Rachel Notley doesn’t understand the media—or martyrs

The best gift the Alberta NDP premier could ever give Ezra Levant was to try to ban The Rebel website

Sun News Network columnist and host of The Source, Ezra Levant speaks to a crowd of  a few hundred at a Calgary for Israel rally at city hall in downtown Calgary, Alta. on Thursday July 31, 2014. The event was being held to show solidarity with the Israeli people while condemning pro-Palestinian supporters who attacked members of a Jewish family during what he called a pro-Hamas rally two weeks ago. Stuart Dryden/Calgary Sun/QMI Agency

Stuart Dryden/Calgary Sun/QMI Agency turned one year old on Monday, and Alberta Premier Rachel Notley got Ezra Levant and his website the birthday gift he’s always wanted: martyr status. Journalists typically cringe when they become the story. For the self-styled Rebel commander, victimhood appears to be one of his favourite sorts of stories; the opening montage of his Ezra Levant show features clips of him chasing an uninterested David Suzuki with questions and talking tough at his own Alberta Human Rights Commission hearing, not so much what others say in reply.

That Notley’s office has declared his correspondents are banned from Alberta media lockups and press events is a gift that keeps on giving for Levant. It’s brought massive attention to the conservative commentary site Levant formed in the ashes of Sun News Network, and has a petition that’s easily convertible to his mailing list. It’s made the types he so routinely disparages as the Media Party circle the party wagons around him. And this all matters for the same reason that Levant’s outlet has survived and even grown modestly at the same time as Canada’s broadcast and print media outlets have been forced to slash: they rely heavily on advertising revenue while Rebel is mostly crowd-funded. He’s opened up a legal support fund to sue the Notley government for media access to government events, and while Levant wouldn’t say how well it’s fared, unprecedented attention to a right-wing David against NDP government Goliath story has good potential to tug at the heartstrings and wallets of conservative Albertans and folks anywhere in Canada who use words like “freedom” or “liberty” in their social-media bios.

Legislatures or governments have pushed against bloggers or upstart commenters before, but it’s jarring to see it in legal writing by a provincial lawyer: “Our client’s position remains that your client and those who identify as being connected to your client are not journalists and are not entitled to access media lock-ups or other such events,” Alberta Justice barrister Jason Fung wrote last week to a media lawyer hired by Rebel. Notley spokeswoman Cheryl Oates tried to hurl a lasso around the definition of a journalist and how Rebel falls outside of it: that “we didn’t allow bloggers or online news sources in” to a legislature availability Feb. 3 with Notley and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (from which Rebel’s Sheila Gunn Reid was banned), and that in reported testimony in a pre-Rebel libel suit, Levant said he’s never called himself a “reporter.”

Who determines whether or not somebody is a journalist? For one attempted answer, let’s go to Judge Wendy Matheson’s decision in that very libel case. She described Levant as an “outspoken political commentator, journalist and blogger.” He may not be a reporter, but nor are the camera operators, columnists, website editors and producers who fill the Alberta legislature for annual budget lock-ups.

The “no webbies” defence by Oates was even more unseemly in the age of not only Vice, Buzzfeed and Huffington Post, but also Green Energy Futures. You haven’t heard of Green Energy Futures either? It’s a web production of environmental think-tank Pembina Institute, co-sponsored by oil companies Shell and Suncor, to share multi-media stories abut the “clean energy revolution that’s already under way.” A freelancer for Green Energy Futures joined the embargoed media briefing in November for the Alberta climate change panel and response plan. The term “reporter” doesn’t show up on its About Us page, either.

Journalism outlets don’t typically launch petitions, or create websites titled They don’t normally wear T-shirts with a red circle and slash around the governing party’s name, as Gunn Reid did in her video explaining her blacklisting. But up until a few years ago, newspaper reporters didn’t shoot video, and something called InsideClimate News wouldn’t get considered for a Pulitzer Prize, let alone win one. In explaining this new saga, Edmonton radio host Ryan Jespersen began: “How do I describe Rebel Media? It’s an, it’s an upstart conservative messaging platform… well, they fly their own flag to be sure, they pull no punches and they make no apologies.”

In an age of news media splintering, outlets don’t all look the same anymore. Some misbehave against a government, and some do its favour. The ban should be and will likely be short-lived, and not just because Levant brands it “unconstitutional.” A lawsuit would play even further into Levant’s hands and revenue ambitions. Notley’s government announced late Monday it’s tapping a former Canadian Press manager to review its media policies and report back within weeks. What’s the government’s best-case scenario in a prolonged impasse—Rebel never gets the full context of a government policy or announcement, and has to scrounge second-hand reports to produce roughly the same nasty reports it would have produced if it had access?

Update: To the surprise of almost nobody, the NDP firmly backtracked by Tuesday, and will allow into media events. Notley gave Levant an even greater gift: satisfaction of a moral victory over a lefty government. “We’ve heard a lot of feedback from Albertans and media over the course of the last two days and it’s clear we made a mistake,” said a government statement Levant will keep framed above his bedroom mirror.

The NDP government is nine months old. It’s too young to be so brittle, and it’s getting too old to make such bombastic rookie mistakes. And on its first anniversary, The Rebel has looked more sympathetic than anyone could have imagined.

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