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Subsidized to Pollute the Public Square?: Sun News and Ezra Levant Vie for CRTC Support

It was more than a little convenient to hear right-wing commentator Ezra Levant recently deliver his latest public apology, just in time for the start today of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CTRC) hearings into his Sun News Network’s application for “mandatory carriage.”

A favorable ruling by the regulator would put Levant in every Canadian home with a basic cable package and $18 million a year in the pockets of Sun Media. That might be good news for Levant and Sun Media parent Quebecor Inc, but for Canadians looking for unpolluted public discourse, not so much. What’s more, in return for rescuing Sun media from the red ink, Canadian subscribers would get an increase in cable rates.

Levant likes to make headlines, even when most of them are unflattering. The last one in March was to Canada’s Roma community, following a racist rant he gave on his Sun News Network show The Source in September, during which he described the community as “gypsies, a culture synonymous with swindlers” that have come to Canada as “to gyp us again and rob us blind as they have done in Europe for centuries.”

The network apologized two weeks later but Levant’s took until mid-March, on the eve of the CRTC hearings. The network’s vice-president, Kory Teneycke, recently told CBC Radio he didn’t think Levant’s “intent was racist” and that the man he’s known for 20 years has “no hatred in his heart.”

While the CRTC considers the mandatory coverage request, we at DeSmog Canada think it’s a good time to discuss the social value of such reckless commentary on Canada’s airwaves. While some may argue the right to free speech, any good lawyer will tell you that free speech does not entitle you to libel people or to fabricate information, even if it’s your on-air shtick is to shake things up.

Levant has a history of being censured or sanctioned for defamatory statements and falsehoods. He is also guilty of distorting and inventing facts, defaming people and failing to exercise the diligence required of a responsible “journalist.”

In 2010, he was forced to apologize and retract comments he made in a Sun Media column accusing American billionaire George Soros of collaborating with Nazis as a child in Hungary. Sun Media later issued a retraction and apology. In 2011, Levant accused Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi of “anti-Christian bigotry” for calling an end to a preacher-led protest. That same year, Levant violated the Canadian Broadcasting Standards Council’s ethical guidelines with an on-air diatribe leveled at Chiquita Bananas, after the company announced it would avoid using fuel derived from Alberta’s oil sands. Addressing an executive of Chiquita Brands International, Levant said, “Hey, you. Yeah you . . .Chinga tu madre [Fuck your mother].”

His pro-oil industry lobby group, the Ethical Oil Institute, was also behind a pro-Keystone XL pipeline publicity stunt in front of the White House in 2011, where two women wearing burkas stood holding a hand-lettered sign that read "Stop tar sands, Stop Canada, Americans4OPEC.com." The Americans4OPEC.com website states that it’s a satire created by EthicalOil.org to highlight “the choice Americans now have: A choice between several more decades of dependency on OPEC’s conflict oil or a future built on reliable, secure, and peaceful ethical oil from neighbouring Canada."

Despite the apologies and public backlash, Levant hasn’t slowed down his attempts to stir up controversy, and spew misleading information. His strategy, as we’ve noted in the past on DeSmog Canada, is to use brazen PR stunts and disinformation to confuse the debate around whatever issue he is tackling at the time. Levant is particularly focused these days on promoting the oil sands, with a campaign that tries to vilify his opponents through the use of lies and deception.

Consider Levant’s recent attack against well-known environmentalist David Suzuki, who he falsely accused of having requested female “escorts” to act as bodyguards during an October 2012 visit to John Abbott College in Montreal. As part of his illogical attempt to portray Dr. Suzuki as a dirty old man and sully his reputation, Levant further twisted the truth by taking some of Suzuki’s past writings and quoting them out of context to fit his manufactured story.

The college responded to the accusations with a statement saying Dr. Suzuki had both male and female students accompanying him throughout the day, and calling Levant’s assessment a misinterpretation of the facts. “There was no rider in Dr. Suzuki’s contract specifying the gender or dress code of those assisting him throughout the day. The negative comments and innuendos made are demeaning to those students and to the College … .”

Levant’s disregard for facts was also recently highlighted on his TV show when he accused “white billionaires from New York” of using “First Nation puppets” to try to stop pipeline developments in North America.

Most Canadians understand Levant’s purpose is political entertainment. Few take it seriously. Still, Canadians should ask themselves: Is this really the kind of dialogue we want filling the public square?

Wouldn’t it be more productive, not to mention more Canadian, if our debates around critical issues such as environment and resource development were based on facts, not a slew of misinformation and personal attacks?

Of course, creating and maintaining an open dialogue is hard work. It’s also not as entertaining as watching people take cheap shots and fire off false statements about their opponents. Yet, it’s the boring work that must be done if we are to come to decisions that reflect the values of most Canadians.

Let’s start by turning the volume down on shock seekers like Levant. Removing this pollution-filled type of communication is the first step to cleaning up Canada’s polluted public square.

Jim Hoggan is president and owner of award-winning strategic communication firm Hoggan & Associates, founder of DeSmogBlog, and chair of the David Suzuki Foundation.

Image Credit: University of Saskatchewan via flickr.

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