American journalist A.J. Liebling once famously observed that "freedom of the press belongs to those who own one." Those who own one too often use it to serve their own narrow interests rather than as a means to promote the informed public discourse that is essential to democracy. Sometimes they treat their obligations to democracy-the idea of the newspaper as a "public trust"-rather disdainfully.
An appalling example of this twisted "press freedom" was recently on display in Brandon, Manitoba, whose daily, The Brandon Sun, is a self-proclaimed right-wing newspaper. The Sun itself recently admitted that, "Yes, editorials are right-ofcentre," but claimed that "reporting is fair and balanced."
Errol Black is a left-of-centre Brandon city councillor. This philosophy is evident in what he says and writes, and in the policies he promotes on City Council. It is also consistent with the fact that he represents a ward that has for many years elected and re-elected left-of-centre councillors.
The result of their differing views ought to be the promotion of public debate about important issues, leading to a betterinformed public and better public policy decisions. Instead, The Sun has used the "freedom of the press" it owns to launch a scurrilous attack on Councillor Black, thereby debasing the public discourse that is an essential element of any democracy.
In a December 18, 2004 editorial, The Sun said that, if people living in Brandon were to adopt Councillor Black's ideas, the city "could become a very cold and snowy version of Cuba." The editorial was titled: "Black hopes to create Little Havana North."
The cause of this extraordinary editorial accusation appears to have been Councillor Black's opposition to the sale of the publicly-funded Keystone Centre's naming rights. The Sun quoted him as saying that "selling the name of important community places cheapens the heritage of a city and provides one more public place where people are overwhelmed by commercialism." Many others, including Naomi Klein in her internationally acclaimed book No Logo, have expressed similar concerns about the commercialization of public spaces.
The Sun responded by accusing Black of "tired socialist rhetoric," and of being "an embarrassment to forward-thinking members of the community," and by calling his supporters "a farm team of Baby Blacks. . . dog-eared copies of Das Kapital in hand." The implication was that Councillor Black's position was ideologically extreme.
The Sun's editorial then added, ironically, that "We actually like the sound of the Sobey Centre or Simplot Centre, or even 7-Eleven Centre (aka Slurpeeville)." To The Sun's editors, it would appear that everything is for sale and that public debate should be limited to dickering about the price. …