Post Your Opinion
At Large
by Michael Coren

AN EXTREMELY INTERESTING letter appeared in a recent edition of the Toronto Star's television magazine. A certain Ken Baker wrote that he was most upset with what he perceived as the CFTO journalist and commentator Mike Duffy's "anti- immigrant bias." We are all, one assumes, still entitled to our opinion and the truth or falsity of this accusation is not the point here. What is significant is the manner in which Mr. Baker continued. "I was discussing this with my friends recently and we've had it," he wrote. "From now on, our families will boycott any product advertised during the 6.00 newscast until Duffy is removed."

The specifics of this attack are important and indicative of a worrying attitude towards literary and journalistic expression. This man was not saying that he would no longer watch Mike Duffy -- on the contrary, he would make sure that he always watched so that he and his comrades could assemble their boycott list -- or that he would refrain from watching other CTV shows as a form of protest. Nor did he refer to specific comments from Duffy or give examples of this alleged bias. What Mr. Baker did promise was to do his meagre bit to damage the revenue of companies and individuals advertising with CFTO at a specific time, hoping that they would decide to divert their advertising dollars elsewhere. So Mr. Baker was trying to punish independent business people, in the hope that CTV would be angered or hurt by this and thus reprimand, censor, or fire Mike Duffy. That the boycott will have no great effect is immaterial. It is the intent that says everything. It shouts it, screams it. It is a jarring, awful noise.

This is yet another example of how too many Canadians believe that they can control opinions that they find distasteful or merely contrary to their own political positions. Rush Limbaugh's show was removed from Canadian television because fewer than 300 people complained about it and accused it of "homophobia." Yet hundreds of thousands of Canadians were registering their approval of the show by watching it, and not in prime time but well after midnight. Limbaugh was breaking no law, moral or civil, and those who did not like his views were not being pressured into staying up till the early hours of the morning so as to be provoked. It was also most unlikely that any children would have been watching and, anyway, Limbaugh is no Power Ranger. Yet a handful of zealots and bigots had their way. Powerful television executives submitted to tiny, vocal special- interest groups, leading one to ask where the real power in Canadian society lies.

Nobody is going to take Mike Duffy off the air, because he is an experienced and gifted journalist with a faithful audience. But if the target of this smear campaign had been a junior reporter in the early stages of his career, a Ken Baker, or a few friends of a Ken Baker, might well have had an effect. How regrettable, and how dangerous, that we have allowed the country to get into this frame of mind, where attempts to stifle debate are considered acceptable and feasible.

It happens at every level and in every manifestation of the media. There are no-go areas in publishing, subjects that are considered unacceptable amongst respectable literary people. What nonsense. In addition to writing a column for Books in Canada I used to be a columnist at the Globe and Mail. On one occasion, as I have briefly mentioned in a previous column, one of my articles did not appear because a journalist from a separate department of the newspaper, a senior editor, initiated a petition against me. Only five people signed it, but with most of the senior staff absent an acting editor went along with the protesters and dropped the column. If journalists, people who are meant to be committed to notions of freedom of thought and word, would rather prevent contrary speech than engage in intelligent debate, we are in a dire situation.

Instead of engaging in argument, even heated or at times a little acrimonious, we try to incarcerate the mind, the thoughts, and the speech of those with whom we disagree. And like it or not -- and please don't dig up some frenzied fundamentalist who wants to ban half of the contents of the local library -- it is not the fight that usually does this but rather the left, those very same people who would be the first to demand government boycotts against nations where there is no "freedom of speech."

It's rather like being a little bit pregnant. We either believe in freedom of speech or we don't. There are laws prohibiting incitement to violence and racial hatred, so we are protected against the outer borders of lunacy, and of course we must never forget the difference between freedom and licence. But every day we see the edges of the intellectual and political envelope reduced and curtailed- if we are not careful there won't even be any room left for the address.

Michael Caren's column appears every Wednesday in the Financial Post


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