06 February 2008

Freedom of the press ... nice, if you can afford it

An editorial in Monday's Globe and Mail took umbrage at human-rights commissions for agreeing to hear complaints from Muslim groups about the work of two journalists. The Globe accused the commissions of "policing ideas," chastising them for taking seriously, "the notion that privately owned publications do not have the right to offend or that they are required to give equal space to both sides of every issue."

The Globe's claim is fancifully over-stated; nonetheless, they do raise a good question. How far should human-rights commissions go in entertaining complaints about personal points of view publicly expressed? This prompts yet another, bigger question, about the media itself. The Globe, after all, and its fellow members of the daily press do a great deal more policing of ideas than human-rights commissions do. Why should a tiny special interest group, i.e. the corporate owners of the mass media, be the arbiter of whose views are broadly heard?

American journalist A.J. Liebling answered this question many years ago when he observed, "Freedom of the press is limited to those who own one." And owning a daily paper takes hundreds of billions of dollars. In other words, you get to be an arbiter if you are very rich or, in the case of the Globe editors, a servant of the very rich.

Having vented its spleen against human-rights commissions, perhaps the Globe will now deal with the much larger problem of the daily press -- the nation's public forums -- being owned and controlled by a handful of oligarchs. That is, of course, if the oligarchs will give them permission.

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