Editorial: Taking the Journalist Hat Off, Robyn Urback Flies too Close to the Sun

CBC’s Robyn Urback published an opinion piece regarding an alleged (note: It’s alleged, Robyn) “assault” of Toronto SUN photographer Stan Behal at a Toronto rally against hate on Saturday, August 11. Urback’s Twitter bio explains she formerly worked at the conservative and foreign owned National Post and holds “Bad political opinions”. When a journalist says “Bad political opinions” in that self-effacing tone, it can generally be read as code for some mixture of views espousing centre-right, far-right or anti-political correctness sentiments. At least the statement was true, her opinions are terrible!

In the “opinion” piece she engages in histrionic pearl-clutching, as though civilization itself might end because a “journalist’s” hat was taken at a rally. It is important to challenge Urback’s weak attempt to use her position at the state broadcaster to score a propaganda victory for hate groups and neo-nazis.

It is important to challenge Urback’s weak attempt to use her position at the state broadcaster to score a propaganda victory for hate groups and neo-nazis.

The Toronto Sun has published a YouTube video of the incident.

I was also present at the rally, filming, wearing a ‘#Protect Journalists’ pin on my backpack strap. I spoke to almost everybody I saw filming, few had any problems. I’ve also been in Behal’s position before. Back on May 6, 2017, I was documenting far-right ‘free speech’ activists at a similar rally. One moment I was filming peacefully and then suddenly, I got attacked.

In full transparency, Urback’s was one of several voices at CBC whose clamor led to my termination from a press freedom organization after I penned a condemnation of the killing of journalists by the state of Israel. This isn’t about me. It shouldn’t be. I feel I have a valuable perspective to offer after wrestling with the deep philosophical and personal aspects of my own assault at a similar rally and contextualizing this with my deep familiarity with the participating groups and underlying issues.

Robyn Urback used a national opinion column published by the state broadcaster to criticize citizens opposing hate. It was a transparent abuse of “press freedom” as a talking point in a bid to salvage the optics of a disastrous hate rally. In short, it is outrageous.

Press freedom is an idea. There’s no actual magic shield or special status that journalists enjoy. Freedom of the press is perhaps the greatest and most idealistic of democratic aspirations, the hallmark of the most civil of civil societies. All people should strive to be free, to speak truth to power. It is commendable, to, as National Post columnist Barbara Kay quoted holocaust-denier Kevin Alfred Strom “find out who you are not allowed to criticize”.

Press freedom advocacy groups around the world push governments to do better, push police and security forces to be more accountable, push for greater access to information and ultimately push for greater equality for the small voices that would otherwise be lost. Unfortunately, that’s all a bit of a sham.

Press freedom advocacy efforts fall prey to the traditional pitfalls of the Nonprofit Industrial Complex. They are often funded by the worst offenders: banks, corporate media, oil and mining companies. Some of the biggest historic funders of press freedom advocacy are complicit in commissioning or funding the most egregious abuses of press freedom and human rights around the world.

Advocacy initiatives bring corporate executives and media personalities onto boards where they are free to use their influence to affect outcomes for journalists who are being killed or persecuted, in a horrifying contradiction to the stated purpose of such organizations. I’m a bit bitter about this admittedly, but I truly do believe they do this cynically, because press freedom work is often not actually about doing good, but being seen to do good, except in those few cases where good also overlaps with the agendas of the social elite.

Press freedom advocacy provides a collateral benefit of allowing for the criticism of “backward” countries (see: victims of imperialism). It’s a sort of corporate carbon offset for oppressive business practices with the added benefit of helping to export Western values. The countries with the worst press freedom rankings are almost universally those furthest outside the sphere of contemporary Western capitalist influence or those most historically afflicted by it. Corporate media supports press freedom advocacy because its interests are tied up in the promotion of capitalism, the state, and the continuance of the status quo in civil society. After all, reaching out and touching the mouthpieces of the elite must be strongly discouraged.

The countries with the worst press freedom rankings are almost universally those furthest outside the sphere of contemporary Western capitalist influence or those most historically afflicted by it. Source: RSF

This isn’t a new or particularly revolutionary theory about the media and its deference to the elite and maintaining the status-quo. Former White house Press Secretary, political commentator and journalist Bill Moyers said in a 2003 interview that “The corporate right and the political right declared class warfare on working people a quarter of a century ago and they’ve won.” At his retirement in 2004 he uttered a harsh warning about his belief that right-wing media had become a partisan propaganda arm of the Republican National Committee.

In Canada we’ve seen that same trend with the calcification of support by right-wing and far-right media for the Conservative party. Moyers also pointed out correctly that “We have an ideological press that’s interested in the election of Republicans, and a mainstream press that’s interested in the bottom line. Therefore, we don’t have a vigilant, independent press whose interest is the American people.” In light of current affairs, you have to admit, that was one heck of an accurate diagnosis.

So now we’re through the ideological stuff, let’s talk about the alleged incident which precipitated Urback’s piece. What is the Toronto Sun? Who reads it? What is its role in the unfolding culture war?

The Toronto Sun is a tabloid-format daily publication distributed in Southern Ontario, intended for consumption by a motherhood-and-apple pie conservative demographic.

The Sun has time and time again openly declared for one side in the culture war. The Sun has helped to launch the careers of dozens of Canada’s most extreme, vitriolic and hateful alternative media personalities. It has been roundly condemned for aggressively pushing hateful narratives including anti-refugee sentiment, far-right politics and racist conspiracy theory.

Far-right rallies, such as the one where the incident occurred, follow a recognizable and predictable format. A broad coalition of anti-racist groups ranging from the centre left to the far left congregate in a public square half an hour before the scheduled rally. A group of racists show up, flying flags and shouting racist things, always under police escort. Some scuffling ensues. A rally happens. More racists arrive in a small group and attack the crowd, usually triggering a disturbance leading to arrests. The racists try to leave, again under police escort. Again, more scuffling.

Then everyone runs home to publish pictures of each other online and identify their opposition in secret social media chatrooms. Incidents here in Toronto are part of the broader “Civility War”, a low-intensity conflict running throughout the western world, exacerbated by political opportunists, hateful idealogues and straight-up foreign interference. Granted, it’s not a war with a high body-count, yet, but there are recognizable parallels to happenings in almost every failed state on the planet.

Time and time again, the post-rally phase has turned ugly as far-right media personalities, videographers, and photojournalists remove the hat of impartiality and publish information about their opponents with the explicit intention of causing harm, shame or subjecting their targets to vicious online bullying.

I’ve been personally tweeted about, stalked, had my family members contacted, my workplace published online and been the subject of multiple defamatory videos which triggered a lawsuit still before the courts. The online exposure has in turn inspired kinetic actions. I’ve been assaulted, received dozens of direct threats and had ominous notes and one disturbing ‘helicopter ride’ poster left outside my residence.

For those unfamiliar with the helicopter, here’s a primer.

I can’t know whether The Sun has ever provided images or video to members of Canda’s far-right, outside of what they have published on their own platform, but given the content they routinely promote, there’s zero question in anybody’s mind as to which side of the hate-rally their staff are on. Anti-racist and progressive activists will universally agree that the Sun is present and filming with the express intention to cause harm to progressive causes and is seeking at all times to win a public relations victory for the far-right.

I will put forward the argument that as participants in the culture war, with a declared interest in inflaming tensions for political purposes, the Sun and its staff are not present at these hate rallies as journalists, that is, as impartial reporters of objective fact. They are however undeniably parties to the unfolding conflict, in a word, they are belligerents.

In a warzone, embedded journalists with credentials will often travel into battle with troops. While there is the expectation and agreement that soldiers will provide them with safety, those correspondents are free in an editorial sense, to criticize the war from an objective perspective, or, as objective a perspective as their editors will allow them to have.

As far as I’m aware, any member of any media organization committed to impartiality and not personally responsible for promoting hate, is welcome to embed themselves at any anti-racist protest, provided they observe the instructions of organizers to stay out of certain areas or not film certain things (just as an embedded journalist would respect military classification for security purposes).

There are of course, other photographers in warzones who are not journalists. The Canadian Forces offer employment as an “Imagery Technician” or “The eyes and ears of the Canadian Forces”. These are military photographers whose job it is to capture images for promotional (propaganda) purposes as well as to enhance, analyze and process images in support of military intelligence.

Now, if a war correspondent is killed or harmed deliberately in a warzone, that’s undeniably a crime against humanity which impoverishes the right of the international public to know and should be condemned. If an Imagery Technician gets killed, there is an understanding that while the incident is tragic, they were a soldier doing their job in a dangerous environment. They were parties to the conflict and they both knew and accepted the risks.

The fact that The Toronto Sun was the most visible target for protesters’ hostility at the August 11 rally, should, in fact, tell you something about the risks they took. A large hate rally was met with a larger counter-demonstration. The hate rally was cancelled at the last minute and only 3 participants showed up. There was a large barricaded pen, erected by police, from which the Sun could have filmed the rally while promoting their particular editorial agenda of opposing the demonstrators and exposing them to online ridicule. The Sun chose instead to insert themselves into the heart of the rally, at its very start. The fact that they did so while masquerading as neutral observers actually serves to place all neutral journalists at risk in future. It undermines the trust rally participants will have for anyone reporting on the demonstration, and, that was surely their intent. If there is a violation of press freedom which has occurred, it is caused by professional misrepresentation on behalf of the Sun employees who pretended to be journalists.

The police established a barricade to separate counter-protesters from their opponents but the Sun failed to use it.

I don’t have much to say about the alleged perpetrator, I don’t know them, I’ve never seen them before at any rally. This wasn’t a masked “anti-fascist” or “antifa” activist, as has been claimed widely on social media. The individual responsible wore no mask and appears by all accounts to have been a normal community member, possibly even a frustrated passerby who thought it would be fun to count coup with a SUN photographer’s ballcap.

Dipping for a moment into the world of bizarre Toronto Sun-style conspiracy theory, it’s also not improbable that the altercation was more deliberately coordinated than it appears. Barring context on the alleged perpetrator it is important to ask, as Sue Ann Levy might: could a corporation which declares every breaking news story to be a government cover-up really contrive such a nefarious plot? What are the chances a young, Ivanka Trump-retweeting aspiring journalist was perfectly positioned to film the incident and furnish the video to the Sun?

I agree that that as far as the letter of the law goes, the alleged assailant should be charged if the evidence is sufficient for the crown to proceed. In spite of the Civility War, we remain a country of laws, for now. But, when Robyn Urback screams for the swift process of justice in this case, it bears pointing out that after 16 months and criminal charges being laid against two individuals, my own assault case has yet to go to trial. In fact, the crown has attempted to negotiate a laughable plea deal for the accused involving court-mandated anger-management. In the interests of promoting press freedom, I indicated that I felt that would be an insufficient deterrent.

As you’re no doubt starting to sense, the ‘far left’ anti-racist movement is about more than just roughing up idiots who say racist things in public. These are the activists who have been fighting poverty, militarism, sexism, environmental destruction and capitalism for decades. It’s an inherently anti-elite movement.

So, if you’re with Robyn Urback, pearl-clutching on behalf of the establishment and propaganda tabloids who sow discord on their behalf, I guess yes, you should be legitimately afraid. Those scrappy street activists are winning, and they’re coming for you next. They’re coming for the ruling class, and if that scares the poop out of you, you should try being an honest journalist and not a mouthpiece for the elite.

Now we get down to the crux of the matter: The idiots rallying in the public square to promote hate and anti-refugee sentiment are there because they have been funded and egged on by the elites. Billionaires with ties to rogue states are directly funding the creation of new hate-promoting media initiatives.

The goons on the street are directly inspired and informed by elite mouthpieces like the Sun, or by shadow puppet shows like Rebel Media and InfoWars. Columnists at the more ‘centrist’ or ‘mature’ conservative publications also help to move the Overton window, transporting extreme conservative ideas into the mainstream.

You just need to talk to a far-right protester for a minute in order to hear 30 Toronto Sun headlines and Sue Ann Levy tweets learned by Joseph Goebbels’ rote. These platforms exist to sow division, to provide distraction for people who might otherwise be legitimately dissatisfied, and to act as the first line of defence for a system which is, more and more justifiably, under attack. As bread stocks run short, the elite find themselves increasingly invested in circuses. Divide and rule.

Perhaps what galled most is Urback’s equivocation between the far-left and the far-right, suggesting that both might unite in shared hatred of the ‘mainstream’ media. What Urback doesn’t recognize is the marionette string connecting her to the elite dances in perfect counterpoint to that controlling the far-right goons. It is a painfully ignorant position to take at a time when the press weathers near daily accusations of being #FakeNews from the President of the United States on Twitter. This bizarre opinion about left/right unity in criticizing the press exhibits all the self-awareness of a nematode.

If a concerted effort is not made, by responsible individuals, to address the Civility War from a position which respects and reflects its complexity, I believe that it is sure to get worse. Far-right and other extremist groups in Canada have already escalated to directly threatening even storming corporate media offices, and the president of the United States has declared open war with the press, but here we are discussing a national columnist’s crocodile tears for a hat.

To professional journalists who consider themselves to be perhaps more impartial than Urback has revealed herself to be, there is a lesson here about where and how to use your voice. In the industry, there is an aphorism “take my journalist hat off” which is generally used before expressions of personal bias or matters where expertise is lacking. If you accept the premise that the Sun took their journalist hat off a long time ago and is a willing party to the ongoing cultural conflict, you must recognize their pretense to impartiality as a mortal threat to your profession.

Bill Moyers also said “Civilization is but a thin veneer stretched across the passions of the human heart. And civilization doesn’t just happen; we have to make it happen.” Making that happen means directly resisting the destructive and toxic effect that outlets like the Sun have on society. It is the responsibility of professional journalists to not blindly follow novices like Urback in bestowing on the Toronto Sun the legitimacy of manufactured outrage over a mess they helped create.

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