MEDIA WATCH

Old warriors, new foes: the media

A new Ontario law may help veterans who claim they were defamed by a TV show about the actions of wartime fliers

GEORGE BAIN August 2 1993
MEDIA WATCH

Old warriors, new foes: the media

A new Ontario law may help veterans who claim they were defamed by a TV show about the actions of wartime fliers

GEORGE BAIN August 2 1993

Old warriors, new foes: the media

MEDIA WATCH

GEORGE BAIN

A new Ontario law may help veterans who claim they were defamed by a TV show about the actions of wartime fliers

Last year, when the row was hot over the film series The Valour and the Horror, Desmond Morton, principal of Erindale College, University of Toronto, raised the question in an Op-Ed page piece in The Toronto Star of media performance where media interests are engaged. It began: “One of the hardest things to do in a free society is to criticize the media. Judges, politicians and certainly ordinary citizens are subject to checks and balances. Anyone criticizing the media will find them judge, jury and defence lawyer in their own case. When even libel and slander laws are condemned by the media as ‘a chill’ against free speech, where do the victims of media bias turn?”

The answer for those Second World War bomber aircrew men who say that Death by Moonlight, one of three films in the series, carelessly and intentionally produced a distorted version of history, seems to lie in the Class Proceedings Act in force in Ontario since January. It provides for financial assistance in class action suits if, for instance, the plaintiffs make reasonable efforts to raise funds on their own, which is being done now (and to which I as a Royal Canadian Air Force bomber veteran have responded).

Through a trust named for the Second World War leader of the Royal Air Force Bomber Command, Sir Arthur (Bomber) Harris, the veterans have given notice of a suit for $500 million against all concerned in the making and distribution of the film. They say Death By Moonlight defamed them— defamation being defined in law as matter published (or broadcast) that is likely to damage the reputation of any person by exposing him or her to hatred, contempt or ridicule. The question, therefore, is whether it constitutes a reasonable ground for someone, or a collection of someones, to believe a cause of action exists in their having been portrayed on national television as either the knowing killers of hundreds of thousands without excuse, justification or military purpose, which

is to say, mass murderers, or as the unquestioning puppets of villainous politicians and military leaders, hence mindless dupes.

In July, 1992, six months after The Valour and the Horror series first ran on CBC TV, I wrote the first of now five Media Watch columns on what had become a media issue. Brian McKenna, director and co-author, replied with a long letter to the editor that contained these lines: “In the film, we gave the crews the benefit of the doubt about whether they knew their missions included the deliberate killing of civilians. But some did get direct orders to do so, Bain among them. He was sent to firebomb the homes of war workers in France. It still bothers him.”

It does not, and did not; that was an invention. What I, as a pilot, had at the time was a cynical awareness of hypocrisy in pretending that any war is fought with completely clean hands, on either side. The objective in that operation was to knock out German submarine repair shops, which, beneath yards of reinforced concrete, had proved impervious to high explosive bombs. The legitimate strategic purpose was to prevent more subs from sinking more Allied ships, on which, it has to be remembered, there were also human lives

at stake. But, as someone once said: ‘Trying to explain war to someone who has not known one, is like trying to explain sex to someone who has never experienced it.” McKenna is that sort of intellectual virgin.

Deliberate or not, the failure to take account of the larger context of the war was the prime, but not the only, historical fault in Death By Moonlight. The fault of the media generally, was to have become so engrossed in sheltering one of their own from critical examination as to exert a sort of censorshipby-incuriosity upon the other side of the argument—censorship, paradoxically, in the name of freedom of expression. That poses a question: Is freedom of expression the exclusive preserve of the media, or may ordinary citizens play, too? The most quoted line from A. J. Fiebling, who for years wrote “The Wayward Press” column in The New Yorker, is that “freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.” Certainly in the case of The Valour and the Horror, those without a press or a television network of their own were given a thin time of it before, but more particularly after, the media seized on the counterfeit issue of a supposed threat to freedom of expression/freedom of the press. Curiosity went out the window.

Fast November, the issue by then 10 months old, William Thorsell, editor in chief of The Globe and Mail, wrote, or presided over the writing of: (a) an editorial excoriating CBC management for its “abject disavowal of the series”—this on the advice of the CBC ombudsman, appointed as a corporate gesture towards accountability; (b) his own signed Saturday column, headed “Slavish defence of conventional wisdom shows up CBC’s stupidity”; and (c) his letter to a critical reader in which he said loftily: “I do not sit in judgment over the particulars of the case.” If an editor’s vehement opinions do not come from sitting in judgment of the particulars of a case, are they said, then, to reflect simply biases?

Similar media incuriosity was evident in other instances, including a lack of effort to uncover the details of what was said by two Canadian historians that helped lead the CBC’s ombudsman to decide the series was severely flawed. What caused the English historian, Martin Middlebrook, the most-cited historian in the film-makers’ list of sources, to refuse to testify in behalf of Death By Moonlight, and to characterize the film in a readily available letter as “a gross distortion of a very complex subject”? And no one reported that at least one of the two bomber command veterans who appeared in the film, Douglas Harvey, notwithstanding his having damned the Senate subcommittee’s inquiry, privately felt the two of them had been shut out of any real participation in the line the story took, and consequently that they had been used.

Incidentally, if the class action suit for defamation goes ahead, and succeeds, no more than $1 a head will go to the more than 25,000 plaintiffs. A large portion of the rest, all of which will be disbursed, will endow a chair of ethics at a Canadian school of journalism.