The Hamilton Spectator
Saturday, January 31, 1997
page B5

Stern shows up the sham of our censorship laws

by Andrew Coyne

It has been almost five months since Howard Stern made his debut on Canadian radio, three months since the industry's regulator ordered the sex-obsessed New York disc jockey off the air for offending Canadian broadcast standards, two months since the stations that carried his morning show promised to do something to clean up his act.

And throughout, Stern has kept up his cheerful tirades as if nothing had happened, disparaging everyone from gays to women to French Canadians, attracting huge audiences and bushels of complaints. And, indeed, nothing has happened. No one has come to harm because of Stern's filthy mouth. There has been no outbreak of civil unrest, no one's reputation has been smeared, no threat to national security has been unearthed.

None of this matters, however, beside the enormity of Stern's real offence, which is to have shown up the system of broadcast regulations, together with the creeping army of high-minded paper-pushers and their private-sector toadies charged with enforcing it, for the institutionalized humbug it is. Who care, they inwardly shriek, what the rationale for regulation may be - he has offended the standards!

It all has something of the flavour of the Soviet Union in its last, impotent convulsions, a merry round of cant that no one believes, but all are obliged to perform. The regulators pretend to be a voluntary industry body, called the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council. After much sonorous deliberation over the precise import of such words as "peckerhead" or "scumbag", they issue a ruling, which they pretend to enforce. The stations pretend to comply, and the rest of us pretend to notice.

At some length, a new round of complaint, inquiry, ruling, and compliance begins - the CBSC is hard at work as you read this - after which, with any luck, we can discard the pretence, and get somewhere near the truth: That the government of Canada considers it its right and its duty to censor what its citizens may hear on the radio or watch on TV, in a way that it would never dare apply to newspapers.

If this affair does nothing else, it will strip the state of the convenient fiction that the industry is merely regulating itself.

Because once it becomes too evident to ignore that the first two stations to carry Stern's show, in Montreal and Toronto, have successfully defied the CBSC's ruling, then other stations across the country will undoubtedly pick him up. Then the issue will be squarely in the hands of the industry's real and only regulator, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission. It is the CRTC that has the power to suspend the stations' licence. It was at the CRTC's behest, or at any rate with its approval, that the CBSC was established in the first place.

Exposed to the light of day, the arguments for banning Stern soon start to shrivel. The CBSC ruling dredges up every stale cliché that has ever been invoked in the name of suppressing speech. there is a difference, we are told, between freedom and licence - as if the right to speak freely is extended only to those whose speech is of the approved kind.

The freedom of one person to swing his arm, we are informed in another part of the ruling, ends where it meets another person's nose - as if offensive speech were the same as physical violence.

No different

The chairman of the council, Ron Cohen, continued with these lazy logical elisions in an opinion piece published in the Ottawa Citizen. The CBSC's role, he suggested, was no different than that of the press councils to which many newspapers belong - as if these agencies, though no less fatuous, were backstopped by a genuine office of the state such as the CRTC.

Or else it was like a kind of genial editor. "Newspaper editors determine what is and is not suitable to publish just as station managers and broadcast executives do", Cohen wrote. "No one accuses them of stomping on free speech". So you see: there is no difference between internal editorial discretion and "standards" imposed from without.

But of all the predictable arguments in the CBSC's ruling, the trump card is, as always, a crude appeal to nationalism.

Stern's sort of humour may be acceptable in the laissez-faire United States, the argument runs, but we in Canada have a different set of values, and attach a different weight to free speech.

This is, of course, rubbish. If it weren't evident enough from the vast numbers of Canadians who are eagerly tuning in to Stern's alien comic values, the distinction is equally invalidated by the string of heavy fines Stern has incurred, more than $2 million in all, for violating U.S. broadcast standards, courtesy of the Federal Communications Commission.

To date, he has faced no such legal sanction in the laissez-faire Canadian north. But if it does come to that, the question we should all be asking is: why is the CRTC trying to Americanize Canadian broadcast policy?

Copyright © 1998 by The Hamilton Spectator. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.