Saturday, May 17, 2008

Mr. Steyn, and a demand for "accurate news and information"

Since Mark Steyn has been brought before the B.C. and Canadian human rights tribunals, I have read the demands of those who wanted the government to punish Mr. Steyn for his opinions expressed in Maclean's. The complainants continue to demand that Maclean's not only guarantee their right of reply, but that the B.C. or Canadian Human Rights Commission also give them editorial control over that section of the magazine that will publish their response.

Maclean's has declined to give in on the matter. The complainants' request to dictate what Maclean's will publish remains key to their demands, as in a "compromise" a few weeks ago, they offered to drop their human rights complaints if only Maclean's would print what they wanted. Maclean's, evidently fearing setting a precedent that a compulsory "right of reply" would be seen as a "reasonable" settlement or punishment in future cases such as this, continues to stand its ground. So, a provincial and federal government body may soon dictate what will be published in a magazine.

All along, I have been thinking that I have seen a similar demand for "accurate news and information" by government order. Something similar being the infamous Alberta "Accurate News and Information Act", the "Press Gag Bill" passed by the Aberhart Socreds in 1937 to stop press criticism of the government.

If I read the Supreme Court of Canada's decision to set aside the legislation correctly, the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal--which starts its hearings on Mr. Steyn's writings on June 2--is wasting its time, as questions relating to provincial government regulation of press content have been ruled "ultra vires"--beyond the power of a provincial government (let alone an informal provincial body, such as a human rights council) to rule on.

If nothing else, I hope that what happened then may provide Mr. Steyn and his friends with a useful moral precedent, as we look at some of the details of what happened then and how I think they may relate to what is happening now.

Mr. Steyn and his allies will no doubt be pleased to know that even the Canadian Human Rights Commission recognizes the decision to set aside the "Press Gag" legislation as the first case to give freedom of speech a "measure of constitutional protection.". The ongoing relevance of the case to freedom of speech has led the Alberta government to set up a useful website on the case for history teachers, where I found many of the documents that I will be quoting.

The first thing that stands out to me in the Act is the extensive outline of how a Social Credit Party official could require a newspaper to print, verbatim, what the government demanded ("...such statement shall be given the same prominence as to position, type and space as the statement corrected thereby..."). Other provisos included a requirement that a newspaper name all its anonymous sources upon demand. Punishments included fines and gave the government power to suspend publication of a newspaper, or to ban a particular person from writing for the newspaper.

Early in 1938, five out of six Supreme Court justices ruled that such powers were "ultra vires" to a provincial government, in addition to being contrary to British traditions of freedom of speech. Wouldn't it logically follow, in a precedent setting sense, that a body subservient to a provincial government, such as the B.C.Human Rights Council, can't have the power to compel Maclean's to publish a "corrective" statement with "..the same prominence as to position, type and space as the statement corrected thereby..."?

I wonder if Mr. Steyn's lawyers will be telling the B.C. Human Rights officials, "The remedy asked for by the complainants has already been ruled 'ultra-vires' in a similar case and we expect that if you order such relief that the courts will override your decision." Of course, I can imagine a Human Rights adjudicator doing the bureaucratic equivalent of rearing up and crying out "Pay no attention to the legal precedent behind the curtain! I am Oz!". But, such a direct precedent should prove telling. The operative word here being "should".

Mr. Steyn's friends may note that, at the time, outrage against the "Press Control Bill" was so widespread that an October 2, 1937 Edmonton Journal story quoted Elmer E. Roper, editor of The People's Weekly "and long prominent in labour and C.C.F. ranks here", speaking against the legislation. They may ask why the left is so silent now.

William Aberhart, then premier of Alberta and a guiding force behind the legislation, made an argument for the legislation that would sound familiar to modern ears in some ways. Press abuses, he argued in a June 5, 1937 radio speech over the CBC, demanded to be treated with "rigid discipline", as it would be that fall when the Accurate News and Information Act was passed:

(Aberhart begins his argument)

....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…

After some thought I am inclined to agree with Walter Lippman, who a decade ago wrote that the crisis of democracy is a crisis in journalism.

It seems to me that in the decade which has passed, this crisis of democracy has been followed by decadence instead of recovery, and it is feared that the so-called free Press is rapidly dying, and its freedom with it.

I am wondering if we should not do everything in our power to revive it and restore its freedom.

If anything is to be done to restore the press to its proper place in the public consciousness, we must consider wherein its weaknesses lie, and prescribe some form of rigid discipline that will enable these weaknesses to be removed…

…I propose to summarize [the weakness of the modern press] under four headings:

1. Commercial
It is claimed that newspaper standards are too often determined by a preponderant desire for circulation, which is so basic to large advertising returns.

2. Patronage
Most newspapers today are subservient to local political machines, and therefore colour their news items in accordance with the propaganda of the political party supporting them. The policies of the paper are therefore intended for the welfare of the party, and not for the welfare of the community.

3. News and Moral Values
Dean Ackerman declares that news values of many papers are often superficial and trivial. Headlines frequently do not correctly reveal the facts nor the tenor of the article. A great majority of the reporters are quite inaccurate when reporting interviews, and it is not an uncommon thing to find that news and photographs even are falsified.

4.Social and Educational
Too many of our citizens have learned by experience that the newspaper violates the individual right of privacy.

Newspapers unhesitatingly make heroes of criminals by glowing accounts of wrongdoing, vice and the sordid details of lust and violence…

This discussion is hardly complete without the further consideration of some means which might accomplish such a result but my time is up. Thank you, Ladies and Gentlemen.....

(Aberhart concludes)

I can hear a similar argument being made today. The public needs to be "protected" from the evil press owned by "a large corporation", who insist on individual rights at the expense of the "welfare of the community generally". The press needs to be "corrected", so it is more "accurate".

Mr. Aberhart arguments could perhaps have been made, in more modern terminology, by Mr. Steyn's opponents. Instead of being protected from tawdry accounts of lust and crime, for example, the modern public instead needs to be protected from "racism" and "Islamophobia."

Students of Alberta history, by the way, will recall that Aberhart's friends were not paragons of journalistic virtue. In a "government-sponsored" pamphlet, nine of Aberhart's political opponents were dubbed "Banker's Toadies". The authors of the pamphlet wrote "Exterminate them!". Not having the power to pass an "Accurate News and Information Act", these victims sued for libel instead, proceeding to a court which had rules to protect the rights of both sides in the case, when deciding whether the pamphlet had been a appropriate use of free speech.

Summing up, Mr. Steyn, being a fan of older forms of American music, may no doubt understand what I mean when I note, in the words of the big band tune, "It seems I've heard this song before."

We may have difficulty appealing, as the Supreme Court of Canada did when striking down the Accurate News and Information Act, to the notion that, as people who inherited "British" notions of freedom of the press, citizens should not have to tolerate government restrictions on press freedom.

We can however, point to what happened to the "Press Gag Bill", and note that protecting freedom of speech from mischief-minded governments and their minions has always been a Canadian value. I wish Mr. Steyn well in doing so.