Does the demise of the press present a constitutional issue for our democracy?

In today’s Globe and Mail, Lawrence Martin has underscored the “crisis in journalism”. His opinion piece, “A crisis that cries out for a public inquiry”,  presents an important question about the state of the “fourth establishment” and its role in democratic government. He describes the root of the problem as follows:

Today, we have a crisis in the journalism industry unprecedented in scope. A media implosion. Newspapers being reduced to digital editions, large numbers losing their jobs, circulation falling, ad revenues plunging, near monopoly ownership of big-city dailies, the old business model in a state of collapse.

He goes on to observe that “it’s a joke to think that a healthy democracy can be restored given the continuing depletion of the one industry that holds business and government to account”.  He asks “[i]f traditional print journalism cannot be sustained, what fills the void?” Good question.

In an earlier post, I examined the role of technology as it pertains to “freedom of expression”. In “How technology and freedom of expression are inextricably intertwined – and how the iRevolution takes it another step further” (March 14, 2015), I outlined the central importance of technology to understanding constitutionally protected freedom of expression.  In that blog post, I stated in part:

When the drafters of the Charter came to freedom of expression, they decided to include it under s. 2 with other “fundamental” freedoms. They included it with “freedom of conscience and religion” (s. 2(a)), “freedom of peaceful assembly” (s. 2(c)) and “freedom of association” (s. 2(d)). For section2(b), the drafters wrote:

“Everyone has the following fundamental freedom[]:
(b) freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression,…”

But they did not end it there. They went on to include the following words: “including freedom of the press and other media of communication”.

This is the only right in the Charter that has constitutionalized a right to use a machine, a piece of technology – the printing press.

The drafters were thoughtful enough to mention also the “other media of communication”. I would not think that that would be limited to the media of communication available in 1982. Surely, this must include future technological developments. Surely, it must encompass and include and support such developments as the iRevolution.

It is somewhat ironic that the central role of the press, the printing press – one of the greatest technological engines for the advancement of human knowledge and development — will be undone by further technological advances and yet those further technological advances may lead to a less educated or knowledgeable society. The fact that fewer and fewer people read a newspaper, are informed on a daily basis about world and local events, and thereby benefit from an independent critical account and analysis of such developments means that we are descending into a less literate society. A less literate society is the antithesis of a properly functioning democracy.

In his op-ed, Mr. Martin refers to “journalism”, which is the industry that has used that printing press (and since then, many other forms of mass communication – radio, television and now the Internet) for now centuries to communicate with the public, to provide information and news and opinions that often run counter to those expressed by the government or seeking office. He has asked “what will fill the void” if journalism dies the death of a thousand cuts.  He has asked for a public inquiry to look into this issue.

Mr. Martin’s challenge really runs to the heart of our democracy. It strikes at the core of our constitutional heart. We need to answer his challenge: if not independent journalism, then “what fills the void?” He has asked if there needs to be a larger role for the public sector. I query, in this vein, whether independent funding needs to exist for media outlets to maintain adequate journalist staffing and opinion editors, independent from governmental influence. How we achieve the result, a source of independent and reliable information for the public in this new age of the iRevolution, would be one of the objectives of such an inquiry.

I thank Mr. Martin for raising the issue. This is an obligation and responsibility that we all bear. A public inquiry is surely in order.

I remain

Constitutionally yours,

 

Arthur Grant

 

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