On Monday, I was in a federal courthouse in Toronto, fighting for a free press in Canada. It marks the third straight week that my digital media organization, True North, has been fighting against Justin Trudeau’s Liberals and his proxies for the right to report on the current federal election campaign. In one notorious case, Liberals even ordered police to pull my journalist—an experienced broadcaster named Andrew Lawton—out of an entry lineup at a Trudeau rally, even after Lawton had been officially registered, given a wristband by organizers, photographed, and placed on the admission list. This took place on the grounds of a public college.
True North has a business model that I believe will be followed by other digital-media enterprises—and which stands in stark contrast to the legacy media that the Canadian government has pledged to subsidize with a $600-million bailout fund. We are a registered federal charity with two major programs—one focused on traditional, non-partisan think-tank work, the other focused on investigative journalism, straight daily news and political analysis. Like other news outlets, we have an editorial position rooted in our worldview, which influences our selection of opinion pieces without compromising our news reporting. Our journalists and our audience tend to be composed of conservatives, classical liberals, contrarians, independent thinkers and the growing ranks of those who are simply skeptical of the mainstream media in Canada. While Canada’s legacy media outlets are struggling with an outdated business model that relies on advertising and subscription fees, True North’s revenue comes primarily through small donations from thousands of readers and supporters, supplemented by a handful of foundation grants.
Thanks to our charitable status and unique business model, we were able to crowdsource a fund that would allow Lawton to cover the election campaign across Canada, going wherever the story took him. We successfully hit our modest fundraising target of $10,000, and Lawton began his reporting in September. When the bombshell story of Trudeau’s sordid history of blackface became public, I assigned Lawton to join the Liberal media bus alongside the dozens of other journalists providing daily coverage of that party’s campaign.
But to my (honest) surprise, the Liberals blocked Lawton from joining the campaign, and then provided inconsistent answers for why they had done so. At first, they said it was because True North is a think tank and not a media company. We politely informed them that True North has several units, which is not unusual. (The hallowed Economist magazine, for instance, operates within the Economist Group, which also operates a members-only service called the Economist Corporate Network. And Canadian magazines such as The Walrus have started up corporate-content units and corporate PR services.) Lawton, we noted, is a journalist who works for the digital media outlet contained within True North.
At that point, the Liberals shifted their tune and told us we needed to be accredited through the Parliamentary Press Gallery (PPG), which in turn affirmed that it has no jurisdiction over accrediting journalists for election campaigns, and that it was up to the individual parties to determine who could join their campaigns. (The PPG is basically just a club for journalists. When we inquired about permanent accreditation with the PPG, we were informed that the club is limited to Ottawa-based organizations and Ottawa-based journalists. True North is based out of Vancouver and Toronto.)
While Liberal campaign officials continued to lecture us about the bureaucratic hurdles we supposedly had to leap, we caught them, on camera, allowing community-college students into a press-only event while banning Lawton. The Liberals also provided event accreditation to an activist from a group called “Socialist Action,” a self-described “revolutionary” organization whose website makes zero mention of journalism.
Meanwhile, Lawton continued to cover the election campaign for our True North audience. He followed the Liberal campaign as best he could, flying to Vancouver then Thunder Bay, Ontario, and on to Montreal, while also reporting on campaign events held by the other parties. During this campaign, Lawton has been accredited by the Conservative Party, the Bloc Québecois, the People’s Party of Canada, and even by the New Democratic Party (NDP), which sits to the left of the Liberals politically. During an event with NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, Lawton live-tweeted his town hall questions and answers, and was selected by Singh to ask a question, and follow-up.
In recent days, the Liberals escalated their campaign against Lawton, by seeking not only to block him from covering the Liberal campaign, but also seeking to deny him accreditation to cover the National Leader’s Debates.
In October, 2018, the federal government created a commission to organize national election debates, so as to avoid the problems associated with politicians in the governing party having the power to set the rules themselves. This Leaders’ Debates Commission was created as an arm’s-length body to ensure the debates are free, fair and accessible to all. On September 23, 2019, the Commission published a press release advising the public about the dates of the debates, and indicating that, “media representatives who wish to cover the debates must apply for accreditation using the Government of Canada Accreditation portal.” It included no guidelines or criteria for what they believed constituted a “media representative.”
Lawton submitted his application through the portal within 24 hours of this public notice. It took ten days, however, for the commission to respond—with the following two-sentence email: Your request for media accreditation for the 2019 Federal Leaders’ Debates has been denied. The ‘about’ section of tnc.news clearly states that True North is actively involved in advocacy.
Commission officials waited until the Friday before this week’s Monday debate to give us this ruling, ensuring we weren’t able to point out that the information contained in their response was wrong. Our journalists are not involved in advocacy. Even if they were, the idea that being involved in “advocacy” bars a media company from covering a national debate is ludicrous.
Canada’s largest newspaper, the Toronto Star is proudly involved in “advocacy.” On the ‘About’ section of the Star web site, one can read about something called the “Atkinson Principles,” which are described as “the foundation of the Star’s ongoing commitment to investigating and advocating for social and economic justice.” (We also learn that “the principles Atkinson espoused were founded on his belief that a progressive news organization should contribute to the advancement of society through pursuit of social, economic and political reforms.”) Yet not only was the Star covering Monday’s debate, the newspaper’s own reporter, Susan Delacourt, was acting as a debate moderator.
Advocacy is just fine, in other words. But it has to be the right kind of advocacy.
The Star is unapologetic about its left-wing advocacy. And it regularly publishes columns that promote its preferred slant—which is the Star’s right. Unlike us, the Star also is set to receive $115,000 every single week in funds from the federal government through Trudeau’s media bailout deal. As you can see, it’s all a very cozy arrangement.
In fact, I started True North in 2016 to help provide readers with an alternative to precisely this sort of ideologically incestuous media landscape. Canada needs more reporting on topics related to immigration and national security, which some media outlets regard as taboo. As newsrooms across the country slashed their budgets and cut back on investigative journalism and beat reporters, there was a need to fill in the gap.
Over the past three years, our organization has grown tremendously. And like most start-ups, we’ve pivoted in response to the feedback we’ve received. True North has become a full-spectrum digital media organization produced through a registered charity—one that is not permitted to engage in political advocacy. It’s a complicated structure, but we’re not alone. Other journalism outlets in Canada, including The Walrus and La Presse, have the same status.
The decision to bar True North from covering the debates was both arbitrary and partisan. It reflected the wishes of one party, the governing Liberals, while going against the views of Canada’s other major parties. The spectacle of a government or its proxies acting as a gatekeeper on who gets to cover politics—that is something you see in autocracies, not democracies. It isn’t up to the government to decide who is and who isn’t a journalist in Canada. There is no governing body or licensing board that makes such decisions—nor should there be.
Nor can this be justified under some vaguely described campaign to fight “fake news.” It’s simply a bald-faced Liberal effort to silence a news outlet that the Liberals believe isn’t sympathetic to Liberals. That’s why we took them to court.
And I’m happy to report that our emergency injunction was successful: On Monday, a federal judge ruled in favour of True North (as well as Rebel News, which filed on similar grounds), and ordered the Debates Commission to reverse its position and grant accreditation to our journalist, Andrew Lawton. The judge agreed that excluding us from the debates would cause our organization irreparable harm and that the commission failed to disclose its standards and tests for accreditation. In fact, we learned through the government’s court filings that the Commission came up with its criteria for accreditation on October 3—two business days before the debate. The criteria was never made public, and this entire amateur-hour spectacle reeks of partisan taint.
We also learned that the government granted accreditation to some 250 journalists—including opinion columnists, foreign outlets such as Al Jazeera (which has its own advocacy and lobbying arm), state-run foreign entities (such as the communist Vietnam News Agency) and 90 journalists from the state-run CBC and its French-language counterpart, Radio-Canada. (Only five organizations were rejected, four on the evidently dubious grounds of “advocacy,” and one for not being a practicing journalist.)
The world of journalism is changing. It isn’t as clear as it was a few years ago who is and who isn’t a journalist. While I don’t envy the people whose job it is to determine who gets accredited or cover events, it should not be government officials or their direct proxies who make this call.
As for True North, we will continue to do what we do. We release new content every day, thanks to a team of over a dozen journalists and support staff. Among us, we have about eight decades of combined journalism experience. We attend and report on press conferences, government media briefings, international conferences, court trials, public rallies and campaign events. We interview newsmakers and politicians, including political dissidents, community activists, musicians, professional athletes, entrepreneurs and other newsmakers. Lawton himself even interviewed Trudeau back in 2015, when our prime minister was still a believer in “sunny ways” instead of smoky rooms.
Our greatest sin is that we are considered right-of-centre in the Canadian political and media landscape. But even if you sit on a different point of the political spectrum, you should be appalled at the failed effort to exclude us from covering Canadian politics: The next time something like this happens, it could be a Conservative government seeking to silence progressives, and that would be just as wrong.
We are fighting on behalf of all Canadians to protect our constitutional liberties. And we hope that by the time the next election comes around, the basic right of journalists to cover a federal election won’t still be under threat.