gallery.

Under the proposal, journalists who frequent the press gallery would be screened by the RCMP with fingerprinting and criminal background checks, and could be denied access if the police deem necessary, though no specific details on criteria for entry were given.

At first they were so serious that they suggested that the Canadian Security Intelligence Service should be involved in the screening as well, though this aspect was dropped.

It’s important to keep in mind that this action isn’t an overt attack against reporters. Journalists are just one of the groups that the administrative committee is putting under greater scrutiny, as the reach extends to MP staffers, contractors, volunteers, and interns.

But that doesn’t take away from the fact that pushing for such measures could sow a rift between journalists and the government, and potentially the country’s citizens by proxy.

On Feb. 24, press gallery president Tonda MacCharles noted that there has never been a security issue in the press gallery involving a journalist. More details on why the reforms are happening could go a long way to easing the dispute. After all, reinforcing an assurance of checks and balances is a simple way to prevent this power from curbing a free press.

In this increasingly divisive political climate, some have been critical of journalists for other reasons, saying they can’t be trusted as they’re not tightly “regulated,” as a doctor would be. But the strength of a serious reporter is that they’re not beholden to strict standards of a government or other such entities. Journalists and news organizations are free to report what they want and how they want, and can develop credibility on the strength of that reporting.

The government needs to be careful it’s not perceived as stepping into the role of a gatekeeper, since this could erode the idea that the media’s credibility must be determined by the work it does—not the perception of outside bodies.

Nobody has a problem with an honest attempt to make everyone feel safe and secure. However, given numerous actions to discredit journalists in the past few months, it’s incumbent upon the Canadian government to reassure both reporters and the public that it’s not acting as a gatekeeper to the news.