Licence to smear?

The CRTC is proposing changing the Broadcasting Act so that where it formerly said “shall not broadcast any false or misleading news” it will now say “shall not broadcast 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.” You may know that some people are up in arms about this.

Others feel that it’s not unreasonable to allow broacasters some slack. It’s not illegal for me to lie to a friend, and we all make mistakes, so why have the government interfere so much? Why not let the news media get the same slack we’d like to get?

For me, there are two salient issues with the proposed wording change.

First of all, suspecting something is false is not the same as knowing it is false, and not knowing it is true is not the same as knowing it is false (and one could just avoid checking so one wouldn’t know it’s false – bit of a loophole there), but broadcasting things as fact when you have no idea whether it really is fact is more than just irresponsible. It can be harmful, and – as has been demonstrated amply in the US – it can poison the discourse, be unnecessarily divisive, and give unfair advantage to one part. Many people will seize on an inflammatory assertion and not let go even when contradictory facts are published. And by then the damage may have been done.

It’s not a crime for you or me to lie to a friend, but it would be a crime for us to do so in a court of law. There are circumstances where a falsehood can cause real harm, and in those cases the law does get involved. If I say that person X is a rapist and it’s not true, person X can sue me – but that requires person X to mount a lawsuit at considerable personal expense. The resources of those damaged by falsehoods published in the news media are very often nowhere near the resources of the media companies they would be facing in a court, in case that would be dragged out for years. (Media companies in their turn sometimes avoid publishing true but harmful information about large corporations for the same reason: they couldn’t afford to win the lawsuit.) And yet that published assertion would be harmful to person X.

And that’s the second thing. I’m talking about harm. Doesn’t the new wording address that? Not altogether. What is says is “that endangers or is likely to endanger the lives, health or safety of the public.” That is a much more stringent test. A newspaper could publish something saying I am incompetent, and that would cost me business and income, but it would not manifestly endanger my life, health, or safety, let alone that of the rest of the public.

A newspaper could, for instance, publish an assertion that political party A is in favour of mandatory euthanasia for people over 80, with nothing to go on but something that someone told them off the record. The newspaper could say that while it’s not in the platform details they’ve seen, they believe it’s a hidden agenda. This would obviously cause damage to political party A and benefit to political party B, and provoke a certain segment of the population, and further poison the political discourse, but one could not prove that it would endanger the lives, health, or safety of the public, and the newspaper could say that they don’t know it to be false, and you just try proving that they do.

The reason journalists like the term “alleged” so much is that it allows them to report that someone is accusing someone of having done something while at the same time freeing them from endorsing it as fact. That and many other available means for moderating and qualifying assertions allow more than ample wiggle room for misleading, as we already know. A change in the legislation as proposed would simply be carte blanche for, among other things, some very low-level politics.

If I publish something, I am responsible for making sure that I have my facts straight. If I don’t have them straight, either I don’t publish it or I make it clear that I don’t have full information on the subject but that I suspect or am inclined to conclude this or that. The revision to the law would make it possible for a newspaper to publish something that any reasonable person furnished with the facts could see is remotely possible but not likely true (and that might even be denied by the person in question, but if you decide the person is lying, well…) and that would cost the person in question his job, reputation, and livelihood – but not provably endanger his life, safety, or health.

I think that should be illegal. I don’t want to live in a society where it’s not.

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