Turning inner space into outer space

January 10, 2015

Threats to free speech don't have to come from the barrel of a gun

The murders of 12 people at Charlie Hebdo in Paris were a sick attempt at curbing free speech. They failed dismally because that publication, which was on the verge of going out of business, is now more popular than ever.

The outpouring of support from the public is heartening for journalists everywhere because they see themselves defenders of an ideal that is at the heart of a properly functioning democracy — freedom.

We in Kamloops are lucky to live in one of the safest cities of the one of the safest countries in the world. Violence, or even the threat of violence, is not something journalists here have to worry about.

There are a few exceptions. Photographers have been threatened by people at the scene of an accident who don’t want pictures taken. I was once threatened by a commenter on the old Kamloops Daily News website. I’m fairly certain that these people were simply overwrought and would never have actually harmed anyone. Still, you never know.

The real threat to a free press in Kamloops comes from the soft power wielded by those with money and power.

Perhaps the best-known case of this was when Kamloops Blazers owner Tom Gaglardi tried to dictate how The Daily News covered the team’s games. He claimed the sports editor at the time, Gregg Drinnan, was too negative. Likely, he feared negativity would hurt ticket sales.

I’m proud that The Daily News stood up to this pressure and Drinnan was allowed to continue writing about the Blazers as he saw fit. I’m not so proud of the readers who chimed in their support for Gaglardi — as if a person’s style of writing were reason enough to suppress it.

People sometimes accuse reporters whose stories they don’t like of “just trying to sell papers.” The truth is that newsstand sales typically make up only a small portion of newspaper revenue. Closer to the mark would be an accusation that they are trying to kowtow to advertisers. That actually does happen.

Ask yourself when was the last time you saw an editorial or column criticizing the chamber of commerce or some other business group. It would take a very brave publisher to allow this, because the members of those groups are advertisers and they have a weapon that is more powerful than guns — the threat of pulling their ads.

This might seem like small potatoes compared with what happened in France. Just be aware that pressures on free speech are everywhere. It’s a matter of degree.