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By the end of the Second World War, Canadian press censors themselves had come to believe censorship did not work, according to Mark Bourrie, author of The Fog of War: Censorship of Canada’s Media in World War Two.

Though the top wartime censors, all former journalists, were not big believers in suppressing information in the first place, they concluded that if information control were necessary again, the best way would be not to tell the media what to report but to control what information got out in the first place, with stiff penalties for anyone leaking information.

And something very like that is happening today, Bourrie said in a discussion entitled Censored Then & Now, sponsored by the Book and Periodical Council following presentation of the BPC’s annual Freedom to Read Award to Lawrence Hill, author of The Book of Negroes.

By the end of the Second World War, Canadian press censors themselves had come to believe censorship did not work, according to Mark Bourrie, author of The Fog of War: Censorship of Canada’s Media in World War Two.

Though the top wartime censors, all former journalists, were not big believers in suppressing information in the first place, they concluded that if information control were necessary again, the best way would be not to tell the media what to report but to control what information got out in the first place, with stiff penalties for anyone leaking information.

And something very like that is happening today, Bourrie said in a discussion entitled Censored Then & Now, sponsored by the Book and Periodical Council following presentation of the BPC’s annual Freedom to Read Award to Lawrence Hill, author of The Book of Negroes.

Talking with author, journalist and former university professor Susan Swan, Bourrie said the federal government has been growing steadily less open and showing a diminishing respect for the role of the media.

“There is an attitude in Ottawa right now that people don’t have any right to information,” said Bourrie. While various commentators have described the present Stephen Harper government as tight-lipped, “I’m not going to say that (former Prime Minister Jean) Chretien was very much better,” he added.

At the same time the idea of the media as a watchdog working for the public interest is being lost, he added. “The press is not considered an estate, it is considered a stakeholder.” Politicians assume the news media are in Ottawa not to serve the public but only for business reasons, Bourrie said.

Sadly, as far as media owners are concerned the politicians might be right. Bourrie said Canadian media generally show little interest in fighting for access to information today, just as most showed little stomach for fighting censorship during the war. With occasional exceptions, particularly The Globe and Mail, he said, newspapers during the war rarely protested censorship, and when they did it was usually because they felt rivals had received preferential treatment or advantages.

“Canadian newspapers don’t aspire to be great very often.”

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Today, he said, “the owners of the media don’t want to spend the money on investigative reporting any more because it doesn’t work that well in their cost-benefit analysis.” And top managers, based in Toronto or elsewhere, are “not interested” in the problems facing parliamentary reporters in Ottawa.

And those problems, according to Bourrie, are serious and growing. Reporters have already lost access to the lobbies adjoining the House of Commons, where they could once mingle with politicians. Reporters who wait outside the doors of closed committee meetings to accost politicians are now hustled away by security.

“Where I see them going,” Bourrie warned, “is the press will no longer be allowed into the Centre Block any more. I think that’s coming in the next few months.”

Swan asked Bourrie what he would ask the government to do about the situation, to which he replied: “I would at least ask them to turn back the clock to the 1990s, when journalists could cover Parliament properly.” But then he added, “I wouldn’t tell them to do anything – because I could just talk to that brick wall all day.”

But he did say the media need to do a better job of explaining what they do, the problems they face and how the present government has “made being a Parliamentary reporter almost impossible. “

“We just take it and we take it and we take it and we take it…. There are people in the media in Ottawa who have had enough.”

Bourrie also had a few words of criticism for reporters themselves, though, observing that the idea of the journalist as insider – a person in the know who keeps secrets – “should have gone out the window years ago.”

 

Grant Buckler is a retired freelance journalist and a volunteer with Canadian Journalists for Free Expression and lives in Kingston, Ont.