Shooting the messenger

Should government be allowed to gag the media when reporting offends special interest groups?
Denyse O'Leary | Sep 8 2009 | comment  

NewspaperShould government censor news to avoid social conflict?

Yes, according to some.

In Canada recently, that idea was tested when Islamists got Canada's Mark Steyn and Maclean's magazine charged by human rights commissions in several jurisdictions for alleged hate speech in connection with an article about the significance of large-scale immigration of Muslims to the West ("The future belongs to Islam", October 20, 2006, an excerpt from America Alone: the End of the World As We Know It.

Steyn was blunt about the outcome of high birth rates, characteristic of current Muslim communities, vs. low birthrates, characteristic of current post-Christian ones: "On the Continent and elsewhere in the West, native populations are aging and fading and being supplanted remorselessly by a young Muslim demographic. Time for the obligatory of courses: of course, not all Muslims are terrorists -- though enough are hot for jihad to provide an impressive support network of mosques from Vienna to Stockholm to Toronto to Seattle. Of course, not all Muslims support terrorists -- though enough of them share their basic objectives (the wish to live under Islamic law in Europe and North America) to function wittingly or otherwise as the good cop end of an Islamic good cop/bad cop routine. But, at the very minimum, this fast-moving demographic transformation provides a huge comfort zone for the jihad to move around in."

Meanwhile, Ezra Levant, the peppery civil rights lawyer from western Canada was charged for publishing in 2006 the famous Mohammed cartoons that originated in Denmark. However, Canadian journalists have fought back against Islamist efforts to control the news, to prevent what they see as defamation of their religion or prophet. That was a good thing for public policy in general. In the research for their cases, the journalists discovered evidence of serious abuses, including the fact that human rights commission employees pretended to be Nazis in order to secure convictions and even hacked a private citizen's email address, probably in order to conceal their activities.

Originally, Canadian human rights commissions were started in the 1960s to combat the perceived threat of resurgent Nazism and anti-Semitism. Racism and anti-Semitism are chronic problems, of course, and in the immediate post-war era concern was easy to understand. But at the time, it wasn't clear that Nazism was actually resurgent in Canada. Most Canadians saw Nazis as the unfashionable villains of, for example, Hogan's Heroes, certainly not as people you'd invite to your barbecue. However, fear of Nazism allowed the Commissions to gain extraordinary powers, which is -- inevitably -- a recipe for corruption and incompetence. As Ezra Levant puts it, "I started to learn who these men and women were after reading the first dozen or so HRC rulings here. I wanted to know who wrote these inconsistent, arbitrary and biased rulings. They were often mutually contradictory; they were sometimes rife with spelling and grammatical errors, and some of their logic could only be called pretzelian. I started to dig deeper when I read this abomination of a case, where the right not to be offended officially trumped such trivia as freedom of speech and religion (see paragraph 357)."

One useful outcome was the appearance of a number of books discussing the general problem that conventional civil rights are often disappearing in many jurisdictions, even as sexual liberties flourish. These included Lights Out (Mark Steyn), Shakedown (Ezra Levant), and The Tyranny of Nice (Pete Vere and Kathy Shaidle.

Unusually for Canadian human rights commission hearings, which are heavily biased in favour of the complainant, the Islamists lost all their cases.

Lessons learned? Well, here is one: government depends as much as any other institution on media, to publicise its activities. That is how most citizens learn about them. Because government wants and needs publicity, it is never truly neutral about media.

That is why freedom of the press is crucial to a free society. Without it, all media morph into public relations for government and key special interests, depriving the public of independent information. That lesson was not lost on Canadian journalists, whose professional association named Maclean's editor Ken Whyte "Newsperson of the Year" for 2008.

Denyse O'Leary is co-author of The Spiritual Brain, and recently petitioned to find out if she was on the Canadian Human Rights Cmmission's list of 1200 alleged offenders who offer misinformation, gross distortions, caricaturisations of the Commission. O'Leary was told she was not on the list, but given the usual behaviour of some Commission employees, it is hard to know what to believe.

This article is published by Denyse O'Leary and under a Creative Commons licence. You may republish it or translate it free of charge with attribution for non-commercial purposes following these guidelines. If you teach at a university we ask that your department make a donation. Commercial media must contact us for permission and fees. Some articles on this site are published under different terms.

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