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Endangered Free Speech

Eroded by 9-11 fears and anal retentive pussyfooters.

By Rafe Mair 23 Oct 2006 |

Rafe Mair writes a Monday column for The Tyee. His website is

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We're censored, and self-censoring

I'm inspired this week by an article by Timothy Garton Ash in The Guardian Weekly: "The struggle to defend free expression is defining our age." If you don't subscribe to this paper, I recommend that you do.

As Ash points out, free speech is under attack all over the world, including, sadly, the birthplaces and repositories of the notion, Britain and America. If we were important enough to be noticed, he could have added Canada as well.

Before I go further, while I was shut down by the mainstream media, gradually but permanently (much including the national press), I make these remarks without any personal bitterness.

I had about 25 years of uncontested free speech mostly at CKNW when it was owned by the WIC Corporation, which, from top to bottom, defended broadcasters no matter how inconvenient their free speech might be. Very few people have been so lucky.

When the new bean counter in charge fired large numbers of loyal, decent men and women, and I commented, in Wilde's words, that CKNW now knew "the cost of everything and the value of nothing," I knew that I would soon be toast. I didn't but should have seen the shabby way they went about it.

I have now embarked on career number five and am having the time of my life helping the chiropractic profession get a faculty at a degree granting university, writing for this paper and the Metro Valley Group, bastions of free speech, doing political stuff for the CBC and regular, three-a-week editorial for Omni TV, Channel 10 whose management (so far) is like that of the CKNW of old.

Three realms of free speech

I think the issue of restriction of free speech can be divided into three areas that often slop into one another.

First there is that which incites violence. I know of no one who would argue that "kill the Jews," "let's go burn a synagogue" or "destroy a Sikh temple" qualifies as free speech. Troubling, of course, are those who use free speech tendentiously by cloaking themselves in words of liberty while any reasonable inference to be drawn from what they say or write cries out for violence. The sort of speech that, like the old saying, urges "for God's sake don't throw him in the duck pond." This area demands much more space than I have today but even here I would err on the side of free speech if only because the late Doug Collins, James Keegstra and Ernst Zundel couldn't have survived without the publicity given them by the media by reason of well-meaning howls of anguish from groups like the Canadian Jewish Congress.

Second, there is criticism of authority. In the United States, under the rule of the Solomon v. New York Times case, damages will not lie against a critic unless the words were wrong, harmful and malicious. This rule doesn't apply in the U.K. and Canada, meaning that people in power do very well indeed in defamation suits.

Thirdly there is the insult, an almost a dead art because of political correctness spawned by an unrestricted zeal to curtail that which might encourage violence. Here we find ourselves being censured by the "proper" sort of people -- in Denny Boyd's wonderful phrase "higher purpose persons" -- and censored by a media that is afraid to offend. Far too often that fear of offending isn't so much because the average Canadian is afraid to go outside the bounds of political correctness as it is media's kow-towing to politicians (about which, more in a moment).

Art of the insult

The insult, once an art form, was perfected, of course, by Churchill. Speaking in the Commons one day, he looked at Prime Minister Ramsay Macdonald and said, "I was as a child, one day taken to P. T. Barnum's celebrated circus, (and) the exhibit on the programme which I most desired to see was the one described as 'The Boneless Wonder.' My parents judged that that spectacle would be too revolting and demoralizing for my youthful eyes, and I have waited 50 years to see the boneless wonder sitting on the Treasury Bench."

He also said of Macdonald that he had, more than any other man, the gift of "compressing the largest amount of words into the smallest amount of thought."

One night at dinner he was seated next to the formidable Labour MP Bessie Braddock with whom he was having a heated exchange. Exasperated, she said, "Mr. Churchill, you are drunk."

"And you, madam, are ugly," Churchill replied. "But I shall be sober tomorrow."

He once said of Clement Attlee that he was a "modest little man with a great deal to be modest about" and though he denied saying it, it's a hell of a good insult, which is Churchillian to the core.

John Montagu, Earl of Sandwich, once said to the great beacon of free speech, John Wilkes, "Egad sir, I do not know whether you will die on the gallows or of the pox."

Wilkes replied, "That will depend, my Lord, on whether I embrace your principles or your mistress."

You get the point.

The last half-decent insult (and it was no more than that) was the irrepressible John Crosbie saying to that monstrous pain in the ass Sheila Copps, "Pass the tequila, Sheila, lay down and love me again." All Hell broke loose, Crosbie was forced to apologize and Copps ran her grievances into a book.

9-11 fallout

So where is this all going? you might ask.

Our liberties, especially since 9-11, are being systematically eroded by a government bent on protecting us by banishing nail clippers and a small tube of crazy glue from airplanes. (Yes that happened to me, making me wonder if I was seen as someone running through the cabin brandishing a one-inch nail file while shouting "death to the infidels," then crazy-gluing the pilot to his chair.)

But the bigger threat by far is the media. Ownership of many radio stations and all TV networks by the same people who own newspaper chains means that newspapers, for the first time in this country, must be nice to the government or risk losing licenses to telecast, or not having them granted or renewed. This means that virtually all media outlets in Canada pull their punches when dealing with government. Thus freedom of the press is circumscribed by rules that don't need to be stated but which result in criticism of the government being blunted by the practical need for government largesse.

Anal retentive

I once was asked to contribute an article for the Ryerson School of Journalism so I wrote it on "free speech." I closed by warning students that when they graduated and went into the media they would self-censor or be censored. I was advised that the article was "unsuitable" and was asked to do a different one! If you wonder how an article on free speech can be unsuitable, marvel as well at how much money outfits like CanWest pour into journalism schools. And then ask yourself: how is it that perhaps the number-one journalism school in the country censors an article on free speech?

We have wound up with an anally retentive country that gets only censored news and, to make matters infinitely worse, censors itself for fear of being seen as politically correct. We are a nation of pussyfooters and, sad to say, we may like it that way. Where we once had people like Marjorie Nichols, Allan Fotheringham, Jack Webster and Pat Burns, Ed Murphy, Jack Wasserman, a full time Jim Hume and Allan Garr on the provincial scene and, dare I say it, Rafe Mair, truly holding Victoria's feet to the fire, we now have "on the one hand, on the other hand" radio and a print media that is but a shadow of its former self.

Canada has "free speech" provided that it falls within the boundaries of what the establishment considers reasonable dissent.

In that world, there is little room for courageous journalism and we should all understand that.

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