Freedom of the Press

“Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one” said legendary journalist A. J. Liebling.

The writers of Halifax’s urban emergency plan should have read this.  They should also have noted Mark Twain’s much older quote – “[n]ever pick a fight with people who buy ink by the barrel.”  You can update the quote by imagining people who buy memory chips by the box (to record audio and video) and keyboards by the dozen (for wearing them out typing the news).

In an emergency in Halifax, “[t]he expectation will be that designated media will react in accordance with pre-negotiated principles to accomplish the Municipality’s communications goals.  Any news value gained from the communications will be purely incidental.” Wow.

The passive voice here conceals whose “expectation” this is.  Did this person attend the great journalism school at King’s College and learn that local radio, TV, and print report to the emergency response manager during an urban emergency?  Do municipal officials help run the national public broadcaster—The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation – during emergencies?  I think not.  

The plan writers indicate that there will be agreements negotiated with “designated media” which will become “an integral part of the public communications component” of the plan.  The “general media” may be of “great help” too.  There is no indication as to whether Halifax hired a former Soviet official or New China News Agency staffer to negotiate said agreements.  But the agreements are to codify the types of information to be provided and frequency of communication.  Halifax anticipates paying “compensation” for the “use of the communications facilities.”  One assumes they think they’ll write out checks to Rogers, Bell, the Parliament of Canada (for CBC) and perhaps the Irving family.  One assumes they’ve noted whether they’re exempt from laws against bribing public officials in the CBC.      

But, once said fictional agreements “have been reached…contact personnel should be added to the designated media list in Appendix E.”  Calling the numbers in said appendix reveals hand-helds that have been passed from employee to employee, voice mail, no answer, and numbers which are not in service.  Some media people got pretty upset with my call and I don’t think any knew they were in the Halifax emergency plan.    

No matter.  I spoke with an emergency response official who said they had a memorandum of understanding with one station that is now off the air or under new ownership.  So this is all a technical colour dream by a plan writer.  Some fantasy understanding with local media cannot override the ‘condition of licence’ that the broadcast regulator—The Canadian Radio Television and Telecommunications Commission have required of the stations before awarding a license.   

Can you imagine the fight if the city were expecting a certain type of coverage from one media outlet, and providing preferential treatment to some?    

Will radio, TV or newspapers use material when “[a]ny news value gained from the communications will be purely incidental”?  Will these outlets use material that is designed primarily to make emergency responders look good, or get the Mayor re-elected.  Hardly.

Halifax also plans to have a “continuous telecommunications link with all broadcast media…”  Will this be an actual wire, telephone line, coaxial cable, broadband, copper, fibre optic, or other link?  Or will somebody just call a media outlet and demand that they not hang up and stay on the phone continuously.  The phone lines will be jammed but if someone from the city got through, the hang up will be instantaneous and continuous.  

Urban emergencies happen in the real, tangible world, with actual injuries, deaths, floods, and high winds.  They can’t be solved by creative writing, fantasies, and fiction.  

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