Fake News and Freedom of the Press

Eye - Leon Neal, AFP, Getty.JPG

The Toronto Star yesterday reported on a Nanos poll commissioned last month by Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE). The survey found that roughly 90% of Canadians believe that "search engines like Google should be forced to remove search results related to a person's name when they are inaccurate, incomplete, or outdated." Read as a measure of Canadians' support for the right to be forgotten, this is an important and timely finding.

Far more chilling, however, is Nanos' discovery that 70% of Canadians believe that "government regulation is needed to prevent the proliferation of fake news." This revelation is so blatantly at odds with the CJFE's own principled support for freedom of the press that the federation website makes no mention of it. Interviewed for the Star piece, CJFE vice-president Tom Henheffer made two observations. The first was that "the proliferation of fake news and the media bubble that people are insulated in on social media ... is really worrying because it means that people aren’t being exposed to the same types of differing opinions that they normally would be." The second was that he and his CJFE colleagues remain "extremely uncomfortable" with the prospect of government regulation of news media. Canadians need to "combat fake news," Henheffer averred, but state censorship is not the answer.

Henheffer is half right. His claim that the proliferation of fake news is "really worrying" is overdrawn—at least in the industrialized West, where traditional press outlets are down but by no means out. Given the resilience of legacy-media branding ("Democracy Dies in Darkness"), the development of new online ratings tools and especially burgeoning media-literacy initiatives in our schools and elsewhere, citizens continue to have within their grasp the means of discriminating between legitimate and fake news if they make even the slightest effort to do so.

Henheffer's intimation that Canadians need desperately to discuss the free-speech implications of the free-wheeling internet could not, however, be more timely—especially given that research commissioned by his own organization has revealed just how far Canadians have drifted from the bedrock liberal principle that a free society requires a free press. Now that the findings of the Nanos poll have stuck to the CJFE, it behooves federation executives like Henheffer to set out an agenda via which Canadians might jump-start this crucial debate, one to which we have arrived far too late.