Letters to the editor are a key part of a Free Press!
On the path that Brunswick News has chosen, researchers in this province could soon have precious little basis on which to write the history of the province.
Furthermore, Brunswick News (BN), has failed in a current example to uphold the obligation of newspapers to publish letters to the editor, including ones it disagrees with. As a former editor of a small New Brunswick newspaper, I can attest that this is a vital obligation.
There are, of course, some incendiary letters, ones that advocate violence or are in bad taste, for which exceptions can be made. In other cases, severely limited space could also be claimed. But there is no good reason to refuse to publish a letter solely because it expresses a different opinion from that of the newspaper. The example being cited in this column shows that freedom of the press for the writers of letters to the editor is being put in danger in New Brunswick.
An acceptance of this obligation is even more important in New Brunswick where an English language newspaper monopoly exists.
Dr. David Frank, a Professor Emeritus in Canadian History at the University of New Brunswick objects strongly to BN’s Nov. 10 announcement that access to the extensive digital archive of back issues “will no longer be available.”
In this digital age, the content of items online is vital for researchers to do their work. Without this, historians cannot achieve the in-depth and accurate contribution they feel compelled to make. The age is past when efficient researchers can use press clippings, or even microfilm, to access the raw materials they need to do their job. It is important to keep in mind that the digital archives for which BN has had stewardship go back well into the 19th century, long before the Irvings or Postmedia arrived on the newspaper scene.
In a letter to my Blog, Against the Flow, Dr. Frank said he was struck by “how casually” this situation has been treated by Brunswick News. On Nov. 16, he wrote a letter to the editor of The Telegraph Journal, one BN’s newspapers. “I might reasonably have expected to see it published, or at least have a response from Brunswick News explaining why it was not publishable.’’
Dr. Frank notes that on December 1, Brunswick News subscribers received a notice acknowledging that there had been some expressions of concern and they wished to assure subscribers that digital access to the archives would not be lost. Dr. Frank remains concerned, asking “will there be added cost to users beyond the subscriptions they are already paying, or will we have free public access to this historical resource?”
Dr. Frank further asks: “Did anyone even think about this issue before pulling the plug? Perhaps the most surprising thing about this latest notice is, again, how casual it sounds. It is signed simply “Digital Services,” as if no actual editors at Brunswick News were involved in the decisions. And perhaps they were not, and (they) are too embarrassed to take responsibility and speak directly to subscribers, if not all readers.”
In 2022, this writer published the book, Wires Crossed, which argued strongly against the then Irving monopoly of New Brunswick’s English language press. There was a hint in my book that the acquisition of the Irving newspapers by Postmedia (owners of Brunswick News) might yield some improvement.
A veteran journalist and a colleague of mine warned at that time: “Be careful what you wish for.” Is my colleague now being proven correct, at least about the erosion of the basis for New Brunswick’s written history, and the right of writers of letters to the editor to have their letters published, even if the opinions in those letters are contrary to the views of the newspaper?
Brunswick News still has an opportunity to rescue this situation by developing an acceptable, no-cost way of conserving the digital material it gathers online. After all, it is clearly in the public domain. Also, will BN provide a fool proof undertaking to publish letters that are clearly acceptable and are a vital part of the free press in a civilized society?