Thursday, May 17, 2007

An all-out attack on freedom of speech

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.”


Greg Locke said...

...and people have a right NOT to talk to CBC or any other media, as well.

After more than 20 years in this business I finally realised that people don't HAVE to talk to me. Just because the media asks doesn't mean we deserve an answer or response, except for maybe people who take public money incomprehensible as that may be to some journalists.

While there is a right to free speech there is a right not to speak also.

There is also a law against hate mongering that hasn't been pushed much beyond anti-semetic comments and writings yet.

This little incident (and I think Peg has a very valid point) might finally lead to a discussion in newsrooms that will knock some sactimonious journalists off their high stools.


Dale Kirby said...

freedom of speech? The CBC also has some responsibility to represent issues factually. Did you listen to the "layman's" breast cancer diagnosis provided by the RTL?

Jason Hickman said...

Greg L., I didn't hear Hanlon's remarks, or Norman's for that matter (other than what's printed here). But this comment of yours concerns me:

There is also a law against hate mongering that hasn't been pushed much beyond anti-semetic comments and writings yet.

Are you saying that holding a pro-life point of view, and stating that view "on the air", is equivalent - morally or legally - to anti-semitism?

Jason Hickman said...

And Dale, are you saying CBC didn't "represent" the abortion issue "factually"? And if not, how did it fail?

Mark said...

An early part of your column reads as follows:

"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..."

In other words, the fact that thirty four percent of people feel a certain way, according to Furlong, makes it fair game for public comment.

Yet later, when Peg Norman makes the analogy to anti-semetism, Furlong dismisses it as "specious".

How is her argument specious?

Consider the following: In January, TVA commissioned a poll which the Montreal Gazette also reported which showed... "43 per cent of Quebecers said they’re only “slightly” racist, while 15 per cent are “moderately” so. Only one per cent described themselves as ‘‘strongly’’ racist."

Now - apply Furlong's argument to that set of facts - if 34% makes the abortion discussion ok, then certainly 58% must make it equally OK to put a racist on the air for an hour or so.

But it isn't. Not in this day and age.

So Peg Norman's argument is hardly specious at all, is it?

Anyway, I didn't listen to the interview, so I can't say one way or another if her message or delivery was over-the-top or poorly executed, but on that one point which you have described on your blog, I think she was dead right.

It is easy for us (I note that everyone who is mentioned or has posted here is a man, except for Peg) to dismiss the notion that anti-choice discussion is hate speech. But if it isn't, it is a very thin line between the two.

That line gets blatantly crossed when practitioners are targetted, but it is also crossed when people refer to patients as murderers. That's at least as inhumane, hateful or offensive as degrading people of different ethnicities, etc.

We wouldn't allow a person on the public airwaves to explicitly or implicitly refer to a "black" person as inferior, a "newfie" as stupid, or a homosexual as a social deviant.

Explicitly or implicitly referring to women who have had abortions as "killers" is no better.

Mind you, I have no idea if any such thing was said, as I never listened to it. But I do know that if you raise the subject as some form of "open" debate, then you open the door to that very kind of speech, which is every bit as hateful as the eaxmples I described above.

The other mistake here on the CBC's pasrt is clouding the confusion of abortion as an individual morality issue vs. abortion as a public policy issue. As a morality issue - like all morality issues - this debate will probably never end. And it is absolutely possible to oppose abortion without being a hateful person. But as a public policy issue, this debate is over.

Whether the number of people who feel otherwise is 34%, 49%, 51% or 90% is completely irrelevant.

We live in a society in which the Charter protects certain rights that we hold to be above "majority rule" considerations. Since the Morgentaler decision, the right to control one's own body - in the context of the practice of abortion - is one of those rights. Opening it up for some discussion on the airwaves (in the public policy sense) is a ridiculous waste of time.

My point is, you can't use the fact that a certain number of people think something is ok to be your rationale for its justification.

Today in Iraq, a woman was stoned to death for having relations with a man from another religious sect. You can watch it on Youtube or CNN.

I bet 34% of the people in that mob thought that was ok too. Maybe 99% them did.

But that didn't make it right.

Mark said...

Or, put another way, the Charter of Rights, which defends the freedom of speech, also defends the right to control of one's body.

Why do you lament the "all-out attack" on one but not the "all-out attack" on the other?

Candace said...

As a pro-choice woman, I am appalled by Peg Norman's attack. I have not listened to the show, and am going only by the written text.

WHY can we not discuss abortion?

And I would agree that comparing such a discussion (assuming it's reasoned or at least rational) to hate-crimes is WAY over the top.

Pro-choice, for the record, means the right to CHOOSE. Not the right to abort. The right to choose the best path at the given time. For some, that is abortion, for others, it is not.

The vitriol around this topic is frightening in a "free" country.

SUZANNE said...

I blogged it. Thanks for this informative and insightful article.

Jason Hickman said...

Mark, I have to comment on this point:

Since the Morgentaler decision, the right to control one's own body - in the context of the practice of abortion - is one of those [Charter] rights.

Leaving aside the political right's and wrong's, I don't think you've captured the legal situation correctly.

The majority of the Supreme Court of Canada in Morgentaller did strike down the abortion law as it existed, but a majority of the Court did not hold that abortion was an inviolate Charter right.

If memory serves - and if you don't believe me, I'm sure I can find a link to the decision and post it - only Justice Bertha Wilson held that there was a Charter right to abortion.

The other judges of the majority who "concurred in the result" (to use a court phrase) but they didn't go as far as she did; they didn't feel it was necessary to do so to strike down that particular law.

In fact, Parliament tried to pass an abortion law after that; it dies in a tie vote in the Senate, if memory serves (again).

It would have been interesting to see what the S.C.C. would have done with that law, and it'll be interesting to see what the Court does with any future law restricting abortion, if one is ever passed.

But while I'm sure other lawyers would disagree with me - that's what makes lawyers so popular! - I don't think the Supreme Court of Canada has conclusively said whether abortion is a Charter right, one way or the other.

Geoff Meeker said...

Hey everyone... Just a quick reminder that we are talking about freedom of speech issues here. If the discussion devolves into an argument between the pro-choice and pro-life sides, I may start deleting. Such a discussion would quickly become rancorous and would drown out the subject that started this debate.

kodak said...

Isn't freedom of speech about being a right to choose? Any pro abortion supporter who was asked had the right and choice to partake or not. Time and life did not end on the day of that broadcast, and will likely continue. Anyone can presumably call in on the topic, or suggest the topic be raised again, so lots of opportunities. Unless you are forced to do certain things, you have freedom of choice. That includes career paths, personal actions, and the choice to be part of a public debate or not. There was no need for Norman to blow a gasket, people chose not to get involved, at that particular day, at that particular time. On another day, it could work out the other way.

Mark said...

Jason - I didn't use the words "right to abortion" I said right "to control one's own body". It's in the quote which you cited.

You raise a good point, though, a more correct set of terminology would probably reflect the right to freedom from a certain state interference as opposed to the right to perfom the action itself. That probably better reflects the wording of the decision. In that , I stand corrected.

Geoff - the purpose of my lengthy comment was freedom of speech - namely (i) the contradiction in Furlong's reasoning when he dismissed PN's argument as specious, (ii) the possibility that such a dialogue invites hateful expression which would not be accepted by the medaia in comparable circumstances, and (iii) questioning why an "all out attack" on one freedom by PN is to be chastised, while an "all out attack" on another is readily dismissed.

I hope you'll keep this thread going, not to debate the merits of pro-choice v anti-choice, but to have a discussion of just what limitations we are willing/obligated to place on the freedom of speech, and what role the media has in such considerations.

Geoff Meeker said...

Mark: No, that comment wasn't aimed at you. Your remarks are fine, and 'on topic'. What I want to avoid are arguments about whether abortion itself is right or wrong. I am sure there are other pages for that...

Deirdre Greene said...

I have to say I'm surprized and rather shocked by this post. First, I have deep respect for Peg Norman, whom I think is a fine person and would be an outstanding elected representative, where-ever she chose to run at whatever level of government. Second, I have also known Patrick Hanlon since he was a school-mate of my daughter: he is a sincere and committed person, and while I do not agree with his position on abortion I agree with some of his reasons for holding that position - including the idea that no fetus should be aborted for economic or fiscal reasons only. What I am shocked by is Ms Norman's repeated use of the word "hateful" to describe Patrick Hanlon. That is just over the top. We should treat this issue as a policy issue and leave the personal attacks out of it. Pro-lifers should not be called hateful and pro-choicers should not be called baby-killers. This lowers the level of debate and distracts from substantive issues. This is a serious issue and deserves the serious, objective attention of all sides in the debate. And while we're at it, can we raise the level of debate on ALL public policy issues? I'd like to see that.

Mark said...

anon - the analogy to racism was only used in the context of Furlong's justification for topic.

I made it quite clear in my comments that you can oppose abortion with being hateful, see above: "And it is absolutely possible to oppose abortion without being a hateful person."

Also - you accuse me of being unwilling to identify Peg Norman's speech itself as hateful speech.

I am indeed unwilling to do so, as I stated clearly in my comments that I did not listen to it. So yes, I am unwilling to jump to any conclusion about her comments as I have not heard them.

See above: "I didn't listen to the interview, so I can't say one way or another if her message or delivery was over-the-top or poorly executed..."

My only comments were directed at the assesment of the interview as presented on this blog.

PS - I also used my name.

Blazing Cat Fur said...

An excellent post, thank you for bringing this matter to light. PS. Any relation to Howie? Bet you've never been asked that before...

Joanne (True Blue) said...

Excellent and highly informative post.

I can't think of a single other issue that is as taboo as abortion.

Seraphic Single said...

I came to this site through Blazing Catfur's site and listened to the radio show with interest.

I was struck by Peg Norman's attack on Patrick Hanlon and how the her words "hateful" and "misogynist" had absolutely nothing to do with what he had said. It was if Norman was telling us how we, the listeners, were to hear Hanlon. Later, commenters wanted to lay one elderly caller's faith-based arguments at Hanlon's door.

I was also struck by the verbal attacks on the radio host himself. It was if he was breaking some blood oath never to talk about the abortion issue. The listeners were furious that it could be discussed on a respectable media outlet.

But I was also struck by the host's cutting off the elderly doctor's questions about partial-birth abortion. Yes, the details would be upsetting to hear on lunchtime radio. However they are certainly pertinent to a conversation about abortion. After all, what IS an abortion? And would a kidney stone operation or liposuction be treated with such delicacy on-air? If not, why not?

What we have going on here, I think, is the privileging of will over the intellect. Just as a fetus is now not a baby unless someone WANTS it to be a baby, so a topic of discussion is valid only if someone WANTS it to be so. That someone on the CBC wanted it to be so was very threatening to those who do not.

Joanne (True Blue) said...

Geoff, I'm posting another comment here as a kind of experiment, since you mentioned that my comments are coming through as 'anonymous', which I can't figure out.

Anyway, I just linked to your post here, since it is relating to a discussion about freedom of speech and showing two sides of an issue in the educational system. (Well, it might be a stretch, but I think there is a connection).


Anonymous said...


I was forwarded a link to this blog from a number of friends on the mainland and in the Province. apparently, news travels quickly through your blog. The following discussion/debate certainly presented some good points to ponder. So, I had to make a post to say thank you for your commentary.

Patrick Hanlon
Right to Life Association

Geoff Meeker said...

Please note that I have gone through this comments section and deleted all posts that were anonymous, or at least did not leave an email or blog contact.

Geoff Meeker said...

Someone keeps trying to post anonymously here, even though I have explained that anonymous posts are not permitted. He accuses me of censorship. My policy is no different than the daily newspapers - all you have to do is include your full name, or link to a blog that identifies you, and your post goes.

The reason I don't allow anonymous comments is simple. When people are speaking 'on the record', they tend to state their arguments in a balanced and rational way. Blogs that allow anonymous comment quickly deteriorate into snake pits, full of meaningless, hateful venom and vicious personal attacks.

I make no apologies for this. It's my blog. If you don't like it, go somewhere else.