On August 23, I issued a challenge to Randy Simms of VOCM Open Line (left, VOCM photo). I was taking him and his program to task for their policy of allowing anonymous callers, which I called the last great bastion of anonymous personal and political attacks in the province. Callers are permitted to make all sorts of wild statements, while remaining anonymous, their motives and political affiliations completely unknown (unless they choose to disclose them).
The Telegram insists that letters to the editor be signed, and CBC Radio identifies all callers to its own call-in program. Heck, I won't even allow anonymous comments in my blog.
Open Line is extremely powerful, in terms of ratings and the influence it can have on public opinion. I challenge Randy Simms and his bosses to get with the times, and identify all callers to the program.
I am not so naïve to expect that VOCM would change its policy as a result of my post. But I was interested in discussing the point with Randy Simms. After several days of playing phone tag, we moved to plan B, an email exchange.
In a nutshell, Simms appreciated where I was coming from but VOCM's policy which he noted has been in place for decades is not going to change anytime soon (and which also applies to BackTalk and Nightline).
"We usually only give first names on the air," he said. "I do believe that people are intimidated enough about calling a talk show and for some people the feeling of anonymity helps them. I believe that if we insisted that people give their full name before appearing it would have a negative impact on the program."
Simms said that callers often respond spontaneously to issues, or to a comment from a previous caller. "It is not a well rehearsed thing on the part of the caller, much like an impulse buy at the shopping mall. It is very different from drafting a letter to the editor for example. With a talk show there are no second chances... one can't simply erase and start over. Even with letters to the editor it's my understanding people are allowed to withhold their proper name from the eyes of readers and use a nom de plume if desired."
"One of the things required to make a talk show successful is some kind of spontaneity. By insisting on full names going on the air I believe it would kill that aspect of the program."
That said, Simms points out that most people who appear on the talk show are not anonymous. "The majority of callers leave their phone number with us and we call them back when their time comes to appear. This way they avoid having to hang on the phone for extended periods of time."
"All calls to the show are on a delay making it possible for us to edit or eliminate anything we feel is inappropriate. This system seems to be working without difficulty. The lack of legal activity involving our programs would indicate a non-problem."
I can understand Simms' point, but I don't agree. In fact, newspapers do not allow nom de plumes unless the writer gives a very good reason. I also don't agree that it would have a negative impact on the program. To me, the show would be infinitely more interesting and the level of debate elevated if all callers gave their names. This, in turn, would contribute to more intelligent and informed public discourse, something this province sorely needs.
More importantly, by removing anonymity, it will be a lot easier to recognize people especially political operatives who are pushing a hidden agenda. There would also be fewer personal and political attacks, which I find offensive. People who make vicious and cutting remarks about others even public figures while cloaked in anonymity are exploiting free speech the way pimps exploit prostitutes. (Yes, the show hosts often do challenge anonymous callers when they say nasty things about others, but this doesn't undo the damage.)
There are some important exceptions to this rule, and that would include whistle-blowers. As Russell Wangersky of the Telegram pointed out in his column on Saturday, there is a climate of fear within the public service. I ran an anonymous letter in this blog just a few days ago for this very reason.
When they are divulging information in the public interest, at risk of being disciplined or fired, then people should have their identities protected.
Otherwise, let's all have the courage to put our names behind our opinions.