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LETTER: Media independence vs. government handout

The Post, a historical political film from 2017, dramatized the Washington Post newspaper's decision to publish portions of the Pentagon Papers despite the federal government’s attempts to prevent it. The Papers detailed the futility of the Vietnam War, continued under the administrations of four presidents. While trying to prevent the release of those documents, in all probability, would have been the response of all four, Nixon for the most part shouldered the responsibility in the film.

Highly acclaimed by the Hollywood elite and critics alike, The Post was heralded as underlining the urgent need for the continued independence of the press as a check on government. Not only in the age of Nixon, but in the age of Trump.

As coincidence would have it, at the same time the Washington Post was undergoing financial difficulty necessitating its transition from a family-owned to a publicly traded company. The persons at the company responsible for the transition urgently advised that the share offering might collapse if the Papers were published. Under extreme pressure, the head of family, at the very last moment, with a considerable deal of trepidation, opted for publication. Only then did the bulk of the media follow suit.

Imagine for a moment, if the federal government under Nixon was the entity that would have injected the funds for the Washington Post's survival rather than private investors. Would the Pentagon Papers have been published under that new scenario? The answer in this case is less important than the fact that it would need to be asked.

We have been told for decades, rather centuries, that the media's independence is vital to democracy. So vital, that their independence is written into the constitutions of major democracies. Were we lied to? Media dependence on government handouts is another story, a modern story. A story of who should survive, who they are important enough to to make a sitting government willing to support them, and what they owe to the sitting government that makes their survival possible. When they reach that stage their demise is a public service, rather than their survival being a public necessity.

The monetary life jacket thrown to local publishers (that are for the most part, or will be, bits of large conglomerates) in the new budget tabled by our Liberal government should not require rejection by the official opposition. Nor is public rejection in order. An independent media should be leading the charge themselves. Time will tell if they are content to be hollow words on dusty, forgotten, constitutional documents.

Al Muir


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