The case against Maclean's
The reaction against a 16-month-old article in Maclean’s magazine has caused a furor in Canadian journalism ranks, with many saying that freedom of expression itself is under attack.
At issue is an October 2006 article “The Future Belongs to Islam,” written by Mark Steyn. In it, he claims that Muslims in the West are poised to take over entire societies and “the only question is how bloody the transfer of real estate will be.” Without documenting his claims, Steyn says enough Muslims are terrorists to make the religion a global threat, and they will subject us all to rigid Muslim laws when the takeover is achieved.
Four Osgoode Hall law students are taking the magazine to the Ontario, B.C. and federal Human Rights Commissions after the magazine refused their request for a more balanced article about Islam.
The reaction to that challenge to press freedom by some Canadian journalists has been apoplectic. Click here for the journalistic reaction
Before we grace Steyn's inflammatory and inaccurate comments about Muslims with heavy-duty rhetoric defending him as an exemplar of freedom of expression, let's examine what we are talking about.
It's not freedom of expression.
Steyn is entitled to his opinions about Muslims or anyone else. No one is disputing that, including the four law students who are challenging Maclean's. What they are objecting to is that he has gone too far, and is trying to rally public opinion against a Muslim threat that he has failed to document factually. This "moral panic" approach has been widely identified as one of the racist discourses in academic literature (Henry and Tator, Discources of Domination, 2000).
The issue is racial stereotyping, not the freedom to say what you think.
Suppose we treat this as a case of libel against Muslims. If such a case ever got to court, the onus would be on Maclean's to demonstrate that what Steyn said was well grounded in fact, or was fair comment (in which case it would have to show the facts upon which he based his opinion were true). In some courts, it could rely on the "responsible journalism" defence, which requires it to document how Steyn was diligent about checking out all sides of the situation before reaching his opinion.
Could Maclean's do that? Has it so far even bothered to try? Its response -- "we'd rather go bankrupt," said editor-in-chief Ken Whyte -- is the sort of thing that would do in any editor facing a libel suit. It would be cited as evidence of malice.
The issue here is whether what Maclean's printed was responsible journalism. Let's deal with that, and not retreat to defend the highest hill, imagining that freedom of expression itself is under fierce attack.
That would only be creating our own journalistic "moral panic." It would not help us sort out the far more important issues at stake here.