Freedom for Minds - 1957

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Chairman, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation






This is one in a series of addresses given at the University of New Brunswick and published by by University.

For 157 years this university has been dealing in things of the mind. In that time it has supplied an immense amount of knowledge to the thousands of its students. It has helped many minds to grow. It has been a place where a real and rich freedom for minds exists; where its men and women have wide opportunity, and liberty, and time, to get at mankind's store of knowledge, new and old; where stimulating ideas, the thoughts and works of many other minds pour into theirs.

A university such as this is a special citadel of freedom for minds. Our universities stand on jealous guard against any constraint from outside authority on the flow of facts and ideas within their walls. And within a university such as this there is, in practice, a constant, free movement of ideas. Professors and students have special chances, as well as special duties, to seek out facts, to explore, and discuss and weigh the thoughts of other men.

In our country the principle of academic freedom seems pretty well established. Discussions that may arise at times about some particular matters probably only emphasize its real, established width. It seems generally accepted that academic freedom must be wide in law and in fact if universities are to carry out their vital functions effectively.

But there are people here much better qualified than I am to discuss questions of freedom in academic life. I want to bring up some wider questions of freedom for minds. I am thinking of matters that concern all people as citizens, including, of course, the people of this university. Indeed I suggest such things are, or should be, of particular concern in a university. The surrounding mental climate of a population is bound to affect greatly the work and life in a university, and I should think that universities have a natural interest in how ideas flow in the society around them as well as within their own confines.

In our Western civilization, not just in our universities, we believe, certainly say we believe, in the importance of the individual. We believe in people forming their own conclusions in their own way, in reaching their own convictions. We think that each man should make up his own mind about how he wants to be governed, and should have a voice in deciding who should do the governing. We say often that the best satisfactions in life come from personal appreciations and understandings. We rely for the strength and achievements of our society on free interplay of free minds.

Of course, if individuals are to be able to do a reasonably good job at developing their own thoughts they must have opportunity to acquire information, to have access to the ideas of other minds. Therefore, the means by which ideas circulate among the individuals making up our society are enormously important.

In the last half century there have been immense changes in these means. At the time the College of New Brunswick was founded the ways in which thoughts moved between the minds of people were relatively simple.

There was the spoken word, used by man since he invented language. It was very effective, as it still is, for person-to-person communication. It could even reach considerable groups of people, as it still can, if the speaker has a strong enough voice.

And one hundred and fifty years ago writing had long been a useful means of recording thoughts and words for someone else to read at some other place or time.

The other chief means of communication then was the printing press. By 1800, in the three centuries of its use, it had already made a great contribution to the development of Western civilization, but it still served only a limited number of people. Printing presses were still cumbersome and slow. Only a part of the population could read, and so could benefit from the output of printing presses (I am not referring specifically to the young colony of New Brunswick, since I have no statistics. Probably the gallant people who founded the province were particularly well educated). But certainly we do know that at the time only a portion of the population of most Western countries could read.

Yet, in addition to books, by 1800 pamphlets and small reg­ular papers of different kinds had already had a wide influence in stimulating thinking about many subjects. And it is interesting I think that we still of ten hear the expressions "freedom of speech" and "freedom of the press" -- principles which were being fought for in those times.

Incidentally, I think it is right to say that in the last century and a half there has been little change in the means by which ideas move inside a university. The book, the written word, the spoken word, are, I understand, still the chief methods of academic transmission.

I have heard it suggested by some people on certain occasions that the lecture or the address is an inefficient form of human communication, and many probably will agree tonight. But I imagine the lecture is still used heavily in the University of New Brunswick today as it was in the early days of the college.

But in the outside world during the last century and a half there has been astonishing development in the means of communication among the minds of people. I think historians of the future may well say that the sudden growth of new means of communication of thought has been one of the most significant developments of these times; and will find that it had great importance for times coming after ours.

First, in the last century, came the spread of elementary education over the great part of the population. Hard behind came thousands, its millions of copies. Reading something became the daily habit not of the few, but of the many. The reading matter was in most cases not great books of the past, but it was reading something that usually conveyed some information and some ideas, probably in a popular newspaper or periodical.

In the last half century or so the scientists and technicians have carved great new channels for conveying facts and impressions :ind ideas.

There came the motion picture film, with its fascination attracting millions to theatres. Sound broadcasting followed. In a decade it became a means by which the minds of millions could be reached simultaneously with sound and word. On its heels has come television broadcasting, adding the impact of vision to that of sound. Indication of the speed of change is that in just over four years more than 60 per cent of the families of Canada have paid close to a billion dollars for television receivers, and appear to be spending an average of well over 20 hours a week looking at what comes on their screens.

Within a century, a speck in the mystery of mankind, these modern forms of mass communication have become the ways in which most people receive the greatest bulk of the information and ideas and impressions that enter their minds. The school, university, personal conversation, books, even listening to speech-making, are still very important. But the biggest flow of information and ideas of all kinds in our society comes through these new channels.

There are those who resent the rise of these modern means of mass communication (I don't like the term myself because we are thinking not of communication to one thing en masse, but to, or among, a number of individual human beings). There have been those who have wanted to wish away the modern popular newspaper, motion pictures, radio, lately television. Quite a few of these King Canutes are in universities. If such persons wish to keep newspapers, radio sets, television screens out of their personal lives, that is their own affair. Those are freedoms left to all of us. But to try to say these things should not exist is like saying the flow of the St. Lawrence River should be reversed. The great majority of the Canadian people would just not let anyone take television away from them, once they have it.

Popular newspapers and periodicals, films, radio and television stations are here, and here to stay. But they should not be thought of as monsters with independent wills of their own. They are instruments, and very effective ones, for putting information, ideas and impressions and artistic effort of various kinds before the minds of most people. They are, or should be, instruments of society, not masters. Society as a whole is ultimately responsible for how they are used, and its members should realize it. I believe universities with their great importance in our intellectual life have decidedly a share in that responsibility; and no more than any other institutions can they escape the general effect of how our channels of mass communications are used.

I think any objective observer will agree that the new means of communication have on balance added greatly to life in our country. I am not thinking of the fraction of the population which has special concerns and special interests, which reads many great books of one hundred years ago, and still reads them. I am thinking about all people, the large number of individuals who make up the population of Canada. I certainly think it is true that many more people today know much more about what is going on in the world around them than was the case one hundred years ago. The lives of more people are richer and more pleasant, because they get more entertainment in one form or another; because more opinions impinge on their minds; because information and stimulation comes from many more quarters than it used to.

So I believe we should not mix up questions of individual taste and reaction with examination of the sum total of possibilities of communication among all minds in our society. Under our Western conception of democracy we say we believe not just in some opportunities for the minds of some people, but for all people.

But the very effectiveness and technical attainments of these modern media raise some practical questions in a country such as ours which follows the free Western democratic way. For an authoritarian regime, which decides what its people should think, they offer superb weapons. We believe in letting people make up their own minds, and deciding for themselves what they like and don't like. Yet we have to realize that because of economic and technical pressures and the size of the facilities involved, the ownership and control of mass communication facilities tends to concentrate in a few hands.

Today a small and apparently diminishing number of publishers control what millions of Canadians read in their newspapers. The printing press generally as a medium, however, is happily still relatively free from natural limitations, since members of the public can at any time readily get newspapers from other cities, or magazines, or books written anywhere by anyone this year or in the past.

Broadcasting by its nature is much more restricted. Its product is available only as it is actually put on the airwaves. The distance to which it can travel through the air from a given station is limited. In effect all of what people in any one area of Canada can hear or see by radio or television is controlled by a very limited number of people, or organizations, the CBC usually one of them. Most of the films which can be seen by most Canadians are produced by a very few organizations.

Obviously, there cannot be any complete, open, natural freedom for anyone to use a large newspaper press to express his ideas, or to use a radio station. There is an inescapable problem respecting freedom for ideas to move through peoples' minds through important channels of communication, when these channels are controlled by a few individuals or organizations.

I should like to illustrate some of the questions involved by referring particularly to broadcasting. I do not think that broadcasting by any means contains all the problems involved in applying our fundamental ideal of free minds, with free access to ideas, lo the modern means of communication. But broadcasting does present some of the considerations in a particularly definite form.

I think that it is right that in Canada most people spend more time listening or looking at radio and television broadcasting than any other single mental occupation. I am not going to argue with my friends of the press as to whether newspapers on the one hand or radio and television broadcasting on the other are the more important means by which Canadians get information and ideas. At least it is obvious from surveys that a very considerable proportion of the impressions in the minds of most Canadians come through the airwaves.

The number of broadcasting stations for both sound and for television is limited first by the technical availability of channels, and in some cases by economic factors. A handful of people, private station owners and the CBC are responsible for what goes out on all these stations.

Supposing the handful of persons controlling broadcasting decided that certain kinds of ideas should not go on the airwaves. Then the freedom of people to receive those ideas and weigh them for themselves would be gone, insofar as the important medium of broadcasting is concerned. The ideas kept off the airwaves might reach some individuals in other ways, but certainly freedom of movement of thought would be under some restrictions.

Another question comes from economic and business pressures. As with some of the other media, broadcasting depends heavily on advertising revenues for its support, parts of it entirely on this kind of income. Speaking broadly, the general desire of advertisers naturally is to reach the largest number of people with their messages for the least amount of money. Some people argue that for this reason broadcasting based solely on advertising considerations, trying always to reach the largest number, will "give the people what they want."

The trouble with this argument is that we know perfectly well there is no one thing that all people want, no one public mind. Canadians do have different tastes and different opinions, thank goodness. There may be some material, or some ideas, which appeal to larger numbers of people, but which may not at all suit smaller though still considerable numbers. If broadcasting always provided fare only for the larger numbers, it could end by providing little or nothing that is wanted by a very considerable part of the population. Then there would not be much in the freedom for their minds as far as the airwaves go. Seeking always the larger numbers, broadcasting could easily blot out liberty on the air for a host of concepts and creative efforts and kinds of information. If broadcasting worked always to find common factors in the minds of the largest possible number of people it would tend to end with pretty low factors, and to ignore many opportunities for the human minds. A piece of freedom for minds would be gone.

In Canada some special considerations come up in connection with broadcasting. We have a publicly-owned, national broadcasting service. The reasons for which this service was established, as I understand it, relate to another aspect of freedom -- the opportunity for Canadians effectively to communicate among themselves through the airwaves.

The way economic pressures and commercial arithmetic work it is relatively cheap to import broadcasting material for use of individual stations in Canada, far more expensive in general to produce programs in this country and to make them available more or less on an equitable basis to all Canadians. But if all, or practically all, our broadcasting fare came from outside the country, it could not be said that there was much freedom for Canadian ideas and creative efforts or information to get on the airwaves and be available in that way to the people of Canada.

I am not suggesting for a minute that as a nation we try to ban or seriously impede material of any kind for minds coming in from other countries. But I do suggest we need to try to preserve reasonable, real opportunity for the output of Canadian minds to circulate among Canadians. To do so we have to face economic facts for our mass media.

The fundamental problem of liberty comes from the rise to great importance of new means of communication in our society and from the fact that their output tends to concentrate in the hands of the few while reaching the many.

A century and a half ago the concepts of "free speech" and "free press" were becoming established. And they did at the time pretty well cover the means by which ideas could move among people. H men were free to speak what they chose others were free to listen, and had free opportunities to do so within the limits of the spoken word. If printing presses were free from government control, any person, at least one with a little bit of money, had a chance to get his ideas printed and circulated in pretty fair competition with any of his fellows. Reading members of the public had a fairly open choice among the relatively small outputs of different printing presses. So long as speech was free and printing presses were free the means of communication of the time within their possibilities offered quite equitable opportunities for different ideas to reach peoples' minds.

The important cry in those times was that speech and the printing press should be free from control by the government. And I think most of us at least today still agree it is vital that the government of the day not control any important means of communication of thought, whether it be speech, printing or broadcasting. By the nature of our system our executive governments are formed of groups of men with a similar set of opinions about many things, who have to fight in political life for these opinions. It would be much to expect them to be entirely impartial in dealing with ideas contrary to their own. For example, I think it would inevitably be a loss of freedom for the movement of ideas in our country if the broadcasting of our national service were to be made subject to the executive government. As it stands now the service is the responsibility of a public corporation answerable to all the people of Canada through the open forum of Parliament.

But I think that as people of a Western democracy we cannot in these days be satisfied just because means of communication are not subject to government direction. There is always some inherent danger to freedom of ideas as long as a few people - publishers, broadcasters, advertisers, film makers - control so much of what goes to the minds of so many. I think we need to bring up to date established conceptions of freedom of expression, apply them to modern circumstances.

I suggest that under present day conditions we can test the degree of real freedom of ideas in our society only by considering to what extent in fact different ideas and information and kinds of creative effort are made available to people. I believe we need to think in modern terms not just of freedom of expression, but of freedom of impression; of the degree of actual opportunity for all minds in fact to get different ideas. Freedom for the minds of Canadians exists not to the extent to which a few people have a chance to spread their opinions around; but in the measure in which individuals have the actual chance to taste different ideas for themselves.

I do not see how freedom for impression for reasonably fair opportunity for different ideas could be stated in any concise precept. Much must depend on the sense of responsibility of those in charge of different channels of communication. And much depends too on the attitude of members of the public, and their realization not only of the possibilities but also of the limitations of different media. Broadcasting, for instance, reaches a great many people, but its total output is decidedly limited. It should be the responsibility of broadcasters, I believe, to try to see that a wide range of opinions and kinds of material do go on the air. But it is also up to individuals to realize that they cannot expect their particular tastes or views necessarily to dominate the airwaves.

In the CBC we often get letters from people excoriating us because of some particular opinion that has been expressed on the air. The letters usually run something like this: "As a taxpayer of Canada I protest vigorously against public money being used to broadcast the erroneous, mis-guided opinions of Mr.. . . . which are contrary to the views of good Canadians." I don't think it is an important point in this connection whether the CBC is supported by funds coming directly from the public or not. The national broadcasting service, sound and television, is probably the greatest single means by which ideas are circulated among Canadians from coast to coast. To stop whole ranges of opinion from being made available to Canadians in this way would certainly cut a slice out of freedom for movement of ideas in this country.

To me it is not sufficient to hold that a certain idea should not be expressed on the air because a majority of Canadians at present disagree with it. Surely a basic tenet of our democracy is that minorities have their rights, as well as majorities, that new or minority ideas should have some opportunity to move around so that they could be considered, and rejected or accepted in the minds of individuals.

Sometimes the argument goes like this: "The national broadcasting system should not provide facilities for the expression of an opinion contrary to a widely accepted Canadian view. But it would not be right to have only one set of opinions on the air. Therefore the only solution is for the national broadcasting service not to carry any opinions of any kind on important matters." To my mind such a development would be a sharp cut in the effective freedom of Canadians to hear ideas and to weigh them for themselves.

Since the output of a medium such as broadcasting is limited, there cannot be "free speech" on the air in the sense that anyone can broadcast his ideas as freely as he can stand on a street corner and talk. But surely that means all the more that broadcasters must take care, and the public be vigilant, that different main ideas have reasonable opportunities to be heard. This demands tolerance; it means that each of us must be prepared to have our means of communication at times putting out opinions contrary to ours; it means respect for the rights of other views, and the rights of other people to hear those views and decide about them for themselves. In broadcasting particularly we are dealing with a limited though powerful stream of impressions. I think the degree to which we keep freedom effective for the minds of Canadians depends to a large extent on our ability to see that different ideas have fair shares in the stream.

In these days, when the modern means of communicating among the millions have become so important, we must be sure to remember the ideals of our democracy. And we need to see that they are applied in the workings of the great machines to the greatest extent possible. We believe in the individual; not just in ourselves, but in other individuals too. We trust others as well as ourselves to get different ideas, to think for themselves, to decide for themselves. We have faith in the free way for mankind -- a way that is being challenged in the world today. Therefore we must do all we can to see that the big machines do not lessen freedom for minds, but widen them. We need to do our best to assure that in practice there is the greatest possible freedom and opportunity for all minds - for ideas in fact to move more freely and vigorously among them by all the important means.