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‘An amen chorus of the Canadian government’: Journalist Douglas Murray on Canada’s mainstream media

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Podcast & Video

This episode of Hub Dialogues features host Sean Speer in conversation with British author and journalist Douglas Murray about the decline of trust in the mainstream media, how he’s avoided being canceled, and why he thinks democracy must be rooted in gratitude.

There is also bonus coverage: Murray’s opening statement from the latest Munk Debate centered on the resolution: Be it resolved, don’t trust the mainstream media.

You can listen to this episode of Hub Dialogues on Acast, Amazon, Apple, Google, Spotify, or YouTube. The episodes are generously supported by The Ira Gluskin And Maxine Granovsky Gluskin Charitable Foundation.

SEAN SPEER: Welcome to Hub Dialogues. I’m your host, Sean Speer, editor-at-large at The Hub. I’m honoured to be joined today by Douglas Murray, a best-selling British author and journalist who’s the associated editor of the Spectator Magazine, a columnist for the New York Post, and a Fox News contributor. He’s also one half of the debate team, along with American writer Matt Taibbi, in the latest Munk Debate centered on the resolution: Be it resolved, don’t trust the mainstream media.

I was grateful to speak with Douglas on the afternoon of the debate about some of its key topics, how he’s avoided being canceled, and why he thinks democracy must be rooted in gratitude. The next voice we’ll hear is mine in conversation with British author and journalist, Douglas Murray. 

SEAN SPEER: Douglas, thank you so much for joining me.

DOUGLAS MURRAY: It’s a great pleasure to be with you.

SEAN SPEER: Let’s start with tonight’s Munk Debate. You’ve written for and appeared in various publications over the years. For whatever reason, it seems clear that trust in the media in Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere has eroded. Why do you think that is?

DOUGLAS MURRAY: I think, broadly speaking, it’s because the mainstream media has become very visibly partisan. The idea of impartiality was always the dream of mainstream media, certainly of national sponsored media of a kind that you have in Canada, that we have in the U.K., and exists to a lesser extent in some countries, including America. For all sorts of reasons, which will come up in the debate, these impartial organizations to greater or lesser degrees, gave up on the idea of impartiality. They decided to enter the political fray. I think that’s the first thing. The second thing is, of course, is simply that the multitude of voices that are out there. These days, the idea of relying on one source of news seems as absurd as relying on one shop for all of your clothes or food.

We shop around these days for news, and that has all sorts of positives about it. It has some negatives, which will always be brought up, but it has positives as well. The positives include, I believe, the fact that the mainstream media has become transparent to the general public, by which I mean that it would’ve been harder in earlier days to have known why there was a spin on the story. What made it have a spin? What was the nature of the spin? Today, this is transparent. Like so many institutions in the age of mass technology, the media has become transparent, and it makes things interesting, certainly.

SEAN SPEER: [chuckles] You mentioned the media entering the fray. Let me ask about your decision to enter the political arena. I’ve heard you say in different places that you are a reluctant political combatant, that your preference would’ve been to read literature and write literary criticism. As a relatively young person, you reached the conclusion that politics was the arena in which the things you cared about would be litigated. Do you want to talk a bit about that insight and how you’ve come to conceptualize politics properly defined?

DOUGLAS MURRAY: Yes. I suppose that is the case. My first loves were music and literature. They were what I thought I would spend my life immersed in. I still do spend a significant chunk of my life immersed in them, I should say. It’s not all misery. Certainly, at some point, I realized that—this is going to sound rather self-elevating, but I don’t mean it to be. The philosopher, Leo Strauss, it was once said of him by one of his students that, effectively, he had no philosophy other than to make the world safe for philosophizing.

I would say that if I have a ground feeling about politics and the culture, it is that I want society to be safe for the practice of culture, which, of course, includes the free exchange of ideas, writing, debate, and much more. The litigation of ideas in the public square. I realized, in my own lifetime, that that was hard to a great extent in all sorts of forms of the arts and culture in politics. Effectively, you couldn’t cut yourself off from this. To do so would make the situation for yourself and society worse. That you had to get your hands dirty as it were. How dirty? I’d leave it to your own judgment.

One of my favorite quotes is a great quote from Schiller. He said, “Be a part of your age but do not be its creature.” I try to be a part of my age to be involved with the big debates of my time, to throw myself into them, but I don’t like to think of myself solely as a creature of those things.

SEAN SPEER: One of the things that many would say define your style and the topics you tackle, is that you’re a bit fearless. You’re prepared to challenge and take on third-rail topics from immigration to gender and even race. Yet you’re popular. Knowing the overwhelming reception to your arguments, why do you think more people are reluctant to tackle the subjects and lines of thinking that you do? Why, in other words, isn’t the market producing more Douglas Murrays?

DOUGLAS MURRAY: Of course, I hope that the market does, although maybe for my own personal self-interest, it’d be good if it didn’t. [laughs] But, no, I, genuinely, and I would quite like there to be lots more people who ran into minefields in the manner that I tend to do. It would be nice to have a bit of company out there. But no, I do have quite a lot of company out there. I suppose it’s, probably, it must be something in one’s character. My friend, Sam Harris, said publicly some years ago about me, so I just don’t have that gear you have where something gets under your skin and you decide to eat it alive. I suppose that it’s partly that.

Partly, of course, I’ve always been attracted to dangerous things. I suppose I was probably one of those children who when you said, “Don’t touch that,” immediately touched it. But also, all the really interesting questions are the difficult ones, aren’t they? It’s like all the really interesting people exist precisely on the border between light and darkness. All the really interesting subjects are the difficult ones. One could write about the beautification of Toronto but that would be a fairly simple task. [laughter] I say, looking at this Pyongyang-esque tower behind you.

Why deal in the easiest things? I think it’s always like that, isn’t it? As you’re going through your era, you have to be able to touch things that can explode in your face and much more. I think it’s always interesting that every era has its shibboleths. It’s profanities. It’s, “You can’t say that.” Of course, sometimes, there’s a good reason for it and sometimes, there just isn’t, but I don’t deliberately choose subjects which are unpleasant or difficult, but undoubtedly, when I see something that I know is not true and everyone is making me say it, I won’t say it. I do have a horrible similarity to the child in the Hans Christian Andersen tale.

SEAN SPEER: Let me follow up with a question that an aspiring Douglas Murray might ask. I know you’ve recently launched a new podcast called Uncancelled History.

DOUGLAS MURRAY: First time I’ve been tempted into this terrain.

SEAN SPEER: How have you managed to do what you do and write about what you do without being canceled? Is it about how you make your arguments, or is there something more basic about not cowering when challenged or when others speak up to challenge you?

DOUGLAS MURRAY: I don’t know. I’m a bit of a believer in the old gods, which means I slightly fear the humanities. I very, very much fear tempting fate. When you say, “You haven’t yet been canceled,” I fear desperately that I’m going to say, “Ah, this is the reason why,” and tomorrow, all of the fates are going to hitch up their skirts and come running at me at 1,000 miles an hour and it’ll be over. I shall regret deeply sitting at this desk with you and showing such appalling pride before the fall. I don’t know. I write for a lot of the mainstream press, I don’t think anyone could say I’ve ever been silenced, certainly couldn’t say I’ve ever been silent. I suppose, partly, that’s maybe the people who try to cancel people—it’s not a phrase I particularly care for—but perhaps, it’s the people who know that, know that I’m so far beyond redemption that they couldn’t possibly reach me, or maybe it’s they realize that I’ve fundamentally don’t care for their opinion or their blessing.

I think the people who are in a difficult position in this era—I’ve said this before, but repeatedly quite important in a way, is that the people in this era who are in danger are people who have weak bosses above them. Might be in the media. It might be in business. There are people like that partner at KPMG who said implicit bias trainings are a crock of shit, which it is. Am I allowed to say, “Crock of shit”?

SEAN SPEER: You just did.

DOUGLAS MURRAY: Anyhow, he said something like that. He was fired, and he was a partner at the firm. Why? Because the other partners were wobbly, and so on. That’s the danger that people in our era are in.

I’m in the rather happier position of pretty much being my own man. I’m responsible to my readers of my books, and I suppose to my editors—they might differ on that as to how much I actually…—anyway, I don’t really have weak people above me who would be able to bow to a mob. I’m certainly not going to bow to any mob. I never saw a mob that I cared for.

SEAN SPEER: Some of the arguments you make both in The Strange Death of Europe and in The Madness of Crowds might be shocking for those Canadian listeners who still mostly rely on the legacy media for their information. Yet, probably, 10 years ago, these ideas wouldn’t even been nearly as controversial.

DOUGLAS MURRAY: That’s correct.

SEAN SPEER: Why has that pendulum swung, and do you feel any sense that it may be swinging back?

DOUGLAS MURRAY: It’ll swing back. Basically, it was a small number of voices managed to get an undue ability to throttle on the mainstream discourse on a set of things. Everything I say about immigration, for instance, is what is said by every major party in the United Kingdom, Australia, almost Canada, pretty normal. Most people want restrictions on immigration. All public polls show maybe very few people are open borders lunatics, except for in the public’s sphere. I think it’s something to do with the difficulty of holding out certain ideas in public. I don’t know why certain people found it so difficult. I do, actually, because I study these people and I watch them very closely when they’re in action. Why is it so hard for a politician to say, “We don’t need this number, more people,” or all sorts of other things?

In my most recent book, which since you haven’t plugged it, I will, The War on the West—which has got even more shocking arguments for the Canadian audience—what I mentioned there is genuinely astonishing, which is the way in which countries like Canada and Britain and America have decided to have a war on their own origins, their own cultures, their own pasts, and the inability of people in public positions to speak out against that.

Well, that is very striking because if you don’t have a shared past you agree on, the future is very, very messy. I can see why in a way it’s because lots of weak people who don’t know very much in a lot of positions of power. They get cowed by mobs and the latest claim that wrongfoots them, and then before they know it, they’re thinking, “Oh, my God, I’m going to have to defend colonialism.” No, you’re not. You just have to explain that we’re here because history happened.

SEAN SPEER: Let me ask about the War on the West. As you outline in the book, there’s an increasing attack on the basic precepts of liberalism, including, among other things, the idea that we ought to be judged as individuals on our own merit. How Douglas did we go from the demands to extend the benefits of liberalism to neglected people including racial and sexual minorities, to essentially going backward, such that these immutable characteristics are now viewed as fundamentally defining individuals?

DOUGLAS MURRAY: You could say that it’s an overcorrection. That’s what I basically came to the conclusion of that in The Madness of Crowds, that we were living in an era of overcorrection. Nobody can deny that in past times women didn’t have as many rights as men. Gay people didn’t have the rights that straight people do, and that ethnic minorities did not have all of the rights that white majorities did. You might also note, of course, that’s the same with ethnic minorities in almost every country and still is in many countries in the world today.

However, this needed to be corrected, and particularly since the 1960s, most of our countries certainly have done a lot to correct it. I don’t say, by any means, there’s nothing left to do, but those sorts of wars are pretty much over. However, they have become now the founding myth of a country like Canada, for instance. If you get rid of the story you used to have about Canada, you’ve got to get a new one. What is it? I would say that the modern Canadian story is probably the weakest of all.

“We’re Canadian and that’s because we’re diverse, and because we’re diverse, that’s also because we’re nice, because we’re nice, we’re Canadian,” and round and round in this incredibly shallow loop. If you don’t agree on your past or you hate your past, or you can invent extraordinary public stampedes against your past, as it happened in this country in recent years, and as I highlight in the War on the West, if you do that, you’ve got to create this modern Trudeaupia of banality. I don’t think it’s very healthy. I think you have to have a healthy attitude towards your past to admire the people who got you here.

The country we’re sitting in, Canada, is, apart from the architecture, a remarkable thing. A remarkable achievement. I travel all the time around the world and see societies that are in real trouble. When you have one that works pretty well, when something bad happens to somebody in Canada, they tend to have recourse of some kind within the law. You’ve got a law that broadly works, that’s not nothing. Well, how did that happen? Because impressive people, predominantly men, it has to be said—that’s a shocking thing to say in itself—made sure that that was the case and that this is the state as a result that you’ve inherited. Was everything about it perfect? Obviously not, but it would’ve fallen out very differently if people had done different things back then and maybe it could have been a lot worse.

You used the word liberalism, and of course, the word liberalism is such a difficult word because it’s a shapeshifter word, it moves meaning as it crosses borders even. Liberal in Canada means something different from liberal in America and different from something liberal in Britain, liberal in America, liberal in the Netherlands. If we meant it in the term that, say Isaiah Berlin meant it, one of the problems has always been what the liberal project is. There was there always two broad schools of thought on this.

One of Berlin’s protégé’s, John Gray, talked about this in Modus Vivendi as a form of liberalism which recognizes that the liberal ideal is to end up in a state in which life can really be lived in a plurality of ways. Let’s say that’s liberalism one. Liberalism two is an evangelical ongoing form of liberalism which forever seeks more fights, more rights. I believe this is where liberalism has gotten into trouble, is liberalism two. What my late friend, the Australian political philosopher Ken Minogue, described as Saint George in Retirement Syndrome, where Saint George slays the dragon and gets such acclaim for it that he might stagger around the land looking for ever-smaller animals to slay until eventually, he’s swinging his sword at thin air.

I would’ve said that a lot of the activists in a country like Canada these days, essentially are Saint George in retirement. They’d like to get some of that action of the 1960s, but it ain’t around anymore. They swing their swords at imaginary Nazis. They sort of wish they had Nazis in a way. Of course, they don’t, really. They really shouldn’t, but in a way, they miss them. That old [unintelligible] point about the barbarians: they gave ’em a point.

SEAN SPEER: Last week, I interviewed David Frum on American Thanksgiving, and he said the following: “Douglas Murray in his new book makes this point—I think it’s a very profound one—that democratic politics has to begin with a gratitude for the people who came before you.” What do you mean, and why must democracy be rooted, ultimately, in a sense of gratitude?

DOUGLAS MURRAY: I’m very pleased that David said that. I’m glad he did. It’s so easy to live your life filled with resentment. It’s so easy. I don’t know if anything bad has ever happened to you, I assume it has. It’s happened to us all. Sometimes, things that are bad happen to you, and you just can’t see a damn reason for why it should have happened. Might be an accident, the falling ill of a loved one, death of a loved one, all sorts of things. A setback at work, a setback in your personal life.

It’s very easy for these things to take knocks out of us in life and for us, as a result, to be resentful people. I would suggest that we all know resentful people. People are eaten up by resentment. To an extent, I think we live in an era of resentment where people get points, they get political advancement by wandering around, looking for people who they can claim have hurt them. What is a better way to grab attention than to say, “I have been offended,” or, “I’ve been hurt. I’ve been made physically unsafe.”

That’s one of the ones you hear always in a situation where they’re not remotely physically unsafe, but this is the way in which in our era, you grab the microphone—and I’ll acknowledge the irony that I’m sitting in front of a microphone—but broadly speaking, that’s the way in which people have tried to grab the mic in the modern era, is to say, “I have suffered,” or, “People like me have suffered,” or, “My forebears suffered. Here I go, you must listen to me and I’m right.” Among much else.

In my book, I partly rely on Nietzsche, who you always have to use carefully; he’s a philosopher you have to use very carefully—there is an insight that he makes in The Genealogy of Morals where he says that the person of resentment has an awful lot of problems in their life.

Because among them is, of course, the fact that the person of resentment not only will live a thwarted life, they will also wish to tear open scars, long healed, and then cry about their pain. They will also very rarely be able to meet the correct person who needs to come along. In Nietzsche’s version, it’s what he calls, I think, a secular priest, to stand across their lives and says, “Actually, there might be a reason why you have resentment. There might be someone who screwed up your life and thwarted you, and the person is you.”

Now, the issue with resentment is what is the only thing that you can answer it with? You have to answer it with something of equal depth and equal depth of human emotion, and I say that the answer to it is gratitude. Gratitude is the only emotion of equal depth that can counter our resentment. Much in the same way that, probably, the only thing that can counter human suffering is love. You mustn’t get caught in this place of resentment any more than you should hope to get stuck in a position of suffering in your life. Gratitude isn’t encouraged in our era, and it’s not just the underlying philosophy of the era, the celebration of whinging, the celebration of complaint. Our era doesn’t know what to do with our luck.

When I say, “Luck,” it’s not luck, of course. I had this conversation with Joe Rogan recently, it’s more than luck. It’s what I’ve referred to earlier, your predecessors having made good choices, broadly speaking, and so we don’t know what to do with it. And we don’t think we should boast about it. As a result, we, in countries like Canada and America and Britain, the world’s liberal democracies, have become ashamed of celebrating good things about ourselves. You have to because there must be something we are doing right.

As I often say, the footfall speaks for itself. People do not, broadly speaking, flee Canada for other countries. There is no footfall at the Mexican border of Texans trying to break into Venezuela, and you don’t even see ships trying to cross the channel illegally from Dover to try to make it to the safety of France. We must be doing something right in our societies. Why do we try to work out what that is and not celebrate it? I’m not a tub-thumping nationalist flag waver type. I have the quiet patriotism which was what my type of British person was brought up with. I think that we should have gratitude. Since I travel very widely to very benighted parts of the world, I can assure you that the thing I feel more than anything whenever I return is gratitude.

SEAN SPEER: Douglas, if gratitude is a virtue, I’m grateful for this conversation. Thank you so much for joining me.

DOUGLAS MURRAY: It’s a great pleasure.


SEAN SPEER: Now, as I said in my introduction, Douglas recently participated in the Munk Debate on whether or not to trust the mainstream media. Thanks to the debate organizers, we’re pleased to bring you some bonus coverage. Douglas’ opening statement at the debate. Enjoy.

DOUGLAS MURRAY: Thank you. It’s a great pleasure to be here. As Rudyard said, I’ve come a rather long way from the front lines of the Ukraine conflict because I like to see these things with my own eyes for myself and to come to my own conclusions. I came out through Moldova the other day, through London, then got to Toronto and a friend of mine said, “Why are you going to Toronto?” I said, “An invitation to Toronto in late November. Who on earth says ‘No’ to that?” Only a madman would say no to that.

You’ll see, shortly, why I’m so keen to speak about this issue here in Canada. Let me put this way though, to begin with. I would say, in recent years, any sentient observer of the media will have had their moment of realization, a moment where they saw through something that the mainstream media was doing. It may have happened because the mainstream media said something about you or someone you know. It may be, as in my case, for instance, that an entire country got maligned by the mainstream media. It’s very interesting, this result. It was a 48-52. That’s exactly the result that the British people had in the Brexit vote.

You know what? When we voted to leave European Union, we did so against all of the implications of The New York Times, Michelle’s employer. We just didn’t listen to them. The New York Times never forgave us. Ever since 2016, there has not been one story in The New York Times that’s positive about Britain. We have had, and I’ll run through some of them, we had a culinary review that said that the British people still survive on mutton and oatmeal.

We had an anti-Brexit piece from the north of England from Lancashire, a piece of reporting where the author ended up having to admit that every single one of his facts was wrong, but his perception was correct. We had, recently, The New York Times drafted in somebody from Russia Today, Vladimir Putin’s propaganda channel as an employee of The New York Times to attack Brexit Britain. When her Majesty, the Queen died, not 10 days of mourning was observed at The New York Times, three hours before they started attacking the Queen, and they did so day, after day, after day because they hate Brexit Britain.

That is just an agenda, ladies and gentlemen. That’s not anything else. That’s an agenda, one they’ve decided to take. Now, I said that I want to be here in Canada to talk about this because I think that this country has just been through something absolutely extraordinary. You really know that the world is in trouble when Canada becomes very interesting.

[laughter]

I remember in your elections, as Norm Macdonald said, “Were all about like, ‘Should we put up that bridge or not?'” Now, Canada has become really interesting. It became interesting in January and February of this year. Why? Because you had protestors in Ottawa. Really interesting. When people come out in large numbers, and you know what the job of reporters is? The job of reporters is to go out and say, “Why are you on the streets? What brought you here? Why are you here with your kids? Why have you got a bouncy castle in the middle of Ottawa? That’s a bit strange.” Ask them questions, just find out the story.

You know what? The government didn’t want that in Canada. Your prime minister decided in advance that these people were—what did he do? All the modern excommunications: they were Nazis, they were white supremacists, they were anti-Semites. They were probably homophobes, they were misogynists, they were probably transphobes. Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. He did all the things you do in the modern political age if you want to defenestrate somebody who’s awkward to you, and then he brings in the emergency powers act now.

At such a time, what would the mainstream media do? It would question it. It would question it. The Canadian mainstream media did not. The Canadian mainstream media acted as an amen chorus of the Canadian government. I will give you a couple of examples.

[applause]

Ladies and gentlemen, I could go on for hours with examples of this. You had a CBC host describing the freedom convoy as a “Feral mob.” You had a Toronto Star columnist saying—sorry for the language—”It’s a homegrown hate farm that was then jet-fueled by an American right-funded rat fucking operation.” Jesus, they can’t even write at these papers anymore. CBC said that two Indigenous women were so scared to go outside in Ottawa because of racist violence. Didn’t bother to mention that Indigenous drummers had led the truckers in an O Canada rendition.

The National Observer said that the many Black and Indigenous freedom convoy supporters were in fact duped by the truckers. The Globe and Mail reporter said, “My 13-year-old son told me to tell protesters I’m not a Jew after fear of anti-Semitic violence,” without mentioning that one of the leaders of the convoy was himself Jewish. Now, why is this so rancid? Utterly, utterly rancid and corrupt because in this country, your mainstream media is funded by the government.

[applause]

A totally corrupted system. In 2018—oh, election year, coincidence—the Canadian media’s given $595 million over five years. The Toronto Star estimated it was going to be getting $3 million from the government in the first half of the year. It went on and on. You see, the government in Canada, they can tell the banks to shut down people’s bank accounts. Oh, yes, your government can do that, and if you’re happy with that, just think about what would happen if the shoe was on the other foot.

The government can do that, but in Canada, they can also tell the media what to do, and the media does the bidding of the Canadian government. That isn’t a free society’s media. I’ve seen unfree countries all my life, but this, in a developed liberal democracy like Canada, is a disgrace. We’re not saying, “Don’t read the mainstream media.” We’re just saying, “Don’t trust them.”

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