Canadian liberal intellectuals are the last people in the world who will suspect that there might be something fishy about the way they all hold pretty well the same opinions. But someone not swept up in their passions may wonder how it is that so many of them blithely put their names to statements based on unexamined assumptions and questionable theorizing.
The answer seems to be that from time to time they simply stampede. They can't help themselves; it's their nature. Pounding across the plains of opinion, raising dust storms of indignation and fury, they bring to mind the American intellectuals of two generations ago, captured in a famous phrase by a great critic, Harold Rosenberg -- "the herd of independent minds."
The latest appearance of this phenomenon is "Let's press for freedom," a manifesto published in The Globe and Mail on Friday. It was signed by 53 eminent citizens, among them John Polanyi and Pierre Berton, Clayton Ruby and Farley Mowat, Margaret Atwood and Ed Broadbent, Flora MacDonald and Patrick Watson. They are gravely worried by an editorial decision of CanWest Global, the company that owns the National Post, the Southam newspaper chain and Global television. (It's probably unnecessary for me to acknowledge that this article is written by a regular CanWest contributor, and printed with CanWest ink on CanWest paper; but no one at the Post or CanWest suggested that I discuss this subject.)
The executives of CanWest inadvertently created a national furor when they decided to have their head office in Winnipeg generate some editorials for simultaneous publication in all their newspapers across the country. I have no knowledge of their reasoning, but it seems likely they saw this as an inoffensive change in procedure. After all, few citizens read editorials and no one outside the various editorial offices knows the names of those who write them. It is assumed by readers who think about it that unsigned opinion reflects to some considerable extent the views of the owners or the board of directors. Just appointing an editor amounts in itself to a form of editorial direction. There is no way owners can escape a degree of control, even should they wish to.
But a number of journalists across Canada have treated this new arrangement as a hideous blow to freedom of the press and (if we can judge by their tone) probably a crime against humanity as well. Apparently the independence from head office of The Gazette in Montreal, the Ottawa Citizen, etc., is a precious right with which owners dare not interfere. It happens, however, that no one ever heard of this right before. In fact, many assumed it didn't exist when they claimed on frequent occasions that Conrad Black, the Southam chain's former owner, was seizing control of Canadian opinion.
Nevertheless, viewers-with-alarm among Canadian journalists have now elevated a chain newspaper's independence to the level of sacred principle. Owners, should they wish to escape censure from journalism professors, must now refrain from expressing their views in their newspapers. If we can judge by protests appearing in various parts of the country, CanWest must also happily cede to its columnists (as no other newspaper corporation has done in living memory) the right to criticize not just the opinions but also the editorial procedures of the owners.
The collectively signed piece in the Globe on Friday recognized, in passing, that owners have a right to print their own views. But then it moved off in the opposite direction. It claimed that CanWest has "muzzled newspapers from coast to coast" by setting "a uniform policy for each paper in the chain, regardless of regional differences or individual community interests."
This, like almost everything said on the subject, is wildly overblown. Seldom in the course of Canadian disputation have so many made so much out of so little: one editorial a week, among a dozen or so, surely doesn't amount to national thought control. And what is this rich diversity of opinion that is threatened? I've never noticed it. Most Canadian newspapers hold opinions closely resembling those of most other Canadian newspapers. Have the Southam newspapers historically been the spawning grounds of original opinion? If so, it has passed without notice. Could any of the Globe signatories explain the difference (pre-Black, pre-CanWest) between, say, the editorial position of The Vancouver Sun and the Calgary Herald?
But if the outrage of the signatories is silly, their proposed solution is outlandish. They "call on the Canadian government to commission a public inquiry into the effects of concentrated media ownership." They say they don't want government intrusion into newsrooms; all they ask is that Ottawa organize "a full airing of concerns about the media system's responsibility to democracy" in "an independent public inquiry."
Since many of the 53 hold low opinions of the government, it's remarkable that they assume the inquiry will be independent. It's more surprising that they should even consider bringing Ottawa into the controversy. As they acknowledge, this issue was addressed twice in recent decades, by a Senate committee under Keith Davey in the 1970s and a Royal Commission under Tom Kent in the 1980s. Both of them were national talkathons, festivals of hand-wringing. Neither produced happy results.
Then why ask Ottawa for more of the same? Because Canadian liberal intellectuals are reflexively dependent on the grace and favour of government. Their first instinct, when confronted with what they consider a problem, is to call for federal action. Feeling the need for a free and open discussion, they assume it can best be turned over to the government. Should people who put that much blind faith in authority be taken seriously when they use the word "freedom"?
Freedom remains the question here, no doubt about it, but perhaps not in the sense that the signatories believe. What they need is freedom from their own distorted perceptions -- freedom from group-think, freedom from reflexive opinions, freedom from over-the-top responses to minor provocation, freedom from a neurotic reliance on government. My slogan: Free the Globe 53!