An Open Letter: Press, Politics and the National Press Club
Sometimes you work hard on things, throw your all into it, and hope that good things come as a result. For the last several months I’ve been doing this with the National Press Club, after being elected as member of the board of directors of the Club in October last year.
The National Press Club of Canada, as it is formally known, was at one time an illustrious organization, created in 1928 and serving journalists and other media professionals from its headquarters opposite Parliament in Ottawa until falling under bad leadership and hard times recently.
Some believe that in today’s context of relentless upheaval in the media world, and journalism in particular, that it is a good time to resurrect the moribund institution and put it back on the map. I agree, and this is why I decided to stand for election to the board of directors after being approached by one of my former students.
Part of putting the organization back on the map is good stewardship and carving out events that illustrate that the National Press Club has its finger on the pulse of important issues of our time. To this end I have been working with a few others in the Press Club to put a couple of events on the agenda
The first of which was intended to be held on the eve of the Government’s re-introduction of Bill C-30, you know, the internet surveillance bill notoriously pitched by the Government as the Child Online Predators Act (Bill C-30) and that was scathingly lampooned by Rick Mercer in one of his famous rants and loathed by people all across the country and all across the political spectrum before being yanked by the government, at least for the time being. Despite some good efforts, the NPC missed the boat on this one.
For the last month I’ve been working on another event that would feature Glenn Greenwald, a renowned journalist in the U.S. whose work appears regularly in the New York Times, L.A. Times, Washington Post and Slate and whose work on Wikileaks not only won him important awards for investigative journalism but also made him the target of a Bank of America-led dirty tricks campaign aimed at those seen to be overly sympathetic to Wikileaks and Julian Assange.
The first event was never held, a missed opportunity, let’s say. It is still too early for the final word on what role the NPC will play in the second event. Earlier this week, the ‘executive committee’ approved our sponsorship of it; yesterday, the same committee apparently reversed itself. None of the reasons for why the event was first approved then rejected have been given, and who was involved in both decisions remains unknown.
One thing is for sure, however: Greenwald’s talk will go ahead on April 12th at St. Paul University in Ottawa, with or without the NPC, at an event organized by Bill Owen, and sponsored by the School of Journalism and Communication, Carleton University.
While the NPC does embarrassing flip flops in the dark, Greenwald has been booked to appear on the Power and Politics show with Evan Solomon just prior to his speaking engagement. Other journalists are lining up for interviews while he is in town. Clearly, as other journalists’ indicate, the subject matter and the speaker are important and, shall we say, newsworthy. Why doesn’t the NPC see this?
Now I have relayed some of this stuff to you because in the hurly-burly of new boards we find a clash of visions between those striving to revive and restore the NPC to some of its former glory but in the context of the realities of journalism in the 21st century while others see opportunities for self-promotion and to shore up their own declining place in the sun.
That the NPC is in disarray, there can be no doubt. Two board of directors have resigned in the past two weeks. Another member who has served for decades and decades was unceremoniously thrown overboard by the President and so-called ‘executive committee’. No reason was given for such actions; inquiries as to the justification and basis for such actions have elicited no response among either the President or her hand-picked appointees that occupy most of the so-called ‘executive committee’.
Several other directors stand on the precipice, waiting to see how all this plays out. I am one of them.
However, rather than standing idly by, I have decided that the NPC is probably something worth fighting for. Hence this “open letter” to the current President of the NPC, the Honourable Shiela Copps.
This is indeed a struggle for the soul of the NPC. It will either be left to become the plaything of the President and her handmaidens or they will be removed and a new directors elected.
There are important first principles at stake. And one of those important stakes is that the President and her self-appointed members of the executive were not elected but appointed. The NPC is currently ruled as if this is a tinpot dictatorship, where board members are suppose to sit idly by waiting for edicts to come down from on high.
There are several problems in all of this, three of which I’ll outline before turning to the ‘open letter’ that I’ve sent to the rest of the NPC this morning.
First, as just indicated, without having been elected, the President and her self-appointed ‘executive committee’ lack legitimacy. These unelected positions are being used to create and fund new positions without proper quorum from a majority of the directors.
Second, given her far better known status as a key figure in the Liberal Party, and having just lost the leadership race for that Party, Copps’ position as un-elected president of the NPC stands at odds with the tenets of a free press which mandates, at a minimum, a separation of political parties and government, on the one side, from the press on the other.
I have criticized the extent to which former Cabinet Ministers, Prime Ministers and other politicos occupy places across the boards of directors at the major telecom-media-internet companies in Canada. I’ve called this crony capitalism and an affront to the ideals of the press.
That a representative journalistic organization like the National Press Club would similarly provide sinecure for a party stalwart who now dabbles in journalism is likewise problematic. Tell me if I’m wrong, but “the Honourable Sheila Copps” as a signature on NPC letterhead creates the wrong optics for a press organization that is in the early throes of revival.
Third, it is not just that the optics are bad, but the actual practices within the so-called leadership. The actions of the President and her ‘executive committee’ are opaque, lack the guidance of rules, procedures and principles consistently applied – the Constitution notwithstanding. Meetings are held without notice, minutes, or indication of who participated, etc. and decisions dispensed from on high. Such practices are not acceptable on any board, least not that of an organization that purports to representat the interests of media workers and journalists committed to a well-functioning free press within a democratic society.
As things currently stand, the NPC – at the direction of the President and the so-called executive committee – sells access to ‘newsmakers’ to the NPC platform. Got $650? Well, line up behind the NPC podium to have your say.
The upshot is that it is those who pay and have interests to flog rather than any sense of newsworthiness and journalistic or public values that determines what events will be held. This makes the NPC look like a shill for monied interests versus a platform for intelligent discussion of the issues that now face us, as journalists and as Canadians
With these points in mind, please have a look at the following letter, and feel free to let me, the NPC or the President and her select members of the executive committee know what you think.
Stepping outside the board of directors like this is neither easy or fun. However, once I decided to accept my position on the board, I committed to doing the best I could and “the right thing”.
In the face of intransigent stone-walling for several public events that had strong backing from a majority of the board versus the ‘NPC as paid shill for monied interests’ events that have been held, and in the face of an executive hell-bent on not addressing such questions and ruling by fiat instead of open conversation and a sense of democratic decision-making, I felt that this ‘open letter’ was the best way to accomplish what needs to be done.
I offered to tender to my resignation should the majority of the board so desire two weeks ago. The offer still stands.
Dear Honourable Sheila Copps,
How unusual that you would convene a second meeting of the “executive committee” yesterday on the matter of the Glenn Greenwald event when one was just held on Tuesday by two other members of said committee to deal with the same matter. That two versions of the executive committee appear to have come to opposite conclusions is very odd.
May I also remind you that the executive comittee acting unilaterally to reverse the approval of what other of its members have approved is not only untoward, but it makes the NPC look amateurish and silly. Glenn Greenwald is a renowned journalist in the U.S. whose work appears regularly in the New York Times, L.A. Times, Washington Post and Slate and whose work on Wikileaks not only won him important awards for investigative journalism but also made him the target of a Bank of America-led dirty tricks campaign directed at those seen to be overly sympathetic to Wikileaks and Julian Assange.
The significance of Greenwald speaking in Ottawa is obvious and so it was not hard at all to drum up sponsorship for the event. Notably, the School of Journalism and Communication at Carleton University — one of Canada’s leading schools of its kind in Canada, if not the leading school — has enthusiastically lined up as a sponsor of the event. The CBC’s Power and Politics have also lined up an appearance by Greenwald on the show prior to his speaking engagement at St. Paul University on April 12th. Other journalists have lined up for interviews as well. Do you have special journalistic insights unavailable to these entities?
The approach taken to this event by myself and others who have supported me is more legitimate than the model the executive is trying to foist on the NPC as the only model: i.e. the NPC sells access to its platform for $650, a model which is outrageously out of step with what a serious journalistic organization is about but which makes the NPC look like a shill for whoever has the coin to promote their interests. In our alternative model, we invite people based on their merit and newsworthiness, then figure out how to raise sponsorship and other funding for the event once the majority of directors have agreed on it in principle.
Back to the Greenwald event: there were no grounds given for the approval of the event after last Tuesday’s meeting and none given for yesterday’s reversal of that decision. Indeed, there was no notice given to others on the board of either meeting, or any attempt to canvas members views, despite the fact that 9 of 16 directors approved an earlier iteration of the event that would have seen it as a stand-alone venture organized by the NPC.
Please explain how it is that the so-called executive of the NPC can meet twice in one week with no prior notice given to other board directors, come to completely opposite conclusions, and all without any announcement afterwards of the results, minutes from the meeting, etc. Also, pray tell, how it is that an illustrious institution that has been central to journalism in Canada for the last six decades — the School of Journalism and Communication — could see this as an event worthy of sponsorship, while the President of the NPC and a few of her hand picked nominees cannot?
May I remind you that you were appointed rather than elected as President of the NPC at the end of last year when the last person stood down, while many of the rest of us who are working our best to advance the rejuvenation and significance of the press club among journalists and other media professionals were elected. The National Press Club is not the plaything of either an unelected president or her handpicked appointees on the so-called executive committee.
The opaque means by which meetings are called, matters dispensed with and indeed who even attended such meetings is completely at odds with the values of an open press in an open society. A National Press Club unable to embody those values in its own operations is a travesty and a farce.
It is problematic enough that a person of high rank in one of the central political parties of this country — the Liberal Party in this case — occupies the position of President within a press club, an obvious violation of the basic liberal principle that a free press should stand independent of the political powers that be.
That you ply the dark arts of party politics in the matters of the press is completely unacceptable. That you and your hand-picked maidens on the so-called executive are abrogating to yourselves the authority to make and pronounce decisions from on high as if the rest of the board should fall in line underscores the wisdom of the Party/Press separation principle. And what strikes me as especially unseemly is the way in new which new positions have been created and funds allocated to those whose main credentials appear to be some kind of connection to the President and her executive.
In your previous, very limited correspondence on this matter you have pointed to the need for internal discipline and suggested that the two recent resignations from the board are a consequence of ’email overload’. Nothing can be further from the truth. Instead, when you try to rule from the top without legitimacy, rules or procedure, you will beget backlash amongst those who care. Some directors will understandably want to avoid cross-fire between a President and appointed executive bent on dictating things from the top, on the one side, and those who think there are values, principles and potential future for a reconstituted NPC worth fighting for, on the other.
You have called these kinds of things upon yourself and the NPC. I act in the best interests of the NPC and in my capacity as an elected and independent director.
I call for a meeting of all the directors to be held as soon as possible and to address the following matters:
- The need for all members of the NPC board of directors to be elected;
- The need, if any, for an ‘executive committee’ and, if there is to be one, the relationship between the executive and the rest of the board;
- Determining the proper procedures for nominating, selecting and holding events under NPC auspices.