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Public Editor Sylvia Stead responds to readers and gives a behind-the-scenes look

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Prime Minister Stephen Harper is not immune from criticism. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)
Prime Minister Stephen Harper is not immune from criticism. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Public editor: Why endorsing Harper doesn’t mean not criticizing him Add to ...

This month, The Globe and Mail’s editorial page published an unprecedented five-part series calling on Prime Minister Stephen Harper to kill the Fair Elections Act. The editorial board argued that the bill, if adopted as is, will harm the foundation of our democracy, undermine the electoral process, reduce voting rights and expand the role of money in politics.

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I heard from a caller who said he stopped reading The Globe and Mail a few years ago after the editorial board backed Mr. Harper for the job of Prime Minister. The caller believed that meant The Globe’s news coverage and editorial stand would be pro-Conservative. He was surprised to hear that the paper’s editorials had taken such a strong stand against the leader it had supported, and said he would give the paper another chance.

What the caller is forgetting is that the media’s role is to question authority, to hold power to account without favour. That includes government, opposition parties, candidates for political office, bureaucrats, corporations and many others. An election endorsement doesn’t stop the editorial board from criticizing anything the endorsed party or government subsequently does.

(It’s worth noting that the editorial board is separate from the news operation and in no way affects news coverage; the church-and-state separation is a principle in The Globe’s code of conduct.)

Political and news reporters have been called “the unofficial opposition” because they ask the tough questions elected officials would prefer to ignore. They continue to press Parti Québécois Leader Pauline Marois on sovereignty even though she is trying to change the channel. In Toronto, journalists have made repeated efforts, including a running scrum, to extract an answer from Mayor Rob Ford about newly released court documents. Alberta reporters dogged the recently resigned premier, Alison Redford, about taxpayer-funded expenses.

Holding power to account also means challenging and correcting statements that reporters know are wrong. When Mr. Ford says he has saved the city $1-billion through efficiencies, Toronto City Hall columnist Marcus Gee makes a point of challenging that number with the facts. The columnist also compares Mr. Ford’s statements on strikes and unemployment rates with the numbers. And that should be done with every politician.

I have heard from readers who complain that The Globe is “anti-Ford,” but challenging the mayor is exactly what Mr. Gee and the newspaper’s reporters should be doing. This is the role of the media in a democracy: to think, to challenge, to question, to include the facts and not just to accept what is said. And to do it regardless of which party or leader is in power.

What has changed is that the media like The Globe are no longer a voice from the mountaintop. These days, Globe reporters’ questions are often informed by you through online comments, tweets – especially those directed to @globeandmail or @globepolitics – and letters to the editor.

One reader this week implored The Globe to do more investigative journalism. “What happened to the concept of newspapers being the crusaders for the public good, the champions of the people’s need to know, the exposer of scandals, the investigative reporter on skulduggery?” the reader asked in an online comment.

She or he is right that more can be done. It is a great responsibility to be “the champions of the people’s need to know.”

 

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