Shame on “Sun” and “Herald”

Posted on July 1, 2009
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“Freedom of the press belongs to the man who owns one.” AJ Liebling

Newspapering has been my life. I grew up in a newspapering family. Newspapering has been my vocation, my hobby and my religion.

It saddens, sickens and offends me when newspapers violate the magnificent privilege we have in a democracy.

Newspapers all vigourously defend freedom of the press. Unfortunately, denying it to others proves the unfortunate truth of journalism giant AJ Liebling’s observation above.

This week Canwest’s “Calgary Sun” and Quebecor’s “Calgary Herald” demonstrated a casual and callous disregard for freedom of the press.

They refused an ad, critical of the Calgary Stampede, ordered by the Vancouver Humane Society. The Humane Society ad showed a cowboy wrestling a lassoed calf to the ground. A label pointing at the cowboy read “Bully.” Another, pointed at the calf, read “Baby.”

The only freedom of the press the man, or woman, who does not own one has is the right to buy an ad to express, unedited, opinions or facts. How can a newspaper owner demand, and expect, citizen support for his freedom of the press and so casually deny it to others?

Under the law, the press has no rights that are not the rights of every citizen. Journalists are certainly, routinely granted privileges. For example, there is usually a press bench in court so reporters can be assured of a place while the public stands in line. This is justified by a desire on the part of the courts to have proceedings reported accurately which is somewhat more likely when reporters can see and hear well. Professional sports teams provide free access to arenas and stadiums to reporters who provide the coverage crucial to their marketing.

These are, however, privileges and payments, not rights.

Freedom of the press, exactly like freedom of speech, is never absolute. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. of the US Supreme Court said that freedom of speech would not grant you the right to falsely shout “Fire” in a crowded theatre.”

You cannot damage a person’s reputation or livelihood by calling him a thief in public or in the press without liability. If you cannot prove he is a thief, he is entitled to compensation for damages.

Citizens can write letters to the editor, of course, to voice an opinion. The writer has not control over whether the letter is printed or how it is edited. The citizen’s only true freedom is in purchased advertising space.

In a just world then, shouldn’t your freedom of the press be just as important to a publisher as his own or the owner’s or the advertising manager’s or the editor’s?

How can a newspaper which does not treat your right or the Vancouver Humane Society’s right as an essential trust have any righteous expectation that the paper’s right should be respected?

Biodgrapher, Beatrice Hall, paraphrased Voltaire’s belief in freedom of speech as “I disagree with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

Shame on the “Calgary Sun.” Shame on the “Calgary Herald.” You are both a disgrace to the free press and democracy.             DAC

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