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Liberal studies students subjected to decidedly illiberal guest speaker

The media conspiracy theory spread by Jen Gerson was the least controversial aspect of her appearance

Canadian PoliticsMedia Canadian Business

Jen Gerson. freelance writer and co-founder of The Line. Photo from LinkedIn.

What kind of Institute for Liberal Studies funds a Calgary-based conservative commentator to spread right-wing conspiracy theories to its students about government censorship of the news? Apparently the one at Vancouver Island University does. The irony is that Jen Gerson’s recent talk, titled “Free Speech in the Digital Age: The problems of censorship and the perils of regulation,” was actually the least controversial aspect of her appearance on the Nanaimo, BC campus. Palestinian supporters carrying protest signs reportedly “asked Gerson pointedly about her own writing” in what The Discourse described as “a heated question and answer session.” At issue was a recent column Gerson wrote on her Substack blog The Line, which claimed that a “big chunk” of pro-Palestinian activists are Hamas supporters or apologists for its atrocities. “Justifying rape and baby beheading is irreconcilable with a version of the ‘left’ that presents itself as secular, humane, compassionate, and committed to social justice,” she wrote. “Child murder is not what sane lefties agreed to when they went gung ho for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion seminars.”

I want to stay away from that hot-button issue, however, and with the caveat that I am relying on press reports instead point out the fatal flaw in Gerson’s talk and get to the bottom of the atrocity that was her campus appearance. By way of background, Gerson was Calgary correspondent for the National Post for six years until 2018. Like many of our country’s now-unemployed journalists, she makes her living currently as a freelance writer, which she has done for outlets such as the CBC, Maclean’s, the Walrus, the Washington Post, and the New York Times. She had a semi-regular column in the Globe and Mail until recently, when the newspaper apparently came to its senses. Gerson is a talented and provocative writer. She’s just a little bit… out there. Make that way out there. Her latest Substack column seems to be part of a recent conservative campaign to connect the housing crisis with the Liberal government’s immigration policies. Gerson is on record as eschewing the traditional notion that journalism should comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. “That is an activist model,” she told one interviewer. “If you’ve accepted that, then you’ve accepted your role in journalism as an activist, and as a left-leaning activist whose job it is to shit on the rich.” Conservative journalism apparently aims to instead afflict the afflicted and comfort the comfortable.

Gerson began her VIU talk by making some good points about the Online News Act, which came into effect last month, pointing out that it was a result of lobbying by newspaper industry association News Media Canada to “shake down big tech.” She began veering off the rails, however, when she claimed that the new law “managed to combine the worst of every world by undermining journalistic credibility, by turning the journalism industry to a regulatory capture scheme and by undermining their own credibility in the sense of even how they covered it.” She did manage a pretty good laugh line before going full train wreck. “The whole thing has been a hilarious and shambolic example of sheer government incompetence.”

What Gerson was working up to was the latest right-wing conspiracy theory that the government is about to impose a code of ethics on newsrooms across the land under the Online News Act. Instead it is devising a “code of conduct” to govern bargaining between media owners and digital platforms, except that there will be no bargaining now since Meta pulled news off its Facebook and Instagram social networks and Google settled with the government for a fixed $100 million a year. As I pointed out last week, an erroneous report out of Ottawa by Blacklock’s Reporter confused the coming code of conduct, consultations on which are supposed to begin soon, with a code of journalism ethics to be imposed on newsrooms. That report was picked up and exaggerated wildly by various right-wing websites (I hesitate to call them news media) until it appeared on Rebel News under the headline “Critical reporting about Trudeau ‘might just become illegal’.”

Gerson obviously swallowed the conspiracy theory whole, because she regurgitated it on her trip to the coast, likening the Online News Act to a “journalistic licensing scheme” that would allow the federal government to tell journalists how to do their work. “Once we cede to a code of conduct, and once we conform to the government standards of journalism, once we sacrifice our right to misbehave and still demand answers, we’re never going to get these powers back, and for what?” she said. “There’s no guarantee that future governments will even continue to cut that check, much less that they will maintain a journalistic licensing scheme clearly and objectively.”

While I certainly agree that press freedom is in jeopardy over some of Ottawa’s recent and planned moves, a code of conduct for bargaining that will not even take place now is the least of our worries. As I pointed out in an October column, requiring podcasters to register with the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission under the new Online Streaming Act is concerning. The worst by far may be yet to come, I noted in a column last May, under planned legislation to regulate so-called “online harms,” such as hate speech and cyber-bullying, which may have the effect of prohibiting otherwise lawful speech. To raise the alarm about a moot bargaining code could be crying wolf while worse transgressions are pending.

Gerson’s free public talk was sponsored by the Malaspina Fellowship Program at VIU and she was brought to campus with financial support from the university’s Institute for Liberal Studies. “Gerson offers a unique perspective on Canadian media,” said David Livingstone, chair of the university’s Liberal Studies program. “While legacy media might accept government assistance, money never comes without strings attached. Hearing from an independent journalist—and a successful one at that—is an outlook people might really appreciate.”

I wish I had known in advance about Gerson’s talk, because I live only 20 minutes from VIU and I would have been very interested in attending it. I seem to be persona non grata on campus, however, as I have made repeated offers to its Media Studies program over the past couple of years to speak to its students about my research on Canadian news media, including my recent book The Postmedia Effect.

Despite being invited to speak recently at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver and Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, BC, my repeated offers to speak at my local university have so far proved fruitless, and I’ve been wondering why. I’m now starting to think that maybe I’m just not conservative enough.

Marc Edge is a journalism researcher and author who lives in Ladysmith, BC. His books and articles can be found online at www.marcedge.com.

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