In the weeks following its sympathetic coverage of the deadly far-right rally in Charlottesville, the Rebel, an online outlet started in 2015 by Ezra Levant, has seen many key contributors depart, advertisers flee and formerly friendly politicians denounce it.
The tipping point came when Faith Goldy, a far-right correspondent who was in Charlottesville for the rally (and repeats the Crusade battle cry “Deus Vult” as a bizarre mantra), was fired by the Rebel after appearing on a notorious neo-Nazi podcast, the Daily Stormer.
It’s been a remarkable thing to watch.
After all, the Rebel had established itself in recent years as a powerful influence on Canada’s far-right, fanning the conspiratorial flames of Islamophobia, transphobia and anti-migrant sentiments to sickening levels. One of its board directors, Hamish Marshall, once served as Conservative leader Andrew Scheer’s campaign manager.
But the autopsies that have emerged in the wake of its recent crash have all ignored a central point: that the Rebel didn’t come out of nowhere.
It wasn’t a freak anomaly. Ezra Levant and his crew of far-right online propagandists were birthed from and legitimized by the Canadian media industry, which were content to tolerate its existence under the guise of “free speech” until a white woman, Heather Heyer, was murdered.
One of the most widely shared articles about the Rebel’s demise was a 7,500 word piece published in the National Post.
It was a thorough investigation, comprehensively tracing the outlet’s genesis and growth following the closure of Sun News Network in 2013. One thing that stood out was the number of times the reporter was required to acknowledge that many of the Rebel’s key personalities had previously worked at the National Post itself.
Levant himself worked at the Post between 1999 and 2001. Same with David Menzies, described as “something of a professional clown.” Same with Goldy, who got her “first professional bylines” in the Toronto-based daily. Same with outlet’s notorious columnist Barbara Kay, who was also a regular contributor to the Rebel. Oh, and John Robson.
Sensing a trend?
Of course, this isn’t to suggest that the National Post specifically endorses the Rebel, or that every aforementioned byline is representative of the Post’s editorial stance.
But it’s also not irrelevant that one of Canada’s most respected newspapers helped launch the careers of some of the country’s most renowned far-right propagandists, and continues to regularly publish Islamophobic and transphobic screeds by the likes of Kay, Christie Blatchford and Rex Murphy, all under the guise of civility (ignoring the fact that founder Conrad Black is a convicted fraudster who renounced his Canadian citizenship to become a British Lord).
The spread of an ideology requires public legitimization. The National Post played a key role in the origin stories of many Rebel correspondents.
But the real legitimization of the Rebel occurred after its official launch in 2015. There are two key moments that aided this.
The first was when the Alberta NDP refused press access at a media lockup to Sheila Gunn Reid, the Rebel’s “Alberta bureau chief” who had previously called Arab people “sand box savages” and had a legendary habit of publishing, making extremely deceptive statements about the government’s actions.
After much public outcry — effectively led by the Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ), which happily designated Rebel correspondents as “journalists” — the government reversed its decision. The Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE) also condemned the government for its decision, later using supportive language like “encouraged” and “applauds” when the government changed their mind.
The conclusion was that the state shouldn’t have the power to arbitrarily decide who is and who isn’t a journalist, a responsibility which should fall to the local press gallery. The press gallery predictably allowed the Rebel access.
This tension was escalated when the United Nations denied the Rebel press credentials to attend its annual climate change conference in Morocco due to its role as a purveyor of “advocacy journalism.” However, after inquiries from the CJFE, PEN Canada and the CAJ, as well as federal environment minister Catherine McKenna, the UN gave the Rebel press passes.
The CJFE emphasizes that it only requested facts from the UN, and didn’t make a direct intervention in the same vein as PEN Canada and the CAJ. However, the UN specifically cited the letter from CJFE in its reversal, suggesting that the CJFE’s actions helped sway the decision regardless of initial motivation.
In its letter to the UNFCCC secretariat, the CJFE’s executive director stated that “governments and intergovernmental organizations must not deny access to events of public interest based on arbitrary or opaque determinations of a media outlet’s size, audience or political leanings.” For anyone who’s been watching the Rebel since its inception, such “political leanings” including unabashed anti-migrant sentiments, Islamophobia, fascist sympathizing and climate change denialism.
As it turns out, Levant’s website then went on to publish videos about how delegates were accidentally throwing recyclable materials in the trash.
Points for consistency
Both of these events may have seemed at the time like a battle over journalistic rights and state power to arbitrarily suppress inconvenient narratives.
But let’s get one thing clear - despite what conservative politicians like Andrew Scheer have suggested in the past few weeks, the Rebel’s far-right ideology is not a new development. For instance, here are a few of the very first headlines by Brian Lilley, one of the Rebel’s co-founders who publicly left the outlet and was continually referred to by Maclean’s as a “professional journalist” who had only just become aware of the potential to incite violence:
Those were all from February 2015, in the very early days of the Rebel. The CAJ and the CJFE were well aware of the nature of the Rebel’s work when they repeatedly defended its designation as legitimate journalism.
Hell, it was a full six months prior to the flare up at the UN climate conference that Lauren Southern — who since went on to get arrested by the Italian coast guard for firing flares at a boat filled with refugees — interviewed Christopher Cantwell for the Rebel. If the latter name rings a bell, it might be because he was the neo-Nazi documented in VICE’s recent documentary on the Charlottesville rally.
The CJFE’s executive director admits that he wasn’t aware of the overt racism of the Rebel when his organization decided to condemn the Alberta government’s ban, because some of its content was behind an $8/month paywall. But most of the Rebel’s content is accessible even without a paywall, and it only takes a few seconds of browsing their early content to understand the website’s intentions.
The CJFE has indeed hired a billboard to condemn the Rebel’s actions in recent months. While a good step, it’s simply too late to seriously matter. The neo-fascists are out of the bag, and once out, are very difficult to put back in. Canada’s media organizations should have been aware of this.
None of this is new. the Rebel’s extreme far-right ideology was known when journalists, press freedom organizations and government officials stood up for its right to attend major events, legitimizing it in the process.
They didn’t care, because most journalists don’t appear to have any conception of the relationship between ideology and material realities, assuming all speech to be valid regardless of whether it’s arguing for universal healthcare or the eradication of entire races of people. Even while a proto-fascist is in charge of the most powerful country in the world, such “objective observers” still assume that discourse is negotiated in some J.S. Mill-inspired fantasy.
It’s all a game to such people, a debate club extended to our phones and the digital universes in which ideas seem to carry no real consequences.
Except it’s clearly not a game. The murder of Heather Heyer happened while the Rebel’s Faith Goldy was live-streaming the rally and audibly complaining about radical leftist resistance to neo-Nazis, itself the culmination of many months and years of far-right violence which had been legitimized by the Canadian media establishment which, by the way, still has no effective way of grappling with it.
The proverbial fanning of fascist flames ended with a 20 year-old man murdering a white woman by plowing her down with a truck. But it had already resulted in the murders, injuries, and terrorization of many other marginalized groups; especially transgender and genderqueer people, immigrants and Muslims.
It is indeed satisfying to watch the Rebel crumble.
We must remember, however, that Levant and his crew of propagandists exist because the Canadian media establishment allowed them to. At any point since 2015, journalists and industry associations should have denounced the outlet and its correspondents as hateful and dangerous and refused to defend it when it encountered problems while attempting to gain press credentials. It could have taken a stand on behalf of oppressed peoples.
But journalists are a cowardly bunch, content to isolate themselves in an imaginary chamber of detachment without any obligations to materially oppose fascism and far-right propaganda.
They now have literal blood on their hands. Unless they rapidly change their ways, this is only the beginning.
Clarification: A previous version of this article stated that the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE) had directly intervened in a United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) decision to reinstate Rebel Media’s press credentials ahead of the 2016 COP 22 in Marrakech, Morocco. Although the UNFCC explicitly cited a letter it received from the CJFE as motivation for the reversal of its selection, our framing of the outcome suggested the organization was sympathetic to the Rebel’s editorial positions and content. The CJFE has repeatedly condemned the outlet for its prominent role in the resurgence of far-right movements in Canada and around the world. Canadian Dimension regrets this misperception.
James Wilt is a freelance journalist and graduate student based in Winnipeg. He is a frequent contributor to CD, and has also written for Briarpatch, Passage, The Narwhal, National Observer, Vice Canada, and the Globe and Mail. James is the author of the recently published book, Do Androids Dream of Electric Cars? Public Transit in the Age of Google, Uber, and Elon Musk (Between the Lines Books). He organizes with the police abolitionist organization Winnipeg Police Cause Harm. You can follow him on Twitter at @james_m_wilt.