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Monday, November 24, 2008

When Richard Moon channels Premier Aberhart

While conservatives may applaud the suggestion of constitutional law expert Richard Moon to the Canadian Human Rights Commission--that the infamous Section 13 of the Canadian Human Rights Act be either amended or dumped--they may be failing to see the snake in the grass, coiled to strike.

Professor Moon argues that, in order for the revised Section 13 to work, there must be stronger press councils:

Newspapers and news magazines should seek to revitalize the provincial/regional press councils and ensure that identifiable groups are able to pursue complaints if they feel they have been unfairly represented in mainstream media.

If this does not happen, consideration should be given to the statutory creation of a national press council with compulsory membership. This national press council would have the authority to determine whether a newspaper or magazine has breached professional standards and order the publication of the press council’s decision.

A newspaper is not simply a private participant in public discourse; it is an important part of the public sphere where discussions about the affairs of the community takes place. As such it carries a responsibility to portray the different groups that make up the Canadian community fairly and without discrimination.

It would not matter if Section 13 of the CHRA is changed, or even dropped entirely, if the media has been taught to censor itself. The Canadian Human Rights Commssion could primly twiddle its thumbs as these press councils, fearing the return of Section 13, lean on the errant publication (which would have to fear the possibility of having to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to defend itself if a "press council" hearing held the same weight as the recent B.C. human rights case involving Mark Steyn). The press councils will be the "bad cop', the CHRC the "good cop".

Press councils or "anti-hate" phone lines would not stop frivolous complaints. The concerns of the friends of the accused--that legal standards of evidence and fairness apply--would be as likely not to apply in a Press Council hearing, as it would not before a human rights tribunal. As a private body, the council could even hold its hearings and decision making in secret. How many decisions of your provincial press council have you seen covered in your local media, let alone criticized? How likely is it that a newspaper overseen by a provincial press council would dare to make a record of assailing the council's decisions, praying that its luck will hold and that it would not have to appear before that same council itself?

If the press councils do not embrace their new role, membership in a national press council would be made "compulsory".  How likely is it, given who tends to make up the staff of press outlets these days, that they would be sympathetic to a conservative point of view? How easy would it be to stop a "problem" before its starts by denying membership in a national press council to a conservative media outlet, or only granting it if a controversial columnist is sacked (or reassigned to editing the classifieds)?

The fact that membership in a national press council could be made compulsory implies that Mr. Moon may want to make sure that someone regulates and perhaps censors the press. He just has offered the CHRC a way not to sully its skirts with it.

It's better that the press regulate itself, I agree. But self-regulation may have unintended consequences. I've recently read The Ten Cent Plague, a book on the controversy surrounding whether American comic books were a bad influence on children in the early 1950s. Following government hearings and local comic bans, the comics book industry decided to regulate itself with a strict code of what could and what could not be published. The poor taste and adults-only elements did disappear from the comics, but at the same time, a thriving industry was damaged, as hundreds of comics folded. The author of the book lists dozens of comic writers and artists who were thrown out of work forever. (One wonders if 50 years from now, if a climate of severe self-regulation of the press takes hold, whether another author will write a book on the conservative writers, editors and columnists that lost their jobs when the publication was denied a license, or folded when the publisher decided that the struggle was too onerous to continue.)

The fact that Professor Moon advances the following argument is ominous to me:

A newspaper is not simply a private participant in public discourse; it is an important part of the public sphere where discussions about the affairs of the community takes place. As such it carries a responsibility to portray the different groups that make up the Canadian community fairly and without discrimination.

At first glance, it would seem reasonable that freedom of the press should be regulated for the public benefit, but then I remembered an earlier post that I wrote about the Mark Steyn case. Before introducing the Accurate News and Information Act, a bill that would have allowed the Alberta government to censor the press had it not been overturned, as ultra vires, by the Supreme Court of Canada.

In June 1937, Alberta Premier William Aberhart, speaking to a CBC radio audience about the need for the press legilsation, argued that it was in the public interest to make sure that freedom of the press was not abused by bad corporations:

....But life today is complex. It is no longer merely individualistic or paternal. People have combined into a state, and the individualistic law of the liberty of the jungle no longer can be maintained in its entirety. The state refuses to allow the Britisher to inflict inhuman cruelty upon his wife, his children or even his domestic animals. Civil liberty therefore is a freedom limited by laws established for the welfare of the community generally or of the state as a whole, rather than of the individual.

I conclude therefore that modern liberty lies in the freedom of the individual from selfish control, duress, fear or exploitation inflicted by another or others. If an autocrat, or a plutocrat, or a large corporation controls, directs or regiments the actions of any individual or number of individuals without their consent, these latter have to that extent lost their liberty in the true sense of the word…

It's for your own good that the press be censored--whether it was silencing Aberhart's critics back in the 1930s, or promoting racial tolerance today.

It would be far better for the CHRC and its advisors to instead decide that Canadians are adults, and are well able to discern the truth and validilty of what they read and hear.   

Posted by Rick Hiebert on November 24, 2008 in Freedom of expression | Permalink


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Great post, Rick. I should know better than to get excited about the possible scaling back of government powers.

Moon is no friend of free speech and expression it appears.

Posted by: Matthew Johnston | 2008-11-24 10:45:07 PM

Such ideas as Moon's are disturbing and frightening. Compulsory membership in a press council takes any and all control out of the hands of the owners of the media outlet in question. It is a fascist response and we have a duty to respond with the strongest rhetoric possible. Public ridicule of Moon's stance would be a wonderful way to respond.

Posted by: DML | 2008-11-24 11:09:43 PM

Excellent, Rick. I also did not see Moon's report all that encouraging. When examined closer, it appears that his recommendation to repeal Section 13 is a smoke screen to throw people off the scent, for the report taken on a whole does nothing to rein in this bureaucratic monster.

Posted by: Alain | 2008-11-24 11:44:42 PM

Democracy is served best by a free press, and dissoved when the press does not confine it's freedom with the guidelines of fairness. It presupposes the journalist will adheres to the Ten Commandments built into the Common Law. Anything else descends from civilization to the jungle from whence it was spawned. I agree with Chesterton's when he said about the newspaper editor of his day, " He regards himself far too much as a kind of original artist, who can select and supress facts with the arbitrary ease of a poet or a caricaturist. He "makes up" the paper as man "makes up" a fairy tale, he considers his newspaper solely as a work of art, meant to give pleasure, not to give news."

Posted by: Larry Heather | 2008-11-25 10:10:50 PM

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