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December 21, 2012

How far can freedom of the press go?

Alexander Davidoff

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Does media have total and complete freedom to do and say what they want without consequence? Should there be oversight or control over what is presented in the traditional printed press, television, radio or even the internet? These are not easy questions to consider and smell of 'big brother'. Many would vehemently oppose any control over the press and media, citing our democratic right for its freedom. Documents such as the Constitution, Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Magna Carta, that have mapped out humanity's struggle and development towards equality of existence, may be referred to. Historical examples of the horror when man had to survive the likes of Stalin, Hitler, Mao Zedong may be referenced.

True the cornerstones of democracy are the freedom of speech and freedom of the press. Yet what happens when it is the press, the media who butcher the truth with intentional lies, attack publicly with complete indifference to the rights and dignity of others? Can such action be permitted without consequence under the all encompassing tag of ‘freedom of speech’?

In England, News of the World run by Rupert Murdoch’s News International sparked off a public outcry after information surfaced of cell phone hacking of a murdered teenager Milly Dowler. Murdoch’s journalists showed a complete indifference to an individual’s privacy and dignity bringing an end to News of the World and a 515 page report by Lord Justice Brian Leveson after a nine month inquiry into the inner workings of the British press.

In Canada there appears to be an equivalent to the Murdoch media empire, and its disregard to even the most basic code of ethics. Sun Media has seen enough attention from governing bodies as civil courts and The Canadian Broadcast Standards Council and it has cancelled its membership with the Press Council of Ontario.

A star among Sun Media personalities has to be Ezra Levant. Levant is a lawyer by profession; he has authored several books, written columns and is the television host for Sun television program The Source. He faced a defamation suit in 2000 filed by Ron Ghitter and libel suits by Giacomo Vigma, Richard Warman (a fellow lawyer) and Warren Kinsella. A judge had said that Levant speaks with a total disregard for the truth. Ezra Levant has proven his contempt for journalistic ethics more than once, and during a televised segment of his show The Source on December 22nd 2011 Levant sunk to a new low.

Ezra Levant told an executive of the Chiquita Banana Corporation with a Hispanic name “Chinga tu madre,”translated that meant “fuck your mother.” Levant did this to an individual who was not in Canada and not to his face, but on television. The Canadian Broadcasting Standards Council received some 22 complaints and Levant himself debated the definition of chinga in an attempt to justify his cowardly outburst.

The CBSC a non-government industry body told Sun News it had to announce twice during prime time that it violated broadcaster’s ethical guidelines during a taping of the Levant-hosted The Source in December.” (Wikipedia). Sun News defended its host for his insulting outburst and Ezra Levant saw nothing wrong in what he said, in fact he was willing to play semantics instead. Was this sufficient, what the Canadian Broadcasting Standards Council adjudicated as a consequence of the actions by Ezra Levant? Regardless of arguments for or against such a question, proof of Levant’s disregard for any form of ethics or dignity came crashing forward on September 5th 2012.

Once again as host of The Source Ezra Levant exploded with these words: “These are gypsies, a culture synonymous with swindlers. The phrase gypsy and cheater have been so interchangeable historically that the word has entered the English language as a verb he gyped me. Well the gypsies have gyped us. Too many have come here as false refugees. And they come here to gyp us again and rob us blind as they have done in Europe for centuries. They’re gypsies. And one of the central characteristics of that culture is that their chief economy is theft and begging.” (Wikipedia).

Ezra Levant is a lawyer, and presumably trained in the English language and in the art of understanding human motivation. What motivated Ezra Levant on a public television program to utter such hate-filled words? How could executives at Sun Television or Sun Media defend Ezra Levant this time? Executive Director at the Roma Community Centre Ms. Gina Csany-Robah said, “nearly nine minutes of on-air racist hate-speech targeting our community, one of the longest and most sustained on air broadcasts of hate-speech against any community in Canada that we’ve witnessed since our organization was established in 1997.” (Wikipedia).

Sun Television pulled the segment and apologized to the Roma community, they had no choice. Can that be considered enough? The Toronto Police Service are now investigating Levant’s outburst as a hate-crime, and the Alberta Law Society has to consider what action they must take in relation to Ezra Levant’s license to practise as a lawyer.

As shocking and repulsive as Ezra Levant’s outburst was it was not the first, and Sun Media has protected him each time. Yet he is not the only one under the Sun umbrella who has shown a total disregard to truth, facts, ethics and dignity. In St. Catharines Ontario, The Standard newspaper is a family member of the Sun Media group, and although the Sun Media family blindly supports the Conservatives as a general rule, The Standard has proven to have leanings in the opposite direction.

During the 2010 municipal elections, The Standard’s oldest and star reporter Marlene Bergsma intentionally lied in print to discredit a candidate in the mayoral race. Bergsma did not misrepresent the truth nor did she twist the facts, no Marlene Bergsma lied. Former publisher Judy Bullis and former managing editor Andrea Kriluck published the intentional lies by Marlene Bergsma. Only days later another reporter from The Standard, Peter Downs repeated the same lies once again in his own article. The lies were clear and intentional, they were intended to damage the credibility of a candidate and influence an election. Pierre Karl Peladeau, head of Quebecor Inc. was provided the details, he remained silent, Mike Sifton as CEO of Sun Media was also provided with all the details, he too remained silent.

It is not only the journalists at The Standard who have compromised ethics and code of conduct, but also the management who have pushed the same boundaries to their limits. Protecting the identity of a ‘source’ who had provided sensitive information is understandable, protecting the identity of an individual who uses a fictitious name to launch a barrage of slanderous attacks is not.

One such individual has used the fictitious name of ‘Steve Reynolds’ and has posted slanderous comments attacking a regional councillor on the Reader Comments page of The Standard’s official site. Comments posted by ‘Steve Reynolds’ had been intentionally aimed at Councillor Andy Petrowski with the purpose to smear his reputation. This fictitious ‘Steve Reynolds’ had posted a comment attacking Mayorgate and when Wendy Metcalfe the managing editor was contacted with the demand that the identity of this ‘Steve Reynolds’ be provided, The Standard refused. The comment posted by ‘Steve Reynolds’ was removed by The Standard within hours as they were aware of the slanderous nature of the comment. Yet Managing Editor Metcalf has decided to protect the individual’s identity, only removing the posting rights of the individual using the name ‘Steve Reynolds’.

As news broke of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford being removed from office by a judge Christina Blizzard of the Toronto Sun newspaper decided that Toronto’s mayor should not be removed after being found guilty in his conflict of interest trial. Christina Blizzard could not see that a mere $3000.00 was serious enough as an indiscretion to warrant Mayor Ford’s removal. It seems that Christina Blizzard put a dollar value on ethics and code of conduct of an elected public servant. Maybe if the dollar value amount was ten times the three thousand or if Mayor Ford was not a Conservative, then would Ms. Blizzard find it necessary to remove a public servant from office that requires public trust?

There are journalists all over the world who have risked their lives for their profession. Journalists who have never sold or traded their integrity or considered to trample their code of ethics. We as the public who buy the newspapers, watch television or use the internet no longer have a naive attitude, nor do we expect Clark Kent ethics from today’s media. Still the actions of Murdoch’s News of the World shocked many and a demand for appropriate consequences for such breaches of code of conduct was loud and clear.

After the inquiry into the actions of the British press Lord Justice Brian Leveson said, “that Britain needs a mechanism for independent self-regulation that would allow victims of the media to fight back outside the courts.” (Toronto Star Nov. 30, 2012 by Leslie Ciarula Taylor). The executive director of the Ontario Press Council, Don McCurdy said “Most Canadians would view the media in the UK as having a very cowboy mentality. Here it is much more civil and respectful and small-c conservative.” (Toronto Star Nov. 30, 2012).

What can be taken as the meaning in Don McCurdy’s “small-c conservative”? The Ontario Press Council is a voluntary membership organization. It is not government regulated and has no real authority to enforce any rulings. Mr. McCurdy admitted that membership has declined and that Sun Media has dropped its membership completely. What would the Ontario Press Council do with Sun Media owned Standard and the intentional lies published? Could Don McCurdy enforce any penalties against The Standard through his non-government regulated, voluntary membership council with the “small-c conservative” attitudes?

When the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council, another non-government body, slapped the wrist of Sun Media owned Sun Television and Ezra Levant, Ezra Levant turned around and produced a more torrid attack on a whole community.

Media today wields an immense power and therefore influence on our governments. British Prime Minister David Cameron agreed to accept the recommendations of Lord Justice Brian Leveson’s 515 page report, yet he refused any legislative changes to be implemented. Prime Minister Cameron did not want to threaten the freedom of the press and free speech. Yet without legislation and laws, voluntary organizations such as the Ontario Press Council, the Canadian Broadcasting Standards Council or even England’s failed Press Complaints Commission, exist in name only. Victims of media in fact have no real means to “fight back outside of the courts.”

We truly are becoming a dollar value justice society with a “small-c conservative” attitude.

(Ezra Levant was contacted for any response or comment, he has refused to respond).

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On July 7, 2024 in Toronto, Canada, Dimitri Lascaris delivered a speech on the right to resist oppression.

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