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What Democracy?

Peter Wright

Peter Wright

As the oldie Frank Sinatra sang about love and marriage, “you can’t have one without the other”. Without free speech, there can be no free press and without that, there can be no democracy. Even at the best of times which these surely are not, A.J. Libeling summed up the sad truth when he said, “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.”

We know that these days, owners of newspapers and TV/radio stations themselves self censor – I’ll deal with that later.

Free speech cannot be a theory or in the abstract. It must be a living segment of democracy. We have yet to experience democracy in modern terms and we’re steadily moving further away from it.

There must be reasonable restraints, of course. In the tiresome old saw, shouting “fire” when there is none in a theatre is an exception as are incitements to do something wrong. Moreover, there will always be questions of morality such as TV shows showing explicit sex violence or kiddie porn but in assessing limitations to free speech we cannot permit perfection to become the enemy of improvement.

In Medieval times the Church censored but this was not difficult in an era where very few could read and write. With the dramatic improvement of the printing press by Gutenberg in the mid 15th Century people started to read at an alarming rate because this new market begat new suppliers of things to read which begat a violent reaction of the Church. Men like Martin Luther and John Calvin began preaching “heresies” and giving out printed matter with their own version of what God was all about.

We often look to the UK for guidance in these matters, a lazy mistake because it has always censored, not just in wartime. Until 1968 the Lord Chamberlain had statutory authority to prevent any new play from being performed where he was of the opinion that “it is fitting for the preservation of good manners, decorum or of the public peace so to do”.

In 1938, after giving a stirring speech in the House of Commons opposing Neville Chamberlain’s Munich Pact, Winston Churchill was denied space in the London Times and time on the BBC. Churchill was not merely an MP but, arguably the most famous journalist of those times.

Chamberlain’s popularity, after presiding over the dissection of Czechoslovakia to bring “peace for our time” and “peace with honour” was so popular with a public, that had lost so many lives in World War I., that Winston Churchill and his acolytes were shut down.

When, in the 1936 Abdication crisis – King Edward VIII wished to marry a twice divorced American woman – the British press were asked not to talk or write about the subject, an issue that went to the very root of Britain’s governance. Meanwhile, of course, North American newspapers were under no such constraints leading to the absurdity that the British public knew all about the matter from overseas media yet their own press dared not mention a word.

Then there was the famous Peter Wright book Spycatcher where a former serious MI6 officer “told all”. The book, published in Australia in the mid-eighties, unmasked a former director of MI5 as a Soviet mole and in general embarrassed the British government.

Upon publication in 1985 the UK government got a court order banning its publication. Unhappily for them, the ban did not include Scotland!

Eventually, in 1988 The House Of Lords lifted the ban. As with bans on newspapers, books, and plays the curiosity served as terrific advertising. It reminds me of my time in the British Columbia cabinet where Premier Bennett would say of a “hot” document, “mark it ‘super confidential’ to ensure its widest circulation”.

In mid-1987, a High Court judge lifted the ban on English newspaper reportage on the book, but in late July, the Law Lords again barred reportage of Wright’s allegations. Eventually, in 1988, the book was cleared for legitimate sale when the Law Lords acknowledged that overseas publication meant it contained no secrets. However, Wright was barred from receiving royalties from the sale of the book in the United Kingdom. In November 1991, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the British government had breached the European Convention of Human Rights in gagging its own newspapers. The British Government’s legal cost for this ongoing saga was estimated at £250,000.

Let’s turn to the great American republic whose revolution starting in 1775 had as its public inspiration the pamphlet “Common Sense” by an English failed maker of women stays, firebrand Thomas Paine.

From January – April 1776 April Common Sense sold 120,000 copies in a population of about 500,000!

One would have thought that this would have seared the protection of free speech deeply in the bowels of the new union of the 13 colonies but in 1798, under the presidency of one of the nation’s pioneers, John Adams, the Alien and Sedition Act was passed which made it a crime to “to write, print, utter or publish, or cause it to be done, or assist in it, any false, scandalous, and malicious writing against the government of the United States, or either House of Congress, or the President … “. The right to prosecute lay with the president and 20 newspaper publishers, all outspoken opponents of Adams, were charged under this legislation and 9 were convicted.

John Adams, brave revolutionary, the 2nd president of the United States, prosecuted newspaper publishers who opposed him.

So much for the United States as the bastion of freedom of the press.

Now let’s go to the West Coast and look at the media in British Columbia where journalistic silence is most obvious. Vancouver has two daily papers – the Sun and the Province both owned by Postmedia. The most available national paper, now that the Globe and Mail no longer reaches outside the cities, is the National Post. Most of the Community papers are owned by Postmedia and the David Black chain, the latter of which makes no secret of its right-wing philosophy.

Since 2001 and the arrival of Gordon Campbell’s Liberals, there has been a steady increase in environmental concerns including fish farms which badly damage wild salmon runs, private river power schemes that ruin the rivers they use, pipelines through one of the last true wilderness areas in the world and oil tankers scheduled to triple the traffic on the pristine coast. I should also note that because of the sweetheart private power contracts the publicly owned BC Hydro must enter, they are forced to buy private power, whether they need it or not – and they seldom do – BC Hydro would be bankrupt were it in the private sector.

Let’s look a little closer at the BC Hydro case. I warn you that what I tell you will seem beyond belief.

BC Hydro was once the envy of the world delivering clean power cheaply and efficiently to householders and industry alike. In an energy policy in 2003, Premier Campbell took away from Hydro the right to make any new power (except Site “C”; more about that in a moment) and forced Hydro to make “sweetheart deals” with private companies which now would be the sole energy suppliers. One of the problems is that private power can only be generated during the spring run-off, just when Hydro’s own reservoirs are full. Nevertheless Hydro must buy this power at nearly triple the market price and 10 times what it costs to make this themselves. Site “C” in the Peace River area is a huge mega project with enormous environmental concerns but the government is determined to build this $10 billion dam to supply power to the natural gas industry so that it can make Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) for export markets which at this point seem non-existent.

The proposed pipelines would deliver the highly toxic bitumen from the Alberta Tar Sands through one of the world’s last wildernesses even though they will be largely inaccessible if there is a spill. And then there is the tripling of oil tankers full of bitumen sailing out of one of the most rugged coastlines on earth.

These matters bring firmly into focus my theme, namely, that without a free press with journalists able to do their job of holding the “establishment’s” feet to the fire there is no democracy.

Each of the Vancouver papers has able columnists who before 2001 pursued the truth printing it as they saw it. In fact one of them, Vaughn Palmer of the Sun, was instrumental in exposing the “fast ferry” issue to the point it defeated the government. (Premier Clark had insisted on building ferries utterly inappropriate for BC waters).

The tough open line radio hosts are gone. There was the time, before 2001, when the governments trembled when open line radio asked tough questions, which often created unpleasant sound bites.

There was a time before 2001 when invitations to cabinet ministers for a media interview were received with the same enthusiasm one opened a registered letter from the income tax department.

Now we have government, in BC at any rate, where there might as well be no media which, of course, resulting that “democracy” in British Columbia means no more than it does in Mr. Putin’s Russia, Whether the media is muzzled by the state or for its own reasons the result is the same.

Why has this happened? Why are columnists censoring themselves?

Owners of media outlets are not inherently evil – they’re just trying to make money, a very natural goal in a free market system.

The answer is not complicated – it’s the internet and many other sources of entertainment available to those who would listen to talk radio and concentrate on their favourite newspaper. A good example of this is CKNW radio in Vancouver. It once had a 15-18 share of the market where in the last ratings book they had 9. This hurts double – their loss of audience share is bad enough but the loss of their share of a the market as well as the overall audience has dwindled in numbers. Where they once dominated they are now in third place behind a “soft rock” station and the CBC.

This has a dog chasing its tail aspect as stations cut back broadcasters who made them money, in order to cut costs which, in turn, drives listeners, and revenue, away.

The newspapers do the same thing. Cartoons are limited or eliminated; local and well liked columnists are “bought out” and journalists from other papers in their chain are “syndicated” at great savings. Newsrooms are decimated such that as their brethren in radio, they make their product less saleable and less attractive to the advertisers upon which they rely for revenue.

All of this means that the concept of “free speech” has shifted to the Web. Anyone with a hundred bucks or so can build a website and become a “blogger”. Many of these bloggers have a large audience. Some of them, such as the Huffington Post, make money by not paying their writers who are happy just with the exposure.

And here’s the dangerous part. The “web” and its users will take the place of what we think of as the media and sooner than later will have ever increasing government interference. Unlike the traditional media, they won’t have the clout to fight back.

A media uncritical of the establishment may mean a “soft dictatorship”, that is one that doesn’t use force but however much politicians and the media try to tart it up, whatever we call it, it is certainly not a democracy.

I would argue that even with the traditional media it took a charitable interpretation of the word to say Canada is a democracy.

It sure as hell isn’t one now and the prospects of becoming one are dismal.

2 Responses to “What Democracy?”

  1. elle says:

    This is exactly what the government depends on. They pour money into advertising in msm and msm in turn does not bite the hand that feeds them. The average voter is uninformed about what is going on because either nothing is reported or it is reported by government press release. The big boys don’t want the government to look bad so that nothing happens to the money tree. This is so not right. The government is getting away with so many things that are hurting the people and the people are oblivious. Why are no questions being asked about BC Ferries trying to cancel one of the major ferry runs when they spend huge amounts of money on advertising (e.g. Canuck games)? The press is not doing its job in informing the public about things that affect them and what government does, does affect almost all aspects of our lives, even if CKNW doesn’t seem to think that politics affects anyone.

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