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                               The Parliament Hill Shootings: 

    The Need For Tough, Objective Journalism Has Never Been Greater


 

By Susanna Kelley

We all watched the Parliament Hill shootings in horror.

The scene will be burned into our minds' eyes for the rest of our days: after shooting a young reservist guarding the War Memorial, a man blasted his way into what is supposed to be our most important democratic institution - the House of Commons - and there, but for the grace of Sergeant-at-Arms Kevin Vickers - could very well have shot our elected MPs, cabinet and Prime Minister.   

On the day of the shootings, the journalism on display from many quarters in Canada was second to none.

CBC in particular shone like the jewel it is meant to be.

The network's hard news gathering was up to the minute, but with the appropriate restraint necessary for accuracy.

The old newsgathering adage "Get it first, but get it right" was the order of the day.

Solid, solid journalism that is a huge credit to this country's public broadcaster: reporter Julie Van Dusen, giving her report in a whisper because she was lockdown and in danger, was an unforgettable moment. Bravo, Ms. Van Dusen.

Take a bow, CBC. Despite all the cuts and painful, painful changes, you've still got it.

That is because despite the fact some of its best journalists have gone (Linden McIntyre, for example) the Mothercorp still has fantastic, dedicated reporters. Let's hope they are left alone to do their jobs and not laid off in more rounds of endless cuts.

The professionalism of Canada's journalists is crucial to a properly functioning democracy, and tough, objective journalism is going to be absolutely critical in the next year or more when it comes to covering the fallout from this.

That isn't as easy as it sounds.

Something unique happened in Ottawa last week. Journalists were actually part of the story, rather than observing from afar. Many were locked down, in danger, in the same rooms as the politicians they cover daily.

When you cover the same politicians every day for years, you get to know them as people too.

Journalists are usually good at distancing themselves from that. Most are very careful.

But this time there has been this shared, awful experience. 

The shock, sorrow and emotion were reflected in the reportage of the first few days.  There were gestures of emotion not often seen: the Prime Minister hugging Thomas Mulcair and Justin Trudeau.

Reflecting that those events and that extraordinary mood for a day or two is appropriate: the country must mourn.

But because of the involvement of the media in this story, it is essential that we as journalists be extra vigilant to stand back and be professionally objective so we can do our jobs by reporting and analyzing what appears to be coming next, and very, very quickly: sweeping new powers for police, the RCMP and spy agency CSIS, along with a reduction of our civil liberties.

Already there are some worrisome signs.

One columnist jumped to the conclusion within 24 hours that we need tougher laws to combat terrorism - before we even knew whether the gunman was part of an organized plan to attack Parliament Hill.

Which the Ottawa police and said he was not. His mother has released a letter saying the problem was mental illness.

A very wise, veteran journalist, recalling the implementation of the War Measures Act during the October Crisis, commented to me that this has a very 1970s feel to it, especially in some of the early journalism on view.

It's the opposite that will be badly needed: tough, objective journalism as the government has moves into overdrive.

The sweeping powers sought by the government will be even more major the PCs had planned to previously.

For one, Defence Minister Peter McKay has already said the Harper government is considering "lowering the threshold" for arrests and detention, making it illegal to support terrorist activity on the internet, and other, new crimes.

That does sound a lot like 1970 when police rounded up hundreds of people in Quebec and held them without charges under the War Measures Act. The government wants to toughen legislation on this font.

These ideas, if they are adopted, would curtail civil liberties we have taken for granted and codified in our laws for hundreds of years, and in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms for the last 50 years.

For example, when it comes to how long police can hold people - "arrest" them - without charges, we have strict limits in our laws, and for good reason. In Canada you can't detain people indefinitely without charges. That's one of the main reasons those nearly 1,000 people arrested in the G20 protests in Toronto had to be released the next day.

This is a long, honourable and well-established tenet of British common law, established originally in the Writ of Habeas Corpus, also known as The Great Writ. It was first issued as early as the 1200s in England, and codified in 1640. 

"Habeas corpus" means that authorities must "produce the body" to the courts, and prove why he or she should be detained - i.e. police must have evidence to charge the prisoner - or he must be released.

Lowering the bar for arrest - the "holding of the body" - in the case of those suspected - not charged, but suspected only - of terrorist activity is a very serious and very major change.

Decisions on such new laws are being made very quickly, reportedly being written over the weekend.

That is much too fast.  If what the government is trying to do is ensure what happened last week doesn't occur again, the only reasonable process is to wait until the investigation into the shootings is completed by the OPP, who have been given the task.

To do otherwise is to put the cart before the horse out of fear, over-reaction or a desire to deliberately take advantage of the tragedy to ram through legislation giving even more power to the police and, ultimately, Mr. Harper himself.   

Furthermore, all this is being done without a clear definition of what a terrorist and/or terrorism is.

For example, will it be illegal to support the CIA practice of torture, such as water-boarding prisoners at Guantanamo? Or just beheadings by ISIS?

Who gets to decide that? The government? 

History is littered with governments abusing their powers to target their political enemies.

The Harper government already stands accused of using the Canada Revenue Agency to harass organizations critical of the government's agenda by threatening to take away their charitable status. 

And as another old adage goes, one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter.

Nelson Mandela was still on the US terrorism watch list as of 2008, put there originally under Ronald Reagan because the apartheid regime had been allied with US during the Cold War, and the African National Congress, which Mr. Mandela led, was supposedly "peppered with communists:"

Or take the case of Menachem Begin, the sixth Prime Minister of Israel and founder of the Likud party. In his earlier career, however, he was head of the militant Irgun Zionist movement, targeting British in Palestine, including kidnapping and hanging two British sergeants. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1978.

Or Gerry Adams, winner of the Nobel peace prize in 1998. There have been many accusations, although Mr. Adams denies them, that he was heavily involved in the Provisional IRA in Northern Ireland before entering the political realm as head of Sinn Fein and negotiating a power-sharing agreement with the Protestant establishment.

All of these men were once considered terrorists by the governments of the day.

So when it comes to defining who is a terrorist, a government's point of view often depends on whether their ox is being gored.

There are those around Mr. Harper who will tell him that with the frightened mood of the country,"this is the moment" to bring in changes that some have wanted for a long time that will decrease our civil liberties.

There are some that will be, distastefully, urging him to use this tragedy to turn around his low polling numbers, saying this could well be Mr. Harper's 2015 election campaign theme: that he is the only one tough enough to "take on the terrorists."

And indeed, Mr. Harper used the word "terrorist" and "terrorism" five times in his address to the Canadian people.

As Thomas Mulcair and Justin Trudeau did not, one must conclude that was deliberate.

Yet all the information that has come out so far indicates a mentally ill man with drug problems had fallen into religious zealotry which MAY have prompted a political motive (although his mother believes the latter not to be the case.) Drug problems and religious zealotry are often symptoms of mental illness.

The solution that keeps us all a lot safer in the end may well end up to be to put more resources into mental health rather than decrease all of our civil liberties.

To analyze Mr. Harper's ideas with an eye to whether reducing our civil rights is the right response to what has happened is not to be traitorous to our government or its soldiers and to support terrorism.

In fact, it is the opposite. It is standing on guard for Canada.

I say that as someone who just returned from visiting Juno Beach in France to pay my huge respects to the veterans of World War II who saved Europe's democratic institutions and ours. There's no one more grateful to the Canadian vets than I.

Careful consideration through democratic debate, as well as freedom of speech and thought, is exactly what they died for.  

The changes contemplated by Mr. Harper will become clearer in the days to come.

The media did a fantastic job the day of the shootings and the day after, reflecting the shocked and saddened country's legitimate need to mourn. 

But for we journalists, now is the time to reach deep and draw on our best traditions of objectivity and toughness, and report with fairness to all sides.

We must expect no less of ourselves.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

About Susanna Kelley

Susanna Kelley is Editor-in-Chief and Queen’s Park Bureau Chief for Ontario News Watch. A veteran political and investigative reporter, documentary-maker, host and media commentator, Susanna oversees and has final editorial control over all news production at Ontario News Watch. Susanna has reported for the CBC, the Canadian Press and served as Queen’s Park Bureau Chief for TVOntario for 13 years. She has also hosted a number of documentaries for CBC’s The Current, CBC Radio News and TVOntario’s Studio 2. Passionately dedicated to excellence in political journalism, and having covered both Parliament Hill and Queen’s Park, Susanna believes quality political reporting is essential to a healthy democracy. You can find Susanna here: @susannakelley
Posted date : October 27, 2014

View all of Susanna Kelley's columns
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