Joe Howe, revisited

John Ralston Saul, Joseph Howe & The Battle for Freedom of Speech. Gaspereau Press, paperback, 61 pages, $18.95.

Reviewed by Dean Jobb

Joseph Howe, the courageous editor of the Novascotian, has long been the poster-boy for freedom of speech and freedom of the press in Canada. His exposé of government corruption in Halifax in1835, his prosecution on a trumped-up libel charge, the eloquent six-hour speech that won his acquittal – these are the stuff of legend.

At his trial, Howe appealed to members of the jury to leave “the blessing of an open and unshackled press” to their children. So what would the man who personifies press freedom think of today’s media and its obsession with celebrity gossip and the ten-second sound bite?

John Ralston Saul thinks he knows. And the answer is, not much.

“An increasing percentage of our media experiences are devoted to little more than primal shouts,” he laments in Joseph Howe & The Battle for Freedom of Speech, a slim volume published by Gaspereau Press. “Shouts repeated again and again and again. Pulse news, pulsation. Pulsations as opposed to arguments or thought. Clips which are mere seconds long.”

Too many newspaper stories and newscasts, Saul says, have degenerated into “endlessly repeated tiny little fractions of ideas. The exact opposite of a public discussion or debate …. We are presented with black versus white, good versus evil. Are you for or are you against? Three words in favour, three words against.”

Joseph Howe & The Battle for Freedom of Speech reproduces Saul’s keynote address to a symposium the University of King’s College School of Journalism hosted in 2004 to mark the 200th anniversary of Howe’s birth. The speech was engaging, well-attended and well worth preserving in book form (Gaspereau’s elegant design and presentation makes up for the fact the speech is available for free on the Internet).

Saul, author of acclaimed books on western civilization and Canadian identity, has made it his business to push public debate to a higher plane, whether through the LaFontaine-Baldwin lecture series or by helping exiled writers find safe haven in Canada. He’s as interested in the dearth of “serious, prolonged, in-depth, complicated public debate” in Canada as he is with Howe and his legacy.

Saul’s premise is that Canadians – the serious-minded ones, at any rate – are hungry to engage in meaningful discussion of the important issues of the day. He recalls attending forums and roundtable discussions where speaker after speaker complained that the media’s preoccupation with “clips and pulsations and short phrases” was stifling political debate and undermining democracy.

None of these forums and discussions made the news, Saul complains. He pines for the days when newspapers covered political debates at length, but overlooks the fact that a century ago most papers were little more than mouthpieces for political parties. In those days, freedom of speech rarely extended to the wrong-headed views of the opposing party.

Saul is on firmer ground when he exhorts journalism students – there were dozens in his audience – to have high ethical standards and to promote the public good. He takes a shot at columnists – the “new media aristocracy” – who generate “the illusion of discussion” while shedding little light on complex issues. “What we have is a verbal tennis match of someone’s 300 words against another person’s 600 words against another person’s 750 words.”

The antidote, he argues, is more serious journalism, more investigative reporting, more whistle blowing and more context, which will mould informed citizens and help people make sense of the stream of facts and events “pulsating” from the media.

None of this is earth-shattering, nor is it news to anyone concerned about the state of the media. But Saul’s strength is his ability to connect where we’ve been with where we are and where we’re going. He uses Howe and the ideology of early Canadian democracy as a vehicle to explore wider issues of citizenship and journalistic integrity.

It’s disappointing that Saul declined to update or revise his talk. One wonders if he would still argue for “absolute” freedom of speech in light of the controversy over the publication of cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad. Or what he thinks of efforts under way in the United States to root out the names of journalists’ confidential sources.

Saul ends with a line from the speech Howe delivered at his libel trial. “When I sit down in solitude to the labours of my profession,” Howe assured the jurors who would decide his fate, “the only questions I ask myself are: what is right, what is just, what is for the public good?”

That advice is as good today as it was 171 years ago – for journalists and citizens alike.

Originally published in the Halifax Chronicle Herald.