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Joanna Baron: Parliament’s attempted cancellation of Russell Brand is an outrageous overreach

Commentary

On September 16th, the Times of London published a 7,000-word piece outlining detailed and extensive allegations from women about the behaviour of actor and comedian Russell Brand, representing the result of four years of investigative journalism. Brand has extensively talked about his past as a drug-addicted lout before getting sober, and the allegations are credible. I personally heard murmurings about Brand’s lascivious behaviour through the yoga community, and I am strongly inclined to believe the allegations are true.

The allegations have created a perfect storm for the culture wars. Some on the Right were quick to raise suspicion about their timing. Wasn’t it convenient that the accusations were publicized 20 years after the facts alleged and only after Brand reinvented himself from leftist dandy to alt-right darling questioning COVID vaccines and NATO aid to Ukraine? Hadn’t Brand already publicly repented for his past promiscuities and since redeemed himself as a married, very vocally sober family man? Tucker Carlson weighed in before details of the allegations had even been made public, stating “Criticize the drug companies, question the war in Ukraine, and you can be pretty sure this is going to happen.”

Brand himself doubled down on this line of thinking, claiming that while the allegations arose from a time in his life when he was “very, very promiscuous,” his relationships have “always been consensual” and that the allegations were part of “a coordinated attack.”

The wagons have circled swiftly around Brand. YouTube demonetized his content. Many of Brand’s sponsors announced their intentions to cease working with him (though at least one, a supplements company aiming at “bringing back traditional masculinity,” stated it was awaiting further evidence). Remaining live shows on his current tour were postponed, and Brand’s publisher paused future projects with him.

Love Brand or hate him, these reactions are perfectly acceptable in a free society—with one big exception: when they come from government officials. The U.K. Parliament’s response, as reflected in letters from Dame Caroline Dineage of the parliamentary Culture, Media and Sport Committee, badly crosses the line between acceptable criticism and authoritarian attempts to curtail free speech.

It’s acceptable to question why a sexual assault allegation took twenty years to emerge, rendering any testimony more blurry and less reliable. It’s acceptable for a private business, even a mega-platform like YouTube, to switch off ad payments to a creator it wants to disassociate from. It’s even acceptable for individuals to muse about a potential connection, even if highly spurious, between politically edgy comments and criminal allegations.

But it’s not acceptable for a parliamentary committee to try to intimidate social media companies into censoring people they dislike, which is what Dame Dineage has done. On September 20th, Dineage wrote a letter to Rumble, a Toronto-based online video platform that markets itself as being “immune to cancel culture” and pro-free speech. Addressing the serious allegations of sexual assault which have been made against Brand, Dineage wrote to express her “concerns” that Brand “may be able to profit from his content on the [Rumble] platform” and asked the platform to “confirm whether Brand is able to monetise his content.” She went on to query about “what Rumble is doing to ensure that creators are not able to use the platform to undermine the welfare of victims of inappropriate and potentially illegal behaviour.” A similar letter was sent to TikTok.

“Inappropriate and potentially illegal” is an extraordinarily loose standard for an agent of the government to use to try to pressure a private business to deprive an individual, who has not been proven guilty of any crime, of his livelihood. The reaction on the part of the U.K. government demonstrates confusion about the line between private enterprise and government. 

The same government that has the power to put Brand in shackles if the allegations against him are proven in court cannot pre-emptively pressure private platforms to deprive him of his livelihood. This tactic of attempting to use official platforms to compel private action without passing any actual laws is called “jawboning” and it was particularly rampant during the pandemic. 

It’s also potentially unconstitutional, at least in the United States. A U.S. federal judge recently granted an injunction against the Biden administration for their jawboning towards social media companies about so-called “COVID-19 misinformation.” The ruling said that the government cannot even talk to social media companies for “the purpose of urging, encouraging, pressuring, or inducing in any manner the removal, deletion, suppression, or reduction of content containing protected free speech” without violating the constitutional right to freedom of speech. 

This clear demarcation is clearly prudent given the power disparities involved between the state and the individuals who use these companies. The government, of course, might not like such restrictions, but on the whole, U.K. citizens would benefit if they were enforced. And as distasteful as it may be, this even—perhaps especially— rightfully includes protecting those such as Brand who find themselves in the public square accused of terrible behaviour.

Rumble, for its part, has indicated it will not play ball with Dame Dineage. “Although it may be politically and socially easier for Rumble to join a cancel culture mob, doing so would be a violation of our company’s values and mission,” Rumble said.

Dame Dineage’s letter also betrays a blithe disregard for the presumption of innocence which might carry more than a whiff of déjà vu. Recall the total moral panic that happened in Canada with the 2014 allegations of sexual assault against CBC journalist Jian Ghomeshi. All branches of society, it seemed, were in such a frantic rush to judgment that even the police seemed to cut corners, failing to elicit years’ worth of crucial testimony in the form of texts and e-mails between Ghomeshi and his complainants that ended up discrediting their credibility. When Ghomeshi’s counsel Marie Henein brought these love notes, e-mails, and texts into evidence, it sufficiently created a reasonable doubt and led to an acquittal. The irony is that a more measured approach to investigating the allegations might have resulted in a stronger case for the prosecution.

While the allegations of Brand are serious and credible, they must be tested by the adversarial process and under the standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt. The accused is presumed to be innocent until proven guilty. This is not a platitude, but rather an important prerequisite to the state’s most crushing power to restrict liberty: its power to incarcerate. The state carries the burden of proving in all cases beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused willingly violated the community’s laws in order to exercise this power. And winding up a criminal prosecution by casually pressuring private actors to pile onto a cancel mob should be clearly condemned.

Sean Speer: We no longer need the CBC

Commentary

This past weekend, I was a guest on the CBC’s weekly call-in show, Cross Country Checkup, to discuss and debate the question: do we still need the CBC?

I was there in particular to make the case that the news media market has evolved over the past decades such that a public broadcaster of the size and scope of the CBC is no longer justified. Others argued in favour of preserving the CBC. And then there was a combination of callers and experts who found themselves somewhere in the middle. 

The premise behind the episode was that there are a few big developments looming over the CBC that threaten its ongoing existence. The first is that Conservative Party leader Pierre Poilievre has promised to defund the CBC and seems committed to delivering on his commitment. It remains one of the most popular applause lines in his speeches to party supporters. 

The second is growing polling evidence that CBC is not only losing its salience with the Canadian public but that even a majority of non-conservatives believe that the public broadcaster has an anti-conservative bias in its news reporting. 

The third is the broader disruption in the media industry itself including the decline of legacy news media organizations and the rise of web-based start-ups that are experimenting with new and different business models to reach their audiences and sustain their operations. 

In light of these developments, there were various arguments put forward during the episode in favour of the CBC including the need for a single public institution to connect Canadians from coast to coast, that it represents a bulwark against the rise of so-called “misinformation” and “disinformation”, and that its listeners and viewers like its content. 

Due to the number of guests and callers, I didn’t have the opportunity to address these arguments as directly and fully as I would have liked. Let me respond to them now. 

The first one speaks in part to a conservative concern that in a world of growing fragmentation and diversity, there are few sources of common citizenship and identity in Canada and the risk is a gradual drift from what Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has referred to as a “home society” to a “hotel society.” That is to say, in an absence of common stories and shared understandings of ourselves and the country, the danger is that we devolve into a loose collection of individuals merely living in the same geography. 

This is a legitimate concern that we’ve written about and discussed at The Hub. Yet the notion that the CBC is a key source of common identity belies the facts—including its relatively small audience, divided public opinion about its ongoing purpose, and growing tendency towards micro-narratives at the expense of a broader national story. 

The latter point is worth addressing more fully. Although the CBC should be lauded for concerning itself with diversity and representation within its organization and content (including news reporting), there was a sense among many of the callers that it has overcorrected for the historical underrepresentation of different stories and voices. 

This is consistent with my own experience as a listener and viewer. The network’s emphasis on identity issues can cause it to lose the forest for the trees. It has increasingly contributed to a narrow and unrepresentative conception of Canadian civic life that undermines its ability to still play a nation-building role.  

The next argument that the CBC is needed to contest misinformation and disinformation (which has been advanced by CBC’s president and CEO Catherine Tait herself) isn’t a self-evident one. It may be that these issues ultimately require some form of collective response—though the past several years have demonstrated the risks of groupthink and so-called “established narratives”—but it doesn’t necessarily follow that it requires a public broadcaster in general or the CBC’s current size and scope in particular. 

One might even argue that the right lesson is that centralization and consolidation are a threat to overcoming misinformation and disinformation. They can cause bad ideas and wrong information to calcify in the public discourse and undermine the ability of others to challenge them. The COVID-19 “lab leak” story is a powerful example. The CBC (which referred to the lab leak theory as a “conspiracy theory” and “one of the most persistent and widespread pieces of disinformation during the COVID-19 pandemic”) and other major media organizations plainly got it wrong. Smaller, less established, and typically less liberal outlets were generally the ones prepared to pursue the story and its facts. 

The key point here is that today’s fragmented and more decentralized media landscape may be messier and more complicated than the old one, but it’s not obvious that the trade-offs are inherently bad or that it necessitates an ongoing role for the CBC. 

The final case that the CBC’s content is good and well-liked by its audience members was both the most common one cited during the episode and the most counterintuitively unpersuasive. No one doubts that the CBC produces good programming or that some Canadians enjoy listening to or watching it. But that’s not a justification for the current level of public resources dedicated to the CBC or a public broadcaster in and of itself. 

There are a lot of claims on the public purse that might be popular but that doesn’t make them a good idea. Public policy needs to be rooted in something more principled than “Some people like it.” Even the show’s host, Ian Hanomansing, who deserved credit for his fairness and neutrality, seemed to miss this point. 

During the conversation, I observed that The Hub’s podcast is the eighth most popular Canadian-based one in the “culture and society” category and that six of the seven ahead of us are CBC productions. It strikes me as an odd use of scarce public dollars since it’s hard to argue that there’s a market failure in the production of podcasts. 

Yet Hanomansing’s reaction was that the relative popularity of CBC’s podcasts is somehow market proof that its content resonates with Canadians and therefore a justification for its ongoing role. The reality is that the CBC has a huge financial advantage (which is based on public subsidies rather than market competition) and is able to cross-promote its content across its well-established channels, including its internet, radio, and television assets. That of course doesn’t mean that its podcasts aren’t good or worth listening to, but it does mean that it’s not a fair measure of the CBC’s true competitiveness or a compelling case for maintaining it. 

I don’t mean to be presumptuous but I’m reasonably confident that if we received $1.24 billion in annual public funding (which suffice to say is considerably more than The Hub’s total budget), we could probably climb to higher than the eighth-most popular Canadian-based podcast in our category. We wouldn’t presume however that it was necessarily evidence of our real public support or entitled us to ongoing government resources. 

I guess the upshot is that while I was glad to participate in the conversation and think it generally speaks well of the CBC that it permitted such a discussion on its network, I came away no less convinced of the case in favour of “right-sizing” and even defunding the CBC. What that means in practice is still an open question and, as I said on the program, there will soon be a growing onus on Poilievre and the Conservatives to bring greater definition to their plans. But their basic instinct is right as a matter of principled policymaking.  

Do we still need the CBC? My answer is still no.