“And the truth shall set you free.” And maybe not!
Stephen Harper stood up in the House of Commons late last month and suggested that he had incriminating videotapes to use against Leader of the Opposition Michael Ignatieff. It is a foolish comment. It shows him as mean spirited and desperate for something with which to defame his opponent.
The public has already tired of the campaign run by Harper’s Conservatives that attempts to vilify Ignatieff for spending years outside Canada, completing his education and teaching in England and the United States. What Harper and his friends do not understand about their own campaign is that it fails to make their point. They are trying to say that Ignatieff does not know about Canada because he has been away. Do Harper’s frequent trips away from Ottawa make him less aware of what is happening?
Liberal Leader Ignatieff is a very different person from his predecessor Stéphane Dion. Dion’s inability to respond effectively last fall played right into the Conservative election strategy. Ignatieff is not as easy a target. He can take the current Conservative smear campaign and deflect it back at Harper.
The fact that the Conservative attack advertising is not true is probably the least important rebuttal to make. It still needs to be made. A man with Michael Ignatieff’s intellectual curiosity, warmth, family ties and attachment to his country has kept well abreast of what has been happening and the why’s of Canadian current events. In the court of public opinion, the truth is not a defence for mud-slinging. In a court of law, the Conservatives would find that anchoring libel on truth is not a defence when the objective is to misrepresent and defame.
Regrettably, Canadians do not make full and proper use of libel laws. Most slander is ignored as it comes from the mouths of the angry and churlish among us. Libel is the slander that people publish. What makes it libel is not so much the content but the purpose of publishing the material.
As a young writer I had the advantage of working for some outstanding news people. An early lesson learned was having a story thrown back on my desk with the comment that I needed to remove a libellous statement. Knowing that I had written the truth, I was puzzled as to what was libel. All I had said that was derogatory about someone was that I thought he was in need of a bath. The explanation by my mentor was very simple: yes, the man was quite likely in need of a bath at the time but the man was also a competitor. If people who might hire him, hired me instead of him because of his hygiene, my statement became libel.
The only non legal expert in Canadian libel law over many years now has been that irrepressible bon viveur, British lord and now American jailbird: Conrad Black. He has used what is called “libel chill” very effectively over the years. Libel chill is using the threat of legal action to repress criticism. When his Canadian lawyer suggested recently that Black could finance his U.S. Supreme Court appeal with the gains from his string of libel actions in Canada, it gave the start to new ulcers for some Canadian writers. Luckily for them, Black will have a hard time getting paroled from the federal prison, where he is incarcerated, to appear in Canadian courts for those proceedings. After all, people not only have a right to face their accuser but we all want to hear how they did more damage to Conrad than he has done to himself.
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