An affection for free speech is an admirable trait in a journalist or anyone else, but it carries dangers. Follow it blindly in the wrong direction and you look ridiculous and thoughtless. That's what happened recently to Allan Fotheringham, the Maclean's columnist, when he wrote about the late Doug Collins, an old Vancouver colleague who was famous for being offensive.
Collins rejoiced in annoying Jews. Was he therefore an anti-Semite? He said he wasn't, and for all I know his best friends were Jewish. But in print, his approach to the Holocaust was skeptical to the point of derision. He believed the Jews had falsely inflated Holocaust deaths to 6-million; the real number, he insisted, was much lower.
His tone was even more repellent than his assertions. He thought the film Schindler's List was Hollywood propaganda and renamed it Swindler's List. That's the sort of joke anti-Semitic Holocaust deniers adore, as Collins knew. He played to a particularly odious gallery. If he was not a Holocaust denier, he was certainly a Holocaust trivializer.
Collins was a sergeant in the British army who told of surviving 10 escapes or near-escapes from Nazi prisoner-of-war camps. In 1952, he came to Canada and became a journalist. He worked at the Calgary Herald, The Vancouver Sun, CBC television, and several other places. He ended his career writing for a small Vancouver paper, the North Shore News.
That's where he attracted official attention. A bone-headed provincial government had given the British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal the outlandish assignment of judging the work of journalists and, if necessary, fining them for infractions against human rights. This ill-conceived power hasn't been tested under the Charter of Rights and likely won't survive 10 minutes in a real court, but it has lasted long enough to make Collins a martyr -- or as close to a martyr as Canadian bigotry can hope for.
In 1997, the tribunal dismissed one complaint against something Collins wrote about the Jews. But in 1999, after a second complainant cited four of his columns, the tribunal decided that, taken together, they portrayed Jews as selfish, greedy and manipulative. They reinforced negative stereotypes and were "likely to increase the risk to Jewish people of being exposed to hatred or contempt." The tribunal ordered Collins and the North Shore News to pay $2,000 to the complainant, Harry Abrams, an advertising man. That ruling was under appeal when Collins died in October at the age of 81.
What makes the story fascinating is that a famous Canadian journalist has gone far out of his way to make Collins a hero. Mr. Fotheringham wrote one column defending him after the 1999 decision (headed, "A lifelong fight for freedom") and wrote another last month as an obituary tribute ("Death of a true radical"). Both columns exhibited an odd combination of vehemence and evasion.
Mr. Fotheringham said Collins was "the toughest man I ever met" and "a true radical who listened only to his own inner drum." He admired the man's gusto and once got him a job as a columnist on The Vancouver Sun. Mr. Fotheringham was so enraptured by Collins' war record that he told it twice, sometimes in the same words. (May 24, 1999: "At the end, he was imprisoned when the American B-24s rained bombs down on him, aiming at the Ploesti oilfields." Oct. 15, 2001: "At the end of the war, he was in prison in Romania, as American B-24s rained bombs on him, actually aiming at the Ploesti oilfields.")
Mr. Fotheringham wrote at length about Collins the man but avoided discussing his work as a professional. Two full pages about an allegedly admirable journalist did not mention even one good piece of work he did, a curious omission. And since he admired Collins for having the nerve to raise uncomfortable questions about the Holocaust, why didn't Mr. Fotheringham deal with those questions? He could have quoted Collins and identified places where he was right or wrong. Instead, he waffled. He didn't endorse the views Collins expressed, but he didn't reject them either.
How does Mr. Fotheringham feel about Collins' remark (last May) that "groups who claim to speak for Jews are the biggest single threat to free speech in Canada?" Or Collins' claim (last March) that "There were so many Jews in the Clinton administration that the Israeli embassy would know about American policies before most members of the administration?" How seriously does Mr. Fotheringham take Collins' view that David Irving, a famous Holocaust denier, lost his libel action in London last year because "No judge, British or otherwise, was about to take on the world-wide Jewish Establishment." Collins got everything about the Irving case dead wrong. He compared it to "a trial for witchcraft or blasphemy" when actually it was Mr. Irving's own idea: He brought a libel action against a writer who had called him (correctly, as it turned out) a Holocaust denier and an anti-Semite.
That was typical Collins: bombast that made no sense. Over the years I read scores of his articles and never found even one that was of any value. That's why I was astonished when he commanded so much sympathetic attention in Maclean's. Standing up for the legal rights of a journalist like Collins is useful, but praising him seems eccentric, at best.