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Watching the Watchdog: The Freedom of Speech Award Goes to...

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

Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference, and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers.

Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms: Everyone has the following fundamental freedoms: freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication.

So there I am in my last column agonizing over whether Canada should ban that obscene and hateful Internet video called Innocence of Muslims, when it occurs to me that it might be a really good idea to come up with an example of freedom of speech in action.

Something easily understandable. Something vivid. Something gutsy.

I head to my bookshelves, then the Internet. Everywhere are reams and reams of solid examples of freedom of speech practiced in the public good, supporting and strengthening democracy and freedom. But most are dry and a bit complex, and all need lengthy explanation.

Defeated and thirsty, I drop into a local watering hole, as is my wont at the end of the day. And, lo and behold, sitting there on the bar, is the free Toronto alternative weekly newspaper, NOW.

On its front page is a picture of Toronto's sixty-fourth mayor, Rob Ford, looking ridiculous crammed inside a football helmet, with the massive headline:

IS ROB FORD REALLY THAT STUPID?

Inside, a second massive headline:

ROB FORD MORON OR MASTERMIND?

A sub-head reads:

Halfway through a scandalous term, his everyman brand pounded by controversy, the conservative establishment's "useful idiot" may not be useful much longer.

Voila, I have found my understandable, vivid, tangible example of freedom of the press.

Eight pages of stories about the various shenanigans of His Worship Robert Bruce "Rob" Ford follow. Most are written by NOW's Toronto City Hall columnist Enzo DiMatteo (Amnesty International Human Rights Award 1995, Association of Alternative News Media Awards 2005, 2006, 2007, 2010).

NOW's eight pages fit exactly under that splendid journalistic raison d'être -- telling truth to power.

Here are some particularly juicy samples:

Not even his harshest detractors could have imagined such a precipitous fall from grace. It's been one misstep, one scandal, one abuse of office after another.

At times it's been very ugly. Who can forget the McCarthyite red-baiting by Ford's hooligans or the anti-gay undertow that coloured the Pride funding debates?

Ford has broken his oath to taxpayers. He's abdicated his responsibilities, gone missing for long stretches. He's lost all legitimacy.

The ambivalence of the first few weeks and months of his reign of error quickly turned to disinterest, and now detachment. The sucky baby of Toronto politics, the self-styled rebel with a cause, has begun acting very much like a man who's on the fast track to an inauspicious exit.

Ford is living in his own imagined world, in which whatever is in his head is the only truth. Then there's his bad behaviour, the odd sightings at odd hours, usually looking a little bleary-eyed.

Call him a fuck-up. I see a guy who never fit in, never really left high school in many ways.

Then there's NOW's selection of Mayor Ford's own words:

On paying for transit expansion: "I cannot support taxing the taxpayer."

On fatally injured Toronto cyclists: "My heart bleeds for them when someone gets killed. But it's their own fault at the end of the day."

On the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act: "I've never read that before."

And my favourite, a taped conversation with constituent on scoring the drug oxycontin (street name "hillbilly heroin"): "I'll try, buddy, I'll try. I don't know this shit, but I'll fucking try to find it. Why don't you go on the street and score it? Fuck, you know, I don't know any drug dealers at all."

When it comes to freedom of the press and telling truth to power, NOW's cover story on Mayor Ford may not rank up there with the real biggies. Like the New York Times' publication of the Pentagon Papers, the long-hidden revelations of Roman Catholic priestly rape of children or the WikiLeaks disclosures of government and corporate misconduct.

Even so, it's a fine example of a local newspaper unafraid to do its job, telling truth as it sees it, and serving its readers in the best traditions of democratic journalism.

Enzo DiMatteo and NOW win the first annual Watching the Watchdog -- Tell It Like It Is award.