One of those chills everybody talks about makes me ill

Among the joys of a free society is a free press. You won’t always like what you read, but you know everything will get covered whether you like it or not. Frivolous, alarming, it doesn’t matter. It’ll be there. Right? Huh? Guys? On frivolous, I’ve reached the age where the newspapers repeatedly attempt to persuade me the hot new pop sensation is some young person of whom I have never heard. “Bublé” sounds like a new perfume a couturier is trying to foist upon the public but is apparently a singer who just won four Junos. So said the top story in both the Globe and Mail and this newspaper on Monday, the main thrust of which was that celebrity host Pamela Anderson still has a prominent chest. (The Globe had the big colour photo on A1 but the story on A9.)

Celebrities are news. Last week my wife and I were downtown (to meet our accountant, but overtaxation is apparently not a big story). On our way from one bookstore to another (they’re establishments with racks of magazines about celebrities, plus some other weird stuff on shelves) we noticed a drab new building selling condominium units starting at a mere $500,000. What dunce would pay more than the price of our house for less space in a less appealing part of town? Monday’s Globe told us that too: MP Garth Turner, a successful businessman in private life, and Belinda Stronach, a successful businesswoman in her choice of parent. The Globe also peddled rumours that a pop singer named Alanis Morissette, bought herself and her mother units on the same floor as Ms. Stronach. Know what? Mr. Turner has seen Ms. Stronach in the building and they have nodded at one another. I’m giddy. Mr. Turner has also seen Thomas d’Aquino, head of the Canadian Council of Chief Executives, in his slippers (his own, not Mr. Turner’s). Ooooh!

All this vital news squeezed one trivial item from the papers. The only notable news outlet in Canada to show its customers the notorious Danish cartoons that caused worldwide rioting and death is being sued by the Alberta Human Rights Commission (for details go to; for some reason the complaint included, or at least attached, a news piece by me about Hamas). That story didn’t make the news section of any newspaper I’ve seen except for George Jonas’s column here yesterday, Jonathan Kay’s in the Monday National Post, and a story in the Alberta CanWest papers last month. Nor the TV news.

When the cartoons were originally not published, everyone assured us we had freedom of the press in Canada and it was simply a matter of taste. On Feb. 15, the president of the Canadian Association of Journalists said, “We support the right to publish even offensive material ...” On Feb. 27, the Globe and Mail editorialized that while arguably their original publication was in bad taste, “It would be tragic, however, if the controversy over the Danish cartoons placed a chill on this most necessary of art forms. Unless political cartoonists feel free to dip their quills in poison ink, a society cannot truly be called free.” In its Feb. 27 issue, Maclean’s said “Maclean’s chose not to publish the Danish cartoons. We do not believe it necessary to give offence in order to champion the rights of others to be offensive. But freedom of expression must be vigorously defended.”

Wouldn’t a good start be to inform readers that a Canadian government is trying to silence your colleagues? You said Canadian media didn’t fear legal sanction over the cartoons, just a backlash from customers. Instead it turns out that Western Standard has not, as far as I know, lost subscribers or advertisements, but is facing legal sanction. Isn’t that a story?

If Western Standard loses, won’t it produce one of those chills everyone’s always talking about? When a Tory MP escaped the Harper corral and said something dopey about punishing bad journalism, newspapers found lots of space to chronicle his climbdown. But when a smallish publication faces a major legal bill over what reasonable people should consider a profoundly silly complaint, with its opponent a government agency with bottomless pockets, well, didja know Belinda’s neighbours include high-tech mogul Larry O’Brien? Huh? Didja?

In March, American commentator William F. Buckley Jr. wrote: “Two things are certain. One, that it will be a very long time before any editor in Europe (and, for that matter, in the United States) publishes lighthearted depictions of the prophet. The other, that everyone will defend the proposition that in the free world, people are entitled to express themselves as they choose, even if they choose malevolence or goofiness.”

Perhaps. But not here.

Maybe Western Standard should just show us pictures of Pamela Anderson. I mean, this being a free country and all.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson