COLUMN

Nagging a little paper that grew

Barbara Amiel November 25 1985
COLUMN

Nagging a little paper that grew

Barbara Amiel November 25 1985

Nagging a little paper that grew

COLUMN

Barbara Amiel

The tabloid newspaper The Toronto Sun has never been popular with anyone but its readers. And a lot of its readers pretend they never see the paper except by accident. Those who admit to reading it are workingclass people or tradesmen.

During the time I was editor of The Toronto Sun—I continue to be its associate editor—I became used to having readers approach me to talk about a column in the Sun that they had “read while at the dentist’s office” or “on my secretary’s desk.” People felt constrained to explain how it happened that they came to be reading our paper.

I soon realized that this was an intriguing form of social snobbery. The Toronto Sun is a tabloid that is regarded as lower-class, and people of intellectual pretensions feel a need to dissociate themselves from it. This is especially intriguing because many of the Sun’s regular writers have impeccable intellectual credentials: the American columnist William F. Buckley Jr., the erudite British journalist John O’Sullivan and such Canadian writers as Eric Margolis, George Jonas, Walter Stewart.

The great claim against The Toronto Sun has always been that its news coverage is too brief or inaccurate. The people who made the complaint were generally those for whom television news was the major source of information or people who read The Globe and Mail, where corrections of research errors are almost a daily news story in themselves.

I mention this perception of The Toronto Sun to give Maclean’s readers some context about a current issue— namely, the campaign against the Sun by Toronto Mayor Art Eggleton and the mayor’s Committee on Community and Race Relations.

On Oct. 8 the mayor and his committee, representing a number of race relations groups and Toronto’s antiapartheid coalition, met with senior management of The Toronto Sun. The mayor, who is chairman of the committee, presented a dossier of charges to Toronto Sun publisher Paul Godfrey. Briefly, the committee charged that The Toronto Sun was a racist newspaper, that specific writers were racist and their work should be repudiated by the publisher, that the Sun’s stand on such issues as multiculturalism, affirmative action and South Af-

rica was “unacceptable” and that an advisory committee should be set up to assist the newspaper in screening its content for material offensive to the mayor’s committee.

If the newspaper did not agree to all this, said the committee, it would recommend that the city of Toronto withdraw its advertising from the Sun and recommend that city council boycott Sun events.

It was the last threat, of course, that made the occasion significant. Anyone can object to The Toronto Sun’s opinions. But this group came with the endorsement of the mayor of Canada’s largest city. And he was prepared to economically threaten the newspaper by withholding taxpayers’ money.

All I can say is that the Sun’s opinions fall within the spectrum of respectable democratic thought. The Sun has consistently abhorred South African apartheid but has not approved of

4It is not yet the case that conservative views are so offensive that the public interest requires them to be censored’

economic sanctions against South Africa. As far as the newspaper’s stand on such social policies as affirmative action and multiculturalism, it disapproves of them on the grounds that they are unfair and socially divisive.

This disapproval is shared by many eminent scholars and, together with the newspaper’s stand on sanctions, can be found in the policies of such freely elected governments as those of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. While it may be argued that people who oppose such things as affirmative action or sanctions are—in current political parlance—“conservatives,” it is not yet the case that conservative views are so offensive that the public interest requires them to be censored!

About the most controversial thing the Sun has ever done is to analyse various cultures and the consequences of their practices and values. But the Sun has never employed a columnist who has anything but contempt for the notion that one group of people is intrinsically, genetically superior or inferior to another—which is what the noxious doctrine of racism means.

How, then, did the mayor’s committee document its charges? It used standard smear tactics. Paragraphs and words were taken out of context. They culled phrases from editorials and columns such as “savage” and “our values” without any reference to where they came from. The committee’s submission was a crude propaganda tool masquerading as scientific analysis. Indeed, it is precisely the sort of thing that is designed to stir up hatred between groups and create tension —which is not surprising, because so many of the groups represented pn the mayor’s committee make their living out of dealing with racial tension.

It takes the most extreme leftor right-wing impulse to interfere with anyone’s political analysis or expression of opinion. It must have been perfectly evident to the committee members that however much they disagreed with the Sun, the newspaper was publishing lawful ideas. If they were not lawful, the proper course of action would have been to sue.

It was also clear that the mayor’s committee had no notion of, and no concern for, the fundamental principle of open discourse in a free society. In both their methods and aims its members were simply acting as a protofascist group.

But their threats were greeted with a deadly silence. The Canadian Civil Liberties Association, the Writers’ Union of Canada and the Ontario Press Council all remained mute. The Globe and Mail ran a major story headlined “Sun sees freedom of the press as issue”—indicating that the Globe certainly did not.

Indeed, in the Globe article Eggleton said that neither he nor his committee had ever accused the Sun of being racist—which was, to put it politely, a misstatement of fact. Had the Globe looked at the committee’s report, it would have seen the stark statement that the conclusion that the paper is racist “is inescapable.”

The silence in the face of these events is both tragic and ominous. The Toronto Sun lawfully expressed opinions with which many people in the media and intelligentsia may disagree. That is their right. What such people do not seem to realize is that when there is an attempt to suppress opinions with which they disagree, the time will soon come when their own opinions or opinions with which they do agree will meet a similar fate.