I’ve been finding myself somewhat out of sync with my allies on the “false news” question, and, with some reluctance, taking the CRTC’s point, at least to a degree. This sudden progressive panic over “truth” has left me a little bemused. Perhaps this is a case of postmodernism turning around to bite us on the nethers.
At first glance, the usual political stances do seem to have become reversed. The Right, with its dislike of relativism, its insistence on something called “objective reality,” its demand for absolute values and (at least in the case of the so-con contingent) its belief in God-given Truth, has now gone all pomo on us. Truth is fluid, relative, and “anything goes.”
On the progressive side, there is a sudden demand for fixity and firmness, backed up by regulation.
The CRTC proposes to change the current regulation that forbids a licencee to broadcast “any false or misleading news” to this:
any news that the licensee knows is false or misleading and that endangers or is likely to endanger the lives, health or safety of the public.
The basis of this suggested curtailment of what everyone might agree is presently a very broad prohibition indeed (it doesn’t even allow for good-faith promulgation of information that later proves to be false) is a case decided by the Supreme Court of Canada in 1992, R. v. Zundel.
The SCC was dealing with a public liar whose life mission was to rehabilitate Hitler by denying that the Holocaust took place. Section 181 of the Criminal Code of Canada stated that “[e]very one who wilfully publishes a statement, tale or news that he knows is false and causes or is likely to cause injury or mischief to a public interest is guilty of an indictable offence and liable to imprisonment.”
The Court struck down this section of the Code as unconstitutional, in a 4-3 decision. The concept of “injury or mischief to a public interest” was held to be too general.
The CRTC regulation as it stands is even more vague. Were someone to complain successfully on that basis about material broadcast on SunTV, we can be sure that the well-heeled backers of the the “Fox News North” initiative would hot-foot it to the courts with a Charter challenge—and, given the SCC decision in Zundel, we know very well what the results are likely to be.
Preempting expensive legal proceedings whose outcome is a foregone conclusion seems like a reasonable move.
But back to that vexed notion of truth:
Only those enamoured of grand narratives and totalizing world-views argue for Truth with a capital T. The idea that there can be only one Truth is the stuff of revelation, not science. Scientists do not “discover truth,” but build models that accord with observations. Those models are never complete, and are contingent: a single new observation can bring a model crashing to the ground.
But a distinction should be drawn between unassailable Truth and the notion of (as Gulliver’s über-rational Houyhnhnms put it) “saying the thing that is not.” There is a difference between Truth and “a truth.” And there is a further distinction: saying something untrue is not necessarily lying. That’s the nub of the question. I might disagree with something you said, but that doesn’t make you a liar. You’re a liar only if you say something you yourself know to be false.
Given the sheer amplitude of these questions, let me try to cut to the chase, as we all should. Morality has imbued all sides of this question as it is currently framed. Telling an outright lie—saying what you know is false—is immoral. On the one hand, we have those who want the freedom to say anything they want, and are concerned that regulators will unduly restrict their exercise of free speech. On the other, we on the progressive side of things don’t want the airwaves flooded with Faux News-style propaganda. Some see the CRTC regulation change as paving the way, deliberately or otherwise, for the latter. Maybe it is.
But we don’t have to get into notions of Truth or “a truth” to find a good Canadian compromise here. It’s not OK to lie on the public airwaves just so long as we don’t “endanger the lives, health or safety of the public.” That’s far too low a bar. If the word “knowingly” were inserted into the current CRTC regulation, as some have suggested, most if not all concerns should be satisfied.
When it comes to spin, slant, bias, selectivity, none of that can be avoided—t’s the very nature of text. We simply can’t legislate against it. And if the spectre of state-mandated “truth police” raises its head, who among us can claim privileged access to that truth? But surely we can proscribe lying per se.
(To inject a bit of humour into the discussion—I see I’ve been a little earnest in the foregoing—this National Post commentary is an enjoyable read.)