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haliburton feud

They say you shouldn't pick a fight with an opponent who buys ink by the barrel.

For Conservative Barry Devolin, that means shutting out a local weekly newspaper after the Liberals appointed the paper's managing editor as their candidate in the Ontario riding of Haliburton-Kawartha Lakes-Brock.

While candidates and the weekly newspapers who cover them often clash over content, it's unusual for a candidate to boycott a media outlet pre-emptively. That's particularly true in rural ridings where small papers are an important advertising vehicle for candidates, because the papers are delivered to thousands of doorsteps.

Mr. Devolin's decision to avoid the County Voice completely - no comments for news stories, no money for advertisements - has fueled conspiracy theories in the riding, with the publisher leading the charge by insisting the Tory incumbent's move is part of a wider national Conservative policy of shutting out media outlets that don't publish favourable coverage.

"It's virtually unprecedented in the history of Canadian journalism for a powerful federal party to use its power to deny a small independent paper's employees their right to work and their right to pursue their craft," publisher Stephen Patrick wrote in an editorial posted to the paper's website.

While it's not uncommon for journalists to run for elected office, many news organizations have policies limiting employees' political activities. The CBC forbids its journalists from running, while the Canadian Press warns employees not to engage in public activities that could "reflect negatively" on them.

In 2010, the Canadian Association of Journalists put out a paper cautioning against running for public office while employed as a journalist, saying "it is important to strive to preserve the integrity of the ideal - even if it may sometimes mean voluntarily surrendering some personal freedoms."

Where policies aren't written, it is generally understood that a journalist should take a leave of absence. Laura Redman, the Liberal candidate vying for Mr. Devolin's seat, said she decided to run in January, but stayed on the job until the election was called because she needed the money and was able to remain objective despite the impending nomination.

"I was conscientious and didn't have anything to do with coverage of the Conservatives," she said. "But I make $500 a week - I need that job to feed my kids. I've been a social issues reporter for a long time, so I would think by now people know where my sensibilities lie anyway."

Any attempt to portray his decision as anything other than a one-off move intended to limit potential damage during a short election campaign is nonsense, Mr. Devolin said.

"How can a candidate reasonably expect to have a chance for fair treatment when the managing editor is a Liberal candidate?" Mr. Devolin said Tuesday. "I decided to take a pass. Quite frankly, I did it to sidestep controversy - I didn't want to get into a situation where I'm mad at them for not covering me fairly."

Joe Banks - co-ordinator of the journalism program at Algonquin College and a long-time veteran of community news - said the country's 700-plus community newspapers have a vital role to play in Canada's political life.

But the ad revenue that once flowed from party coffers to small papers has largely dried up as advertising moves online and candidates find other ways to engage voters. For example, Mr. Devolin said he spent $309.75 on advertising at the County Voice through 2008's election.

"But even so, the idea that any publisher should think they have a God-given right to anyone's money is absurd," Mr. Banks said. "That's definitely something they may have wanted to think about before letting the editor run as a Liberal candidate. We live in a free and democratic society, but I'd suggest she screwed up by not stepping down sooner. "

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