Anonymous calls, part 2

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A reply to Bill Rowe's column in The Telegram

Last week, on the heels of my post about anonymous calls to Open Line (and the other call-in shows on VOCM), I sent an email to Bill Rowe, asking for his opinions on the matter.

Rowe chose to reply through his column in Saturday's Telegram, which is fine I am all for exposing this topic to wider debate.

You can read the full text of Rowe's column here. Not surprisingly, he defended the practice of allowing anonymous calls. He wasted a bit of space rehashing points that I had already made and agreed with that many callers do indeed identify themselves and sometimes there is good reason for people to remain anonymous.

However, our opinions differ on his central point, that "it is the message, not who the messenger might be, that is all-important."

I disagree. I think the messenger and the message are equally important. After all, what is an opinion if a person won't stand behind it? I agree that there are exceptions, such as a person having problems with institutions like Social Services or health care, or a whistleblower whose job is on the line. I have no issue with anonymous callers with innocuous opinions, who are merely shooting the breeze.

But I am disgusted by that small minority of callers who say nasty things about other people, while remaining anonymous.

As a former managing editor, part of my duties included verifying the identities of letter writers. Early on, I didn't place a great priority on this. The letters were signed, after all, and wasn't that enough? However, I had a few experiences that taught me otherwise. Several people brazenly attacked others, then signed fake names to the letters. There were all sorts of hidden agendas in these letters that were not immediately apparent. On one occasion, I was almost sued for it.

Bill Rowe says his show allows, even encourages, anonymous calls from "ordinary mortals" and that the expression of "valuable ideas" trumps any possible hidden agenda. (He also went off topic to make a sly dig at "consultants" who don't reveal who their clients are, implying that I have a hidden agenda. I do not. If Rowe has reason to believe that I am selling out, he should come out and say so. Is it any wonder that people want to be anonymous, when such snide insinuations are made against those who do stand behind their opinion?)

I don't doubt Rowe's commitment to free speech, but he fails to mention ratings, the real driver of his program. Without an audience, he'd be out of a job. To draw in listeners you've got to get some conflict going, and the more the better. Ordinary mortals don't want bouquets, they want brickbats. They love to hear opinions that are controversial, mean-spirited, politically charged and intolerant of others. It's human nature. And it's easy to go over the top in your comments when cloaked in anonymity.

Yes, there would be a cost if VOCM identified all callers. A few would stop calling, though I am sure the lines would remain full. If callers were identified, they would be a little more measured in their views and slightly less inclined toward vicious personal attacks. I suspect VOCM's biggest concern is that raising the level of debate will take away the show's edge, thus decreasing the size of the listening audience. I don't think this is so. If callers are identified, this will give more substance to the opinions being expressed. And there is the old maxim that names make the news', which means that listeners will pay attention to see who calls in next. The local content is the show's greatest strength, and names will strengthen that content.

I am all for free speech and love strong opinions, but anonymous attacks on others are wrong. Bill Rowe can rationalize it all he likes, it is still wrong.

Last week, there was a call to Open Line (with Randy Simms) which demonstrates my point. Jim' was concerned about a local woman's false complaint of sexual assault, and saw within it the makings of a conspiracy. Here's the transcript of what he said:

Jim: I was moved to call in by your opening challenge this morning talking about increased reports of attacks on women and the police saying that at least one of these didn't happen

Simms: And the crime rates are actually down.

Jim: Yes, and when the woman from the sexual violence awareness group called in to your show just before the Take Back the Night March, she said they are not down, they are up. Now I am wondering why a 20-year-old woman would make a claim of being sexually assaulted when it didn't happen, and I am also wondering if any of these other reports that happened in the six weeks before the Take Back the Night March didn't happen. There seems to be a relationship between the people who made the reports

Simms: Well you know, they have identified at least three there that they talked about, physical assaults and armed robbery, as having been faked, they weren't real, these things didn't happen. But that doesn't mean that the rest of the reports are not real.

Jim: That doesn't mean that because one is false that all reports of sexual assault are false.

Simms: Oh my goodness no.

Jim: Sexual assaults happen. What I am saying is, if one person made a false report, well then I would think a charge of mischief would be in order. But if there was a connection between these people a conspiracy to hype the Take Back the Night March during an election to drum up this issue, then I think the plot is a conspiracy and it's a form of terrorism, because women in this city have been terrorized by this. If it happened, okay. But if it didn't happen, I don't know then I would like to hope that the police are investigating all aspects. They have to go on the belief that all of these reports are true. They have to do that, we would want them to do that. But we can't leave out the aspect that one or more are not true, and if they are not true, who benefits, who gains from reporting a bunch of these sexual assaults? I am wondering, was it a conspiracy?

Simms: I am just pondering what you are saying there

Jim: Randy, this is an unpopular thing to say. I know it's an unpopular thing to say, but what I'm saying is, I hope that's not the case. You know, 250 women apparently turned out for the Take Back the Night March, so it did drum up interest in the event.

Simms: Yes.

Jim: But if this is what happened, I would hope that not mischief charges would be laid against whoever is involved, but conspiracy to create undue fear and strike fear in the hearts of people in this city.

Simms: There has to be some kind of charge that fits that kind of negligence and irresponsibility, isn't there?

Jim: I have no insight into this, other than the fact that I know sexual assaults happen, but occasionally someone will report a sexual assault that didn't happen, and usually that's a case of either revenge, like if there's a fight or something, but usually this is with a person who is known (to the victim).

Simms: Or you're dealing with something at an emotional, psychological level and you know, some of these things are a cry for help.

Jim: Most sexual assaults do occur, most do occur, but not all do. Now this appears to me to have taken place between the six weeks, and I believe one of them was on the eve of, the Take Back the Night March.

Simms: One happened on September 3, and then one happened on September 26 and one happened on September 29.

Jim: For years, Randy, I've been advocating that women should, for the sake of lowering violence against women, they should invite men and male children to march along with women in the march. This has worked in other jurisdictions where it has been tried, it is lowering the rates of sexual violence. I was told here that if women bring men to the march and male children, that they will cancel the march. Randy I am going to give you a website go to google and type children see children do', it's a video that shows how children emulate what their parents do.

Simms: Jim, you've had the last word, I gotta go. Google children see children do'. I'll google it, I hope you will too.

Anonymous Jim's leap of logic here is that, because there was one false complaint of sexual assault, the local women's movement may be orchestrating a conspiracy of false complaints to artificially inflate statistics and boost attendance at the Take Back the Night March.

(UPDATE: Since Jim's call, police laid another false complaint charge, this time against Shelly England. However, it relates to an earlier insurance claim, not her sexual assault complaint. And even if it did, to suggest an organized conspiracy of false complaints is out to lunch.)

"What it is, is misogyny," said Leslie MacLeod, President of the Provincial Advisory Council on the Status of Women. "He's just being mean about women...

"It's rather outrageous," she added. "To have people call in anonymously is a problem for sure in this day and age because it is a forum for people to put out very discriminatory or inflammatory statements. And there's no way they are accountable for what they said because they are anonymous. Certainly no women's group is conspiring to increase the number of sexual assaults. The rate of sexual assault is too high and any sexual assault is too many. And there is absolutely no conspiracy or effort to inflate those numbers. In fact, we are very concerned about the false allegations because we feel they may hold other victims back from reporting the crimes that have been committed against them. So the Sexual Assault Crisis and Prevention Centre has been out in the media saying Please women, don't keep silent. Report your offence. Seek Help. There are people out there to support you.' When we hear there has been a false allegation we worry about that."

I think that Jim has every right to voice his opinion, no matter how contentious. But I think it's underhanded for him to do so anonymously, and wrong for VOCM to allow it.

I know that the station's policy has been in place for decades and nothing will change because of this post.

I'm just voicing my opinion, that's all.

And signing my name to it.

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  • Ed
    July 27, 2010 - 14:53

    Bill's column gets far more attention from you than it deserves.

    In largest measure his column is a self-serving apologia for his program.

    He writes for example, that A lot of them [callers] are powerless individuals, without recourse, often intimidated by authority, and who simply would not go on the public airways with their important problems or opinions if they had to identify themselves.

    Sheer bunk. 15 years ago and more that might have been true. increasingly, his lines are taken up with one cabinet minister or another and their various supporters, just as it was when the political use of open line shows started a decade ago. These people are decidedly not powerless and they are not without recourse. Then there are the supporters of one politician or another who are equally neither powerless nor without recourse to deal with a specific problem.

    Consider that Rowe wrote this in the middle of an election campaign. For much of the three weeks of active campaigning, it was hard for any one of the great unwashed masses - the raggedy arsed artillery as one of Rowe's old bosses used to call them - to even get through to a producer let alone get on the air.

    If we add to that Rowe's propensity for tossing out all sorts of wild and unsubstantiated claims, what you have is the epitome of a show which values ratings above all else.

    There's no fault in that since VOCM is in business to make money and it does so through advertising.

    There is a fault, however, in pretending something else - as Rowe did - and taking a veiled shot at some people in the process.
    Perhaps Bill would like to remind people he sat in cabinet and the House when the Churchill Falls deal was signed any time one of his callers likes to bring up that monumental mistake or Rowe himself tees off on it.