21 September 2007

When free speech is compromised

The Telegram editorial today raises questions about the provincial Progressive Conservative plan to put a bounty on booties of $1000 for each new child born or adopted in the province.

The questions raised in the editorial - based on sound research - point to criticisms of the approach from other quarters, none of which are partisan. Other news media have covered the issue in somewhat the same way as the Telegram does.

The criticisms are based on experience in other jurisdictions where these pronatal policies have not worked and have proven to be very costly.

So why, pray tell, would the Telegram feel the need to preface its editorial with these words:
This is not meant to be a criticism of any party's election platform...?
An editorial is the place where a newspaper should take a critical position - if need be - and not have to apologise for it at all. An editorial should criticize the platform of any party if there is a good reason to do so. Being ineffective is as good a basis for criticism as anything else, particularly when the criticism is constructive.

Feedback, including critical comment, should be expected in return. The Telegram took issue yesterday with a Liberal who eventually wound up as a candidate in the current election voting in an open nomination process of another party, the Progressive Conservatives.

As far as Bond Papers was concerned, the editorial was off base on its facts. Frankly even after the editorial page editor commented on it, it's still hard to see what the issue actually is. The alternate point of view - expressed eloquently by the Telly's sister the Western Star - was presented in that post to demonstrate the difference of opinion on the issue.


No one questioned the right of the Telly's editorialists to make a critical comment in the first place.

Free speech demands no less.

Free speech needs no qualification.

On the front page of the Telegram today there is also an article calling attention to comments made by a Liberal supporter, who referred to the Premier as a "Fuehrer". The Telly story isn't available electronically but cbc.ca/nl picked up the same point:
Party supporter Jim Combden, speaking at a rally in the town of New-Wes-Valley, made a crack about how Progressive Conservative cabinet minister John Hickey had threatened to sue critics of his spending.

"[Hickey] said, 'I will sue you if you speak on the open line programs, if you speak on legitimate airwaves, if you criticize my government, if you criticize my fuehrer, I will sue you,'" Combden told the rally, in the Bonavista North district.
Combden's remarks were over the top and the use of any analogy to Nazi Germany is the certain death of any point. Rather than lamely try to pass the comment off as a joke, Combden ought to apologise unequivocally and immediately withdraw the remark. It was wrong.

However, let's recall that the incident to which Combden referred prompted concerns at the time about many things including libel chill; that is, that the threat of law suits would silence critics. The fear is reasonable given the abuse of defamation laws by the rich and powerful in our own society and in the developing world to silence anyone with whom they disagree.

The Premier is notoriously thin skinned. In February, at the time the Hickey suit was first raised, Danny Williams named several individuals - including your humble e-scribbler - and threatened to sue them for motives he attributed to the individuals falsely, at least speaking in reference to Bond Papers.

Let's also recall at the time that the Premier stated his belief that it would be appropriate to eliminate the right of free speech in the provincial legislature. Centuries of precedent and a hard won liberty be damned: let's take the parliamentary immunity away.

In the aftermath of the Premier's remarks and the launch of Hickey's suit against former premier Roger Grimes, many people changed their behaviour. One blog vanished for a period of time, although ostensibly for other reasons. There's no question that callers to the province's very popular talk radio shows regularly checked themselves needlessly or in some cases refrained from comments out of fear of lawsuits.

Thankfully, that chill was temporary. Nattering nabobs, as Telegram editor Russell Wangersky named them after the fashion of former American vice-president Spiro Agnew, have their valued place in any democracy worthy of the name.

However, when the province's leading daily newspaper hobbles its own opinion as it did today, free speech is compromised.

We are weaker.

We should be ashamed.

And the only determination we should have is to resist unreasonable efforts to restrain voices of dissent.