No reason why an activist can’t be a columnist

Yes, it’s possible to be a columnist and activist. So why couldn't the Toronto Star countenance Desmond Cole and his stand on police carding?

trump trumpismTORONTO, Ont., May 23, 2017 /Troy Media/ – I’ve been writing columns since 1996. It’s a craft in which individuals often possess strong opinions, varied interests, articulate ideas and healthy doses of intellectual curiosity.

What about activism, in the political sense of otherwise?

This particular trait, which seems a logical fit, is now a matter of dispute due to the curious case of Desmond Cole.

On May 4, he gave up his biweekly Toronto Star column after being told to make a choice between opinion writing and political activism. As he noted on his blog, “If I must choose between a newspaper column and the actions I must take to liberate myself and my community, I choose activism.”

Why did this conversation happen in the first place?

Cole interrupted a Toronto Police Services Board meeting on April 20. He was frustrated with the board’s decision to protect data acquired through police carding.

That’s not surprising. Cole has made a name for himself by showing the flaws in this policy, which often targeted members of minority groups. (He’s been carded on more than 50 occasions, according to his April 21, 2015, article in Toronto Life.)

This interruption escalated into something more significant, however.

“It was never your information to take in the first place,” he said. “I plan to stand here in protest until you commit today, here and now, to restricting the police having our information going forward.”

He did just that, put his fist in the air and refused to budge.

The police services board called a 10-minute adjournment and, eventually, cancelled the meeting.

As we later discovered, the Star wasn’t particularly pleased with their then-columnist’s actions. His editor, Andrew Phillips, talked to him about the paper’s policies related to journalism and activism.

The Star’s public editor, Kathy English, pointed out in her May 4 column, “To be clear, Cole was not fired by the Star, as some have suggested, nor disciplined or threatened with any consequences. Phillips apprised Cole of the Star’s policies and told him he hoped he would stay on as a freelance columnist. Unfortunately, Cole chose not to.”

Fair enough. But did it really need to come to this?

The Star surely knew what Cole was like when they hired him as a freelance columnist. He’s passionate, and will speak out and take action if the situation demands it. If they actually expected him to change, they really didn’t think through their decision.

Plus, as he said on TVO’s The Agenda with Steve Paikin on May 17, “I don’t believe my job is to be unbiased. … Why do we have to pretend to the reader that that person is going to provide all opinions, or provide no opinion and just be in some neutral space.”

He’s right and we shouldn’t.

The liberal Star has hired several left-wing activists to be columnists in the past.

Michele Landsberg immediately comes to mind. She wrote in a May 15 op-ed for Now Magazine that “My editors, in fact, encouraged my activism” when it came to feminism, “marched on picket lines” and “protested at Queen’s Park.”

Why was it okay for Landsberg and not for Cole?

Good question and far be it from me to (ahem) colour your judgment.

The Canadian newspaper industry has changed considerably. There’s regular use of first-person accounts and overtly partisan reporting, which used to be frowned upon. Today’s columnists are also encouraged to be more forthright in their opinions and analyses than ever before.

Even if you disagree with Cole’s political leanings and disruption of the police services board meeting, as I do, his activist nature is simpatico with modern writing standards.

While it’s true that not all columnists are activists, there’s no reason why an activist can’t be a columnist. The Toronto Star, of all papers, should have been able to figure this out.

Political commentator Michael Taube was a speechwriter for former prime minister Stephen Harper. 


The views, opinions and positions expressed by all Troy Media columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Troy Media.
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