I’ve heard many rowdy listener call-in shows, but none as boisterous as this. In fact, the racket it raised is still echoing within the corridors of the CBC.
The Monday, May 14 edition of Crosstalk on Radio Noon started out quietly enough. The topic was abortion, and the guest was Patrick Hanlon, representing the pro-life side of the debate. The pro-choice side was also invited to participate, host John Furlong (above, CBC photo) explained, but they declined. Furlong had noticed a recent survey which found that 34 per cent of citizens in this country feel that abortion is wrong, which struck him as a large number considering that people are not vocal on the issue.
After a quick preamble with Hanlon, a soft-spoken 24 year old with deeply held religious beliefs, Furlong opened the lines to callers. And that’s when it hit the fan.
Well-known activist Peg Norman was the first caller. And she went ballistic. I don’t know that I have ever heard such vitriol expressed on radio. You can hear the entire program by going to the Radio Noon Crosstalk archive. The content is so intense that it is disturbing at times, though Norman’s call off the top was probably the most shocking. Here is the full exchange:
Peg Norman: First of all, I’m absolutely appalled that CBC has given the Crosstalk show over to the anti-choice, misogynyst group of people that Patrick Hanlon represents. I was approached on Friday by somebody who had been tasked by you to come up with a guest to be on as a counter-point. And I said absolutely not. I would not do it for two reasons: one because the issue of abortion in Newfoundland and Labrador is not a current hot topic… Abortion in Newfoundland and Labrador is acceptable, it is covered by our health care plan and it is a medical procedure available to all women in this province. Two, to go on Radio Noon as a counter to Patrick Hanlon and his hateful misogynyst views is a waste of my time. Patrick Hanlon will never have to make the decision to have an abortion. Patrick Hanlon will never have to be in that position. And to give him a full show to spew his hateful, misogynystic views, I think is deplorable on the part of CBC. The issue of choice in this country is still very much current. There are still threats to it, as Patrick Hanlon represents, and people who think like him. The issue of choice in this world is still very much an issue. There are many women in this world who are still dying every day because of hateful people like Patrick Hanlon who think that women have no right to control their bodies. And I am absolutely shocked that the public broadcaster would give him a full show to (broadcast this). I am absolutely shocked. I cannot believe it.
Furlong: If I can interrupt, the only reason that Patrick Hanlon has the full show is because we couldn’t find anybody else to go on with him.
Norman: But the fact that CBC would go ahead and do this show without…
Furlong: And let the other side dictate whether or not we’re going to do the show because…
Norman: Would you have somebody on that show who was anti-semitic? Would you …
Furlong: Well, that’s a specious argument.
Norman: No, I am asking you, would you have somebody on your show who is a member of an anti-semitic group and allow them on because you couldn’t find somebody who wasn’t anti-semitic? Would you allow someone on the show who represented a homophobic group, for instance? In this day and age you would not. But you, for some strange reason, believe it is still fine to have a hateful, misogynyst man on your show talking about the issue of choice which he has absolutely no right to talk about. Patrick Hanlon, if you don’t believe in abortion, do not have one. But do not – do not ever – stand in the way of a woman who has to make that very difficult choice. Do not ever do that. You are a hateful person. I cannot believe it – I have to say it again – that my public broadcaster would have you on there today. I am shocked.
Since this item aired, word reached me that a letter of complaint had been sent to the CBC from an unspecified women’s group, demanding that CBC apologize for airing the program and commit to not broach the subject again.
I received confirmation from Regional Director Diane Humber that CBC had received such a complaint, to which they have yet to respond. She promised to get back to me with more information, and I will update you as I receive it.
For his part, John Furlong stayed cool during the program, despite the verbal attack from Norman and several others. I called to ask if he was at all shaken by the incident.
“Absolutely,” he said. “I was taken aback at the all-out attack on freedom of speech.”
Furlong said that repeated attempts were made to bring in a representative of the pro-choice side, but their reply was that this issue should not be discussed at all. “I mean, that’s a very dangerous ideology to be spreading in 2007,” he said.
Accusations made during the program – that the producers didn’t give the pro-choice side enough time to pull in a spokesperson – are not accurate, Furlong said. “We’d been chasing this since last week and were still chasing it right up to airtime. So the people who called on Monday morning, who said we had just called them that morning, I suppose technically they were right because we were still feverishly trying to get someone to come on and put forward the other side. “
While he certainly didn’t set out to offend anyone, Furlong has no regrets about how the program was handled. “Could we have done the show differently? Absolutely. I could have set it up differently. I could have been a little more clearer on why we decided to do it now. I could have maybe looked for a different guest to put forward. Rarely am I part of any show that I somehow wouldn’t have done differently when I think about it. But to not go ahead because one party doesn’t want to be part of it, because they want the subject shut down… I thought that was shameful.”
Furlong also expressed disappointment that he has not received the unqualified support of CBC management on this issue.
“I’m still paying the price here at CBC, because the CBC brass are thoroughly pissed off,” he said. “I’m not quite sure why, but I get the distinct impression that they are not pleased. There are people who won’t even make eye contact with me… If the CBC had upset Patrick Hanlon, they would have said ‘That’s ok, that’s only Patrick Hanlon, don’t worry about him.’ But if you upset Gerri Rogers, Peg Norman and Nancy Riche, then you’ve got a problem on your hands if you’re the CBC.”
I can understand and appreciate why the pro-choice side is upset. They worked long and hard to have abortion removed from the criminal code. But this does not give them the right to suppress debate on the issue. I will give the final say on this back to John Furlong:
“I think one of the talkback callers that we had on said it best: ‘Your first pro-choice caller frightened me. Obviously, she does not believe in free speech. In her world, only her right to speak is sacred.’ That is so true.”