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Steyn: I beg to differ

Journalistic opinion is hailing Mark Steyn, of all people, as the new poster child for freedom of expression in Canada .

I beg to differ.

His xenophobic and Islamophobic writings in Maclean’s magazine have prompted a complaint by Muslims to the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal. Hearings are being held in Vancouver this week.

Section 7(1) of the B.C. Human Rights Code prohibits anyone from publishing any statement that “is likely to expose a person or a group or class of persons to hatred or contempt” because of their religion.

That is the law as it stands, and everyone must obey the law.

The problem with the Code is that it seems to treat all types of publication alike. Section 7(1) provides no basis for distinguishing between legitimate examples of free expression, such as a carefully researched piece of journalism, and speech which should be proscribed, such as a racist polemic.

Without some objective test or measure for what constitutes hateful publication, the principles of free expression and freedom of the press could conceivably be jeopardized by this legislation.

The Canadian Association of Journalists has intervened in the case to argue for a narrow interpretation of Section 7(1). It is proposing that the following factors be considered in determining whether a published statement is hateful or contemptuous:

(a)    What the intention of the author was (why it is said);

(b)   Whether the statement was expressed in “good faith;”

(c)    Whether the statement was relevant to a subject of public interest;

(d)   Whether it “was believed to be true;”

(e)    Whether or not it has been shown on the evidence to have silenced the target group or hindered the free exchange of ideas.

While I applaud the CAJ for trying to guide the tribunal in its interpretation of Section 7(1), I wish to argue that its proposed criteria are unsatisfactory and troublesome for several reasons: First, they are not objective or measurable. How can the tribunal know what the intention of an author was, or whether a statement was expressed in good faith? Secondly, they are unreasonable. Why should the tribunal force a group maligned by hateful speech to prove that it has been silenced as well? Thirdly, they are inadequate to distinguish hateful speech from legitimate speech. Even racists can argue that they believed a hateful statement to be true and that it was in the public interest to publish it.

Balancing the rights of free expression and equality in the application of Section 7(1) is a worthwhile and necessary goal of the B.C. hearings. (Ethical disclosure: The tribunal turned down my application to intervene after the lawyer for Maclean’s objected. What follows is the gist of what I wanted to say.)

A good test for how to determine the balance between these two important rights is suggested in the recent statement of the Ontario Human Rights Commission, which found it did not have jurisdiction under its legislation to consider this same complaint. But it did say the following:

 “It is often said that with rights come responsibilities. It is the Commission’s view that the media has (sic) a responsibility to engage in fair and unbiased journalism. Bias includes both an unfair and one-sided portrayal of an issue as well as prejudicial attitudes towards individuals and groups based on creed, race, place or origin, ethnic origin and other Code grounds. Freedom of expression should be exercised through responsible reporting and not be used as a guise to target vulnerable groups and to further increase their marginalization or stigmatization in society. “

The Ontario Commission said the media have a significant role to play in either combating societal racism or refraining from communicating and reproducing it. It defined Islamophobia as “a form of racism that includes stereotypes, bias or acts of hostility towards Muslims and the viewing of Muslims as a greater security threat on an institutional, systemic and societal level.” The Maclean’s article, it said, was an example of Islamophobia.

In its defence, the editors of Maclean’s claimed “the article in question was a legitimate piece of journalism written and published in good faith.”

So was it? Does Steyn’s article, “Why the future belongs to Islam,” published in Maclean’s on Oct. 23, 2006, measure up to the standards of responsible journalism?

Not by a long shot.

His argument rests on four questionable premises, none of which is attributed to sources or accompanied by reliable evidence.

Premise #1: “Demography is the most basic root of all. A people that won’t multiply can’t go forth or go anywhere. Those who do will shape the age we live in. Demographic decline and the unsustainability of the social democratic state are closely related.”

Premise #2: Islam has serious global ambitions, and it forms the primal, core identity of most of its adherents.”

Premise #3: “The modern multicultural state is too watery a concept to bind huge numbers of immigrants to the land of their nominal citizenship. So they look elsewhere and find the jihad.” (He also says that while not all Muslims are terrorists or support terrorists, “enough of them share their basic objectives.”)

Premise #4: “On the continent the successor population is already in place and the only question is how bloody the transfer of real estate will be…Native populations are aging and fading and being supplanted remorselessly by a young Muslim demographic.”

Mr. Steyn’s lack of attribution or evidence violates journalism’s discipline of verification, namely (as defined by Kovach and Rosenstiel’s The Elements of Journalism): “Seeking out multiple witnesses, disclosing as much as possible about sources, or asking various sides for comment, all signal such standards.”

Two of his premises – #1 and #4 – oversimplify the complex field of demography and misstate the facts. A well-documented article in The Economist in June 2007 debunks such assertions and, interestingly, refers specifically to Mr. Steyn as a “conservative polemicist:”

“American observers from Walter Laqueur, an academic, to Mark Steyn, a conservative polemicist, argue that Europe is fast becoming a barren, ageing, enfeebled place. Vast numbers of old people, they reckon, will be looked after, or neglected, by too few economically active adults, supplemented by restless crowds of migrants. The combination of low fertility, longer life and mass immigration will put intolerable pressure on public health, pensions and social services, leading (probably) to upheaval.”
Source: The Economist, June 14, 2007, “Suddenly the old world looks younger” 

The article quotes demographic studies showing that 16 European countries, with a total population of 234 million, now have fertility rates of 1.8 or more. Half are above 2.0. Despite near-panic about “inevitably” declining population, then, some European countries are growing quite strongly. They tend to be in northern Europe, from Sweden to France.

Many of these, of course, are social democratic countries with child-care supports (France, the Netherlands and Scandinavia, contrary to Steyn’s assertion that such states discourage “the survival instinct”).

And it’s not because of immigration in general, or Muslim immigration in particular. The Economist cites a study by Laurent Toulemon of the Institut national d'études démographiques (INED) which found that immigrant women in France do have high fertility (2.5 compared with 1.65 for French-born women). But because immigrants make up only one-twelfth of women of childbearing age, this raises the national fertility rate only slightly.

Mr. Steyn’s premise #4 – that “the successor population is already in place” – is also contrary to the facts. Aside from France (10%) and the Netherlands (5.4%), the Muslim populations of the rest of the countries of Europe are all under 4 percent, and countries like Italy and Britain have Muslim populations roughly equal to Canada’s 2.5 percent. The idea that Muslims in Europe will be in a position to demand special concessions like Sharia law in the near future is unlikely.

He is content to quote people without checking out their facts. He quotes a Norwegian imam, who says “every Western woman in the EU is producing an average of 1.4 children. Every Muslim woman in the same countries is producing 3.5 children.”

This is a statement of fact, and is easily checked out, but neither Mr. Steyn nor the magazine bothered to do so. The facts, as established by France’s INED, are that in France, like everywhere else in Europe, the birthrate among immigrant mothers drops quickly toward the local norm in less than two generations. This reflects factors such as universal female education, rising living standards, the effect of local cultural norms and availability of contraception. The science of demography is not as simplistic as Mr. Steyn portrays it.

His menacing reference to Islamic “will,” and particularly the will of young Muslims, as a threat to the West also appears to be questionable. As a 10-country Zogby International opinion poll in 2002 showed, young Muslims do not hate the West. They actually admire Western technology and lifestyles, although they disapprove of U.S. policy in the Middle East.

Mr. Steyn’s attempt to use anecdotal evidence to back up this claim also fails the test of accuracy. For example, he cites a 2006 incident in which Moroccan “youths” beat to death a 54-year-old Antwerp train conductor. He says three youths were arrested but the ringleader escaped because most of the 40 bystanders were too intimidated  to come forward to help police. He uses it as an example of weak-willed Europe letting wanton and unprovoked violence by young Muslim immigrants go unchecked.

In actual fact, the conductor, Guido Demoor, was not “beaten to death;” he died of a subarachnoid hemorrhage caused by a pre-existing condition, according to newspaper accounts of the trial. Nor was he murdered. The charge against his one attacker, an adult, was assault and battery, and he received a conditional sentence. Charges were dismissed for lack of evidence against the other five suspects, some of them youths, who were all arrested within two days from descriptions provided by bystanders.

Other specific claims in the article are questionable. For example, Mr. Steyn states that high birthrates in Muslim countries “will give tiny Yemen a higher population than vast empty Russia” by mid-century. Yemen’s population in 2007 was 22 million, and Russia’s was 141 million. Barring some historic collapse of the Russian population, Yemen is not going to overtake it by 2050. A projection by the U.S. Census Bureau says Russia’s population will decline marginally before reversing itself and registering a low rate of growth in the early part of this century.

Another example: He cites the example of a London judge who agreed “to the removal of Jews and Hindus from a trial jury because the Muslim defendant’s counsel argued he couldn’t get a fair verdict from them.” Not true. Although the judge did make such a ruling, no Jews or Hindus presented themselves for jury duty for the 2003 trial of the Muslim cleric, Sheikh Abdullah el-Faisal. The cleric was convicted of counselling murder on the evidence, mainly tapes he made calling for the death of non-believers.

A simple Google search (as I have done here) shows the selectivity and carelessness Mr. Steyn used in his research, almost as if he set out to tailor the evidence to his thesis that Islam constitutes a threat to the West. This violates several of the standards for responsible journalism cited in Kovach and Rosenstiel.

It is contrary to the value of keeping the news comprehensive and proportional – specifically by “inflating events for sensation, neglecting others, stereotyping or being disproportionately negative.”

It violates the discipline of verification – specifically by not “seeking out multiple witnesses, disclosing as much as possible about sources, or asking various sides for comment.”

And it runs contrary to a journalist’s first obligation to the truth – specifically by neglecting “the professional discipline of assembling and verifying facts.”

His article in Maclean’s seems to fit the Ontario Human Rights Commission’s definition of bias in that it constitutes “an unfair and one-sided portrayal of an issue.” I agree with the Commission’s opinion that this article is Islamophobic because it “includes stereotypes, bias or acts of hostility towards Muslims and the viewing of Muslims as a greater security threat on an institutional, systemic and societal level.”
Mr. Steyn and Maclean’s also appear to violate a great many of the principles and guidelines for reporting that the Canadian Association of Journalists adopted in 2002. They include (to name only the most obvious ones):

Our reporting must be fair, accurate and comprehensive. When we make mistakes we must correct them.
We respect the rights of people involved in the news and will be accountable to the public for the fairness and reliability of our reporting.
We will not allow our own biases to influence fair and accurate reporting.
We will report all relevant facts in coverage of controversies or disputes.
Reporters are responsible for the accuracy of their work. Editors must confirm the accuracy of stories before publication or broadcast. Editors must know in detail the documentation to support stories and the reliability of the sources.
We will encourage our organizations to make room for the interests of all: minorities and majorities; those with power and those without it; disparate and conflicting views.
We will avoid thoughtless stereotypes of race, gender, age, religion, ethnicity, geography, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance or social status.

Indeed, one is tempted by this evidence to conclude that Mr. Steyn’s article was not journalism at all, but a “polemic” – which my dictionary defines as a selective attack. It lacks the discipline of verification, which Kovach and Rosenstiel say “separates journalism from other modes of communication, such as propaganda, fiction or entertainment.”
The result is an article that, in its tone and substance, portrays the influx of Muslim immigrants into Europe and North America as a “threat” to the fabric of Western society and to democracy itself. It alleges, without citing any factual evidence, that Muslims are part of a global conspiracy to take over Western societies, and that all Muslims, because of their beliefs, need to be seen as the enemy because “enough of them” personally share the basic goals of terrorists and provide, through their mosques, a support network for terrorism. They are incapable of being loyal citizens of Western societies and turn to radical “Jihadism” as an inevitable consequence.
A year ago writer Johann Hari reviewed Mr. Steyn’s book, America Alone, from which the Maclean’s excerpt was taken. Writing in The Independent newspaper on June 2, 2008,  he said: “It is a piece of bigotry, based on garbled statistics and ugly prejudices. But free speech includes the right to make claims that are wrong, stupid or abhorrent – or it is no freedom at all. The way to rebut Mark Steyn is through argument. His case is weak; it will never win in an open row. Expose the facts. Rebut his figures. Laugh at his ignorance. The truth is strong; trust it.”

I agree with that statement with one exception: Maclean’s chose to give Steyn’s views maximum exposure, filling the cover and several pages of a magazine that claims a readership of 3.1 million across Canada. Even if it wanted to (and it plainly doesn’t), the publication would not be able to give counter arguments or factual corrections the same exposure.

Nor would any other publication in the country.