Justin Trudeau's Sun Media boycott called short-sighted

Federal Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau's decision to boycott Sun Media over an "offensive" rant by one of its TV personalities is short-sighted, experts say, and may have Canadians questioning his open government stance.

Sun Media host Ezra Levant's rant was 'offensive,' Trudeau's camp says

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau is refusing to speak with Sun Media until the company responds to his allegation it aired an 'offensive' attack against his family. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Federal Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau's decision to boycott Sun Media over an "offensive" rant by one of its TV personalities is short-sighted, experts say, and may have Canadians questioning his open government stance.

In a segment aired last week, The Source host Ezra Levant criticized Trudeau for a photo taken and tweeted by his official photographer that showed the party leader kissing a bride on the cheek on her wedding day. Levant made a the-apple-doesn't-fall-far-from-the-tree analogy, calling Trudeau's father, former prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, a "slut" and his mother, Margaret Trudeau not "much different."

On Tuesday, Trudeau announced he would no longer speak with any reporters from Sun Media — a conglomerate owning 36 daily newspapers, six free dailies and nearly 200 other publications — until its parent company, Québécor Inc., responds to the "offensive" TV segment that "breached any reasonable measure of editorial integrity," according to a statement from his spokeswoman, Kate Purchase. The ban does not apply to Québécor's French-language outlets, she later clarified to CBC News.

'Wrong sort of signal' 

"It's sending the wrong sort of signal about the type of government [the Liberals] would want to run if they were elected," says Christopher Waddell, an associate professor at Carleton University's school of journalism and communication.

The current Canadian government, under Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper's leadership, has been "pretty broadly criticized" for its lack of communication and secrecy, he said.

Justin Trudeau's official photographer, Adam Scotti, took and tweeted this photo of the Liberal leader during a wedding party on Sept. 13. (Adam Scotti/Twitter)
This week, Harper was criticized for being more open with information with the United Nations and Americans than with Parliament back in Ottawa. In contrast, Trudeau's attempted to establish himself near the opposite end of the open government spectrum, advocating for increased accessibility to government dealings for Canadians.

"Here you have the politician who's advocating, who's building his entire pitch for the next election on the promise of being more open and engaging — and yet, he's turning his back on an entire media chain," says Simon Kiss, an associate professor of journalism and leadership at Wilfrid Laurier University.

The situation demonstrates how empty open government promises are, he says, because "they don't actually mean anything.

Boycotts usually 'short-sighted and foolish'

Trudeau's not the first politician to take issue with a news organization.

Toronto mayoral candidate John Tory recently refused to answer questions from the Globe and Mail. The cause of that dispute has yet to be disclosed. Prior to that, Toronto Mayor Rob Ford avoided speaking with the Toronto Star after disagreeing with their portrayal of him.

"I don't think it's ever a good idea for politicians or anyone to say they won't talk to a whole news organization based on what one person might be doing," says Waddell.

"It's short-sighted and foolish on the part of most people that do it."

Trudeau and other politicians have three better options when presented with an unflattering story, he explains. They can:

  • Take legal action if the piece is slanderous or libellous.
  • Contact the reporter.
  • Air their grievances with the reporter's boss, going as far up the management hierarchy as they feel the need to.

​Waddell says those are "much more traditional and,at the same time, probably smarter approaches" to banning an entire media empire, which for Trudeau sets "a bad precedent" for how he would run his government if elected.

Kiss, who once served as the Alberta NDP's communications director, says sometimes it's best to do nothing at all.

He recalls a situation in the late 1990s when a newspaper editorial called the NDP's provincial party leader a traitor over their position on free trade deals. He and the party ultimately decided to ignore it because they felt there was little to gain from a boycott or complaint.

"It's tough to win [in] conflicts with the press simply because they often have the last word," Kiss says. "They do have the last word."

'The public will decide' who's right

While it would be "a bit of a dangerous game" if politicians frequently refused certain outlets any access, it's important to recognize that everyone is entitled to determine how much negative press they're willing to put up with, wrote Emmett Macfarlane, a University of Waterloo political science assistant professor, in a blog post for the Institute for Research on Public Policy.

Can we imagine a scenario where a lot of people would see a boycott as legitimate? I think so.- Emmett Macfarlane, a University of Waterloo political science assistant professor

For Trudeau, Levant's nearly five-minute-long rant went too far.

"Is a boycott the best response to that? I don't know," Macfarlane told CBC News. "But can we imagine a scenario where a lot of people would see a boycott as legitimate? I think so."

While all three media watchers agree that this won't become a hotly debated issue ahead of the federal election, ultimately voters will decide what type of government they want.

"I think it really is a matter that the public will decide ... whether they think it's Sun News that has crossed some sort of line here or whether Justin Trudeau's being unfair," says Macfarlane.