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Canada’s trucker protests feature in Munk debate on trust in media

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Four high-profile journalists gathered in Toronto on Wednesday to debate the trustworthiness of the mainstream media and Canada’s trucker protests provided a ready-made case study.

The results of the Munk Debate, which was held at Roy Thomson Hall, suggest there is a growing skepticism of the media and its ability to cover big issues.

Before the debate, 48 percent of the audience agreed with the resolution and, after the closing statements had been made, a whopping 67 percent agreed with the idea that the mainstream media is not to be trusted.

The debate featured Substack author Matt Taibbi and author and political commentator Douglas Murray arguing that the mainstream media is not to be trusted, while New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell and New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg argued in favour of mainstream media. The debate was moderated by The Hub‘s executive director Rudyard Griffiths.

Much of the debate revolved around important news stories that Murray and Taibbi argued the media had ignored or gotten wrong. There was some consensus on the trucker protests, though, with both sides agreeing that the protests, which swept across Canada in early 2022 and which gridlocked the nation’s capital with heavy machinery, were more complicated than portrayed.

Murray and Taibbi both argued that the natural curiosity required for news reporting has been replaced with an ideological cookie-cutter, which inhibits the media’s ability to cover issues on the right.

“When people come out in large numbers, the job of reporters is to go out and say, why are you on the streets? What brought you here? Why are you here with your kids? Why have you got a bouncy castle in the middle of Ottawa? That’s a bit strange,” argued Murray.

Murray said the federal government “did all the things you do in the modern political age if you want to just defenestrate somebody who’s awkward to you,” which is to call them misogynistic, homophobic, and white supremacist.

“Now, at such a time, what would the mainstream media do? It would question it. The Canadian mainstream media did not. The Canadian mainstream media acted as an Amen chorus of the Canadian government,” said Murray.

Murray argued that the reason for this failure was the significant government subsidies flowing to media organizations, which reduces their incentive to be combative and skeptical.

Michelle Goldberg, a left-leaning New York Times columnist, said she travelled to the trucker protests in Ottawa as part of her mainstream media job and found a story she wasn’t expecting.

“I showed up at the Ottawa trucker protests kind of expecting the things that I’ve seen at Donald Trump rallies, at various even further-right events, and didn’t find it. I was really quite astonished,” said Goldberg.

Goldberg argued that the mainstream media has always been more interested in a counterintuitive story over any kind of ideological purity.

“People were hugging each other, people were hugging me even though I’m from the hated mainstream media. I told my editors that this is what I found and they said, ‘Great. That’s more interesting than what we thought you were going to find.’ It was more interesting and I wrote it, and they devoted an entire page to it,” said Goldberg.

The story Goldberg found was about a community of people who had been politically lonely for a long time and had finally found something worth gathering for.

Taibbi argued that journalists have become isolated from some of their readers and viewers, which means they can be spectacularly wrong about events that are outside their own bubble. Taibbi pointed to the elite consensus that Donald Trump couldn’t beat Hillary Clinton in the election as proof.

“When you’re a writer, when you’re a journalist and people don’t trust you, it’s always your fault. It’s always a communication problem. I remember covering the 2016 presidential campaign, the news media couldn’t have gotten that story more wrong for longer,” said Taibbi.

Gladwell argued that it’s a misconception to believe that the media’s job is to predict the future or to always get everything right. Newspapers and magazines offer corrections when they get things wrong, which is less true of the independent or ideological media, he argued.

“There’s a weird obsession with the two of them with the notion that media occasionally gets things wrong. I wonder if they have confused the role of journalists with that of stockbrokers,” said Gladwell.

“Sometimes that means you go down some dead ends and you chase stories that don’t turn out as you want them or wish them or hope that they would turn out, but that is the nature of the business, and if that business seems uncomfortable to you, then I would suggest you should go into stockbroking,” he said.

On day one, Danielle Smith’s Alberta Sovereignty Act gets Ottawa’s attention

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At A Glance

  • The bill would allow the cabinet to direct Alberta institutions—including police forces, universities, and hospitals—to ignore federal laws, including the Criminal Code of Canada
  • “We’re not going to take anything off the table, but I’m also not looking for a fight,” said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who said the bill is “causing a lot of eyebrows to raise.”
  • “An overall constitutional challenge to the act appears almost inevitable,” wrote Eric M. Adams, a professor in the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Law.

The Alberta Sovereignty Act has only made it through first reading in the legislature, but already has generated a swift tidal wave of commentary, even from its intended target in the national capital.

The bill was introduced in the legislature late on Tuesday, wordily titled The Alberta Sovereignty within a United Canada Act, and surprised some observers with its scope.

The bill would allow the cabinet to direct Alberta institutions—including police forces, universities, and hospitals—to ignore federal laws, including the Criminal Code of Canada. The legislature would activate the sovereignty act’s provisions by passing a motion declaring that an existing or anticipated federal law is unconstitutional or harmful to Albertans. What constitutes “harm” is left undefined.

Most controversially, the act also features a “Henry VIII clause,” which seems to give cabinet the power to unilaterally amend provincial laws. That provision sparked criticism from the prime minister on Wednesday.

“We know that the exceptional powers that the premier is choosing to give the Alberta government in bypassing the Alberta legislature is causing a lot of eyebrows to raise in Alberta and we’re going to see how this plays out,” said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Wednesday. “We’re not going to take anything off the table, but I’m also not looking for a fight.”

On Wednesday, the province pushed back on that interpretation, which had also attracted criticism from constitutional experts, saying that the bill doesn’t “permit cabinet to unilaterally amend legislation without those amendments being first authorized by the legislative assembly.”

Any changes made by cabinet must be specifically outlined in a resolution that has been approved by the legislature, the government said, in a press release.

“The rationale for this process is simply to allow the legislative assembly a tool to act swiftly and efficiently in protecting Albertans from federal initiatives that violate the constitutional or Charter rights of Albertans or which otherwise harm the interests of Albertans,” reads the release.

Karamveer Lalh, a Hub contributor and lawyer with an Edmonton area law firm, said the bill is “hardly radical.”

“I’m not clear as to how this bill, as I understand it, particularly allows Alberta to be more ‘sovereign.’ Instead, it just allows the Alberta government to declare to the federal government that they are stepping on their proverbial toes: the Alberta Government still expressly states that they would respect any court ruling,” said Lalh.

At a Tuesday press conference, Alberta Premier Danielle Smith said the bill was intended to “reset the relationship” with Ottawa and argued that it was already working.

“I think that we’ve got their attention,” said Smith. “I hope we never have to use this bill. I hope that we’ve sent a message to Ottawa that we will vigorously defend our constitutional areas of jurisdiction and they should just butt out.”

In the meantime, Smith will have to endure criticism from inside and outside the province, even from people and institutions the United Conservative Party usually counts as allies.

The Calgary Chamber of Commerce said it was concerned that that bill will “impede new investment in the province, reduce business certainty and stability, and create challenges for businesses to attract and retain talent.”

In a piece written for The Hub while the leadership race was ongoing and before the details of Bill 1 were known, Howard Anglin wrote that the idea was apolitical and legal hoax.” Anglin, who once served as the top adviser to Jason Kenney, Smith’s predecessor as premier, also warned that the bill would shake investor confidence.

“The provincial government can’t just tell public servants not to enforce the law or individuals that they won’t face any consequences for acting illegally,” wrote Anglin. “The Alberta Sovereignty Act would put all the real legal risk—CRA fines, court orders, and legal penalties—on ordinary people and local businesses. It asks too much of individuals to shoulder the burden of this constitutional frolic.”

Opposition leader Rachel Notley also teed off on the bill, zeroing in on the clause that allowed cabinet to unilaterally amend legislation.

“While pretending to be a politician concerned about the ‘grassroots’ Danielle Smith’s so-called Sovereignty Act includes a ‘Henry VIII clause’ so named after a corrupt king who tried to usurp the power of his parliament,” said Notley. “In short, this Act will allow her to rewrite legislation without ever bringing it before the legislature or the public.”

It was broadly agreed among constitutional scholars on Wednesday that Alberta would soon find itself in court defending the entirety of the sovereignty act.

“An overall constitutional challenge to the act appears almost inevitable,” wrote Eric M. Adams, a professor in the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Law.

Speaking after the bill was tabled, Smith seemed to welcome the fight.

“It begins the conversation with Ottawa so that they do not continue to pass aggressive policy targeted specifically at our industry and specifically at our development of our natural resources,” said Smith. “That is not the way the country is supposed to work. And so we’re helping to educate them and the rest of the country about that.”