Friday, April 26, 2013

Coyne, Negative ads and Freedom

National Post columnist Andrew Coyne has consistently (and rightly) castigated the Conservative government for discarding its conservative ideals.

Yet Coyne himself is passionately advancing a cause which would ultimately undermine those very same principles.

I am talking about his stance against so-called negative political ads, which Coyne despises with something akin to religious fervor. 

In a recent column, for instance, he declared that negative ads “pollute debate and coarsen the culture,” which ironically is an awfully negative way for him to make his point.

At any rate, although Coyne doubts these ads actually change people’s minds, he nevertheless wants to impose government regulations to discourage their use.


Because he doesn’t like their inflammatory “tone.”

As a result, he favours forcing political party leaders to narrate their ads.

The theory behind this idea is that a leader would be reluctant to voice negativity.

As Coyne put it, “If any of this filth came out of their own mouths, they’d have to be accountable for it. Their public standing would suffer. Indeed, they’d sound ridiculous.”

Coyne also asserts such a provision would not limit free speech, since politicians “Could still say what they liked. They’d just have to own it.”

Me, I’m not so sure about that. After all, having the government decide who can narrate an  ad is, in my view at least, an infringement on free expression.

What's more, it would give one party an advantage over the other depending on which leader has the better voice.

Can you imagine Jean Chretien narrating an ad?

But let's set such issues aside.

Would this result in our election debates getting more positive and more reasoned?

Don’t bet on it.

For one thing, political parties would just intensify their negative attacks through avenues besides TV and radio. They would, for instance, send out more nasty messages via emails, direct mail pieces, and robo-calls.

And by the way, such “under the radar” attacks are usually far more vicious than the TV variety.

Also Coyne’s plan would not stop “Third Parties” from running their own negative ads between elections on behalf of political parties.

Would any of this lead Coyne to argue for restrictions on partisan groups and for limiting other forms of political communication?

I am not sure it would, but it illustrates the danger of even minor infractions on freedom; when they don’t work, they often lead to more draconian measures down the road.

Indeed, Green Party leader Elizabeth May is already arguing for a complete ban on all political advertising during elections.

Now let me say, I fully understand that May and Coyne’s views on negativity are shared by many.

But we should also remember that democracy works best when there is a free market place of competing ideas and arguments.

And any attempt to restrict or muzzle or control free speech distorts that market and undermines democratic debate.

That’s why it’s better, in my view, to allow negativity than to censor or regulate opinion.

Besides, why do we need to control or ban political ads, when we can simply let the free market decide?
If negative ads are “corrosive”, then Canadians won’t buy their messages and political parties won’t use them.

It’s that simple.

In fact, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau has vowed to stay positive because he says Canadians are sick and tired of negativity.

So why do we need nanny-state-style laws to control politicians or to protect voters?

In the meantime, people like Coyne who object to negative ads on aesthetic grounds, already have a way to deal with them.

Whenever they see one on TV, they can just turn the channel.


AC said...

Just to clear up a misunderstanding: I would oblige the leaders to *voice* the ads, not endorse them. No time-wasting disclaimers, no interference with content, no censorship.

Gerry Nicholls said...

Yes, Andrew sorry about the confusion. I have altered my text accordingly.

Anonymous said...

If the politicians are restricted, so should the media be restricted.

Political commentators like Coyne will have to have his articles vetted by a bi-partisan media committee to ensure he does not say something negative about politicians or their parties.

Political correctness must apply across the board with no exceptions.