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COLUMN: Government and fourth estate are partners in healthy democracy

The hallmark of the fourth estate is that it scrutinizes the actions of public officials and political institutions in the interest of the public.
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Columnist John Liston (October 2021)

I’ll take “What is preaching to the converted?” for a thousand, Alex.

The value of professional journalism is on trial these days, and the question is whether people do indeed want to be informed.

The simple answer is yes. News consumption is at an all-time high. Break it down, however, and the answer becomes much more complex. Informed about what? The facts, or alternative facts? About what they already believe, or what is the truth, and by whom? Professional journalists or movie actors, sports celebrities, or influencers? Their Twitter feed or Lisa Laflamme, the CTV news anchor? 

I have watched with interest as St. Albert city council has made a significant shift in how they choose to inform their stakeholders of their decisions.

Public participation and engagement is key to informed municipal decision making, and as of October 2017, the Municipal Government Act (MGA) requires municipalities to develop a public participation policy. These policies must be publicly available and must identify how local governments will approach public participation and engagement. 

The fourth estate — a term that usually refers to the press or the media, comprising journalists, photographers, radio announcers, and broadcasters — should be a key part of government engagement strategies. The hallmark of the fourth estate is that it scrutinizes the actions of public officials and political institutions in the interest of the public, serving as a watchdog that holds the other three estates (the legislation, the executive, and the judiciary) accountable for their actions. This is not a sign of distrust, but rather a component of democracy. 

For decades, our community has followed the model in which the journalist provided accountability by reporting the news at city hall, amongst other community reporting. Businesses advertised in the paper to provide exposure for their services, while at the same time providing revenue for the paper. Municipalities were required to advertise their information in the paper, which again provided accountability and revenue for the reporting of the news.

This healthy tension between the press gallery and city administration is for good reason; both depend on each other to do their jobs properly. They help keep each other relevant and thriving — partners in democracy. 

We have been through city managers who have suggested if the press and the public wanted information, they could fill out a freedom of information and protection of privacy (FOIP) request. We have had a council and administration who have chosen, at times, to minimize their use of the free press and attempt to control the message to their stakeholder public. These are both damaging to democracy.

I am encouraged by the hiring of the new city manager Bill Fletcher. Fletcher holds a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering and a masters of defense studies focused on government strategy and policy. He will understand the importance of the fourth estate in democracy, and I hope we see a much better relationship with all stakeholders. 

As Thomas Jefferson said, “Whenever the people are well informed, they can be trusted with their own government.” 

John Liston is a St. Albert resident active in our business and charity communities.