When the bottom line is threatened, corporations typically show little concern for holding the line on political principles such as freedom of expression. In capitalism, freedom is too often just another word for maximizing profits.
But even when we have no illusions about the predatory nature of modern corporate capitalism, there’s something particularly disheartening when a media corporation abandons free-speech principles. Journalists are supposed to be the good guys on freedom of expression, right? If for no other reason than self-interest, shouldn’t media managers support these principles?
Yes, but apparently not when ideology gets in the way, as seems to be the case at Canada’s largest media corporation.
CanWest — owner of newspaper, television, and online properties, including one of the country’s national dailies and a TV network — is trying to use trade-mark law to punish political activists’ free speech in a classic SLAPP (strategic lawsuit against public participation).
This case is relatively simple: CanWest’s founder, Izzy Asper, was a vocal supporter of Israel — he’s been quoted as telling The Jerusalem Post, “In all our newspapers, including the National Post, we have a very pro-Israel position … we are the strongest supporter of Israel in Canada.” (“Mogul with a message,” National Post, 15 August 2003) — and CanWest papers have maintained that ideological commitment since Asper’s death in 2003.
To highlight this pro-Israeli slant in CanWest papers, the Palestine Media Collective produced a parody of the Vancouver Sun that included such stories as “Study Shows Truth Biased against Israel, By CYN SORSHEEP.” As with most parodies, some of the attempts are clever and some fall flat. But there’s no way to not recognize it as a parody.
Because the folks who produced the parody were anonymous (they’ve since stepped up to identify themselves publicly), CanWest sued the printer and another activist who had passed out a few copies, Mordecai Briemberg, claiming a trademark violation. Such a suit is legitimate only when the plaintiff can show there’s a reasonable likelihood that people will confuse the fake with the real and that some harm will result. In this case, there clearly is no confusion and no harm, and hence no serious claim. But CanWest presses on.
Calling the Collective’s paper “a counterfeit version” that amounts to “identity theft,” CanWest seems to want to frame this as a kind of intellectual-property terrorism: “This piece was not satirical. It was not a clever spoof. It was a deliberate act to mislead and misinform thousands of people by using the actual the Vancouver Sun masthead, logo and layout,” reads a company statement on the case.
According to a 2007 story in the Vancouver Sun, CanWest believes that the defendants were “motivated by hostility to the principal shareholders of the plaintiff and by a desire to undermine, or hurt, the business of the plaintiff and its principal shareholders” and “harbor antagonistic views towards the plaintiff, its principal shareholders and the reporting and editorial opinions expressed in the plaintiff’s publications, including in the Vancouver Sun.”
This all seems a bit thin-skinned for a media company, given how journalists take pride in their role as tough critics. It’s true enough that the activists in question don’t seem to like the reporting and editorial opinions of the Sun and its parent company. And it’s not unusual for those who believe that an information source is unreliable to encourage people to seek information elsewhere. So, I suppose there’s a fair amount of antagonism on all sides. As for motivation, I have interviewed Briemberg, and I didn’t pick up on any hostility. He’s a longtime activist, driven by the concerns for social and economic justice that motivate most people on the political left. If he’s hostile to anything, it’s to injustice.
But this can’t be about feelings, of course; it’s about freedom of speech and press in a democratic society. If CanWest prevails — if citizens’ judgments about the quality of a newspaper’s coverage can be the grounds for a lawsuit — then media criticism in Canada is made more difficult and democracy suffers. In a mass-mediated society, people must be free to critique that powerful institution just as they critique government and other businesses.
Many journalists agree. Gary Engler, a journalist at the Vancouver Sun, told me that the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union, Local 2000 (the union representing journalists at the Sun and Province newspapers), has passed a resolution condemning the CanWest lawsuit and also voted to send a resolution condemning the suit to the British Columbia Federation of Labour convention later this fall. “We have published a prominent article in our union newsletter that all 2,700 members of our local (including most newspaper journalists in BC) receive,” Engler said. “Our national union, which represents thousands of print, broadcast and other media workers across Canada, has also criticized CanWest’s lawsuit.”
Professional associations of librarians and teachers also are on record opposing the suit, and these statements are important. But journalists have the ability to focus attention on abuses of power by producing stories about such issues. It’s no surprise that CanWest papers aren’t writing about it, but why the silence from most others? Why so few stories by Canadian journalists to defend freedom of expression and criticize CanWest for its bullying tactics? Apart from the story in the Sun, my search revealed one news story in the The Globe and Mail and a mention of the case by one of that paper’s columnists. Some websites have reported the story, and activist groups are weighing in. But where are the stories in the corporate press?
CanWest is a big company with an ideological axe to grind. We should critique the company’s abuse of power in filing the suit and count this as a reminder of the potential problems that come with media concentration. But the silence of other journalists should trouble us even more. When a profession that provides so much of our information won’t hold itself accountable, it’s a threat not just to journalism but to democracy.
Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center. His latest book, All My Bones Shake, will be published in 2009 by Soft Skull Press. He also is the author of Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity (South End Press, 2007); The Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism and White Privilege (City Lights, 2005); Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity (City Lights, 2004); and Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas from the Margins to the Mainstream (Peter Lang, 2002). Jensen can be reached at rjensen AT uts.cc.utexas.edu and his articles can be found online at http://uts.cc.utexas.edu/~rjensen/index.html.
- The CanWest Chill: “We do not run in our newspaper Op Ed pieces that express criticism of Israel”, Laurie King-Irani and Nigel Parry (11 December 2001)