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Watching the Watchdog: Maclean's Misses the Mark

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Tim Knight writes the regular HuffPost Canada media column Watching the Watchdog.

Publication: Maclean's ("Canada's National Magazine")

Date: June 25, 2012

The headline over Mark Steyn's article trumpeted: "I HATE TO SAY I TOLD YOU SO. ACTUALLY, I DON'T. I LOVE IT."

"Free speech," he wrote in the body of the story, "is the lifeblood of free societies."

Steyn was celebrating the death of Section 13 of the Canadian Human Rights Act. The section that made it an offence to write anything "likely to expose a person or persons to hatred or contempt" based on religion, race, sexual orientation etc.

Now, Maclean's had a big dog in this fight.

Four years earlier the Canadian Islamic Congress had filed a complaint with the Canadian Human Rights Commission under Section 13, claiming the newsmagazine published 18 Islamophobic articles, including a column by Steyn titled "The Future Belongs to Islam."

The Commission eventually ruled: "The writing is polemical, colourful and emphatic, and was obviously calculated to excite discussion and even offend certain readers, Muslim and non-Muslim alike." Then it dismissed the case: "The views expressed in the Steyn article, when considered as a whole and in context, are not of an extreme nature, as defined by the Supreme Court."

A triumphant Maclean's thundered: "Maclean's continues to assert that no human rights commission, whether at the federal or provincial level, has the mandate or the expertise to monitor, inquire into, or assess the editorial decisions of the nation's media."

And last week Steyn wrote in Maclean's about the death of Section 13: "... it's not a right-left thing, it's a free-unfree thing. And I'm glad the Parliament of Canada is finally on the right side of that divide."

In this case, for once, I agree with Steyn.

That's because I believe absolutely in my right to be offended. And to be exposed to "hatred or contempt." I believe freedom of speech, freedom of expression, freedom to write and freedom to read are essential to the health and integrity of our democracy. Without those freedoms -- and within the limits of the law -- we aren't and can't be a free people.

Offending me, exposing me to hatred and contempt are small prices to pay for my -- and your -- freedom.

Which brings me back to Maclean's.

A very strange newsmagazine.

You'd have thought Maclean's would have blazoned the death of Section 13 all over its front cover. With a massive headline along the lines of "SCREW YOU, CENSORS!!!" Or "WE WON!!!"

Instead, the cover featured a generic picture of an innocuous youngish woman and an innocuous youngish man grinning maniacally within a red circle, with one of those red bars diagonally across it, and the silly headline:

"The majority of us are singles. So why do we still live in a COUPLES WORLD? P. 12."

We have a choice?

Page 12 turned out to be a ridiculously limp interview by Maclean's senior writer Brian Bethune with one Michael Cobb who teaches English at the University of Toronto and wrote a book called Single: Arguments for the Uncoupled.

It was three pages of psychobabblish blather about singlehood with not a single probing question anywhere. And only a hint -- so quick that you missed it if you didn't pay close attention -- that Cobb is gay. As a single heterosexual, when the subject's as important as sex, dating and marriage, I kinda like to know who's trying to explain my situation to me. And from what particular viewpoint.

The only other reference to the singles cover story was A Table for One at the back of the book. Its sub-head told all you needed to know: A New York restaurateur is tackling the single-female diner stigma one glass of bubbly at a time. Three pages of unadulterated puffery.

Except for national affairs editor Charlie Gillis's very fair journalistic analysis of the Section 13 story, the rest of the magazine was less than sterling.

The regular short articles, Good News/Bad News and Newsmakers were as mediocre as always, but presumably they gave interns something to do.

While Parliament struggled with something called democracy, Capital Diary devoted a column and a half to a Saskatoon band called Sheepdogs. Lots of bold type party political names, but at least this time, Capital Diary wasn't all about Justin Trudeau.

Political Editor Paul Wells wrote a much-too-long article about his father who seemed to be a decent chap but certainly not worth three pages and eight pictures.

Quebec bureau chief Martin Patriquin's article about the Liberal Party leadership race contained the unfortunate prediction: "Bob Rae, who in all likelihood will be in that race."

Then there were the fourteen pages of Maclean's picks for Top 50 Socially Responsible Corporations 2012 which read a lot more like public relations blurbs than any sort of journalism.

Barbara Amiel (full disclosure: at a CBC party some years ago I asked her to dance. She smiled a smile that made me go weak at the knees but politely declined) saved my day.

Her acerbic review of an avant-garde opera, put on at Toronto's Luminato festival included: "Einstein on the Beach is a hoax as far as opera goes ... Honestly, I thought I would croak before that damn thing finished."

Just as succinct was her assessment of Black Mountain poetry: "God, it was vile."

Now that I've written all these nasty things about the June 25 issue of Maclean's, I should mention that it's Canada's only national English-language newsmagazine. Because of that, it's extraordinarily important to our understanding of ourselves and how we fit in the world around us.

That's why it's worth such rigourous examination. And castigation. Because, given the magazine's national significance, it should be a whole lot better than it is.

Of course, no weekly newsmagazine is in the same class as Britain's splendid The Economist. But at least Maclean's isn't declining as rapidly into irrelevance as its American competition, Time and Newsweek.

Now, if only Maclean's could persuade Andrew Coyne -- iconic Canadian iconoclast, wit, journalist, sceptic and lovely writer -- to return.