The man they couldn’t cancel

Rush Limbaugh

“Have you ever actually listened to him?”

A university friend asked me that after I said in my youthful naïveté that Rush was a little “out there.”

No, I had to concede. I protested, but I had read quotes of his!

“Just listen,” he said. So I did.

My first time tuning into The Rush Limbaugh Show was in a minivan full of young Michigan Republicans I had befriended, on a road trip to the 2008 Republican National Convention.

I was in awe. Not just of Limbaugh’s talednt as a broadcaster, but at the vast difference between Limbaugh and the media’s characterization of him, which I and so many others had allowed to define him.

Limbaugh died this morning at 70, after a battle with lung cancer.

When I first listened to Limbaugh on the air, I had no idea I would end up as a talk radio host myself some years later (unfortunately programmed at the same time as Limbaugh’s long-running show).

My late friend Kathy Shaidle let me use her Rush 24/7 account so I could tune into Rush on the infamous “Dittocam.” I learned about conservatism, American politics, history, and the importance of a consistent outlook on the world, from America’s Anchorman.

I was a proud student of the Limbaugh Institute for Advanced Conservative Studies, a reference that won’t be lost on fellow listeners.

Radio is the most intimate medium. The relationship between a radio broadcaster and listener is unlike any other in media. Limbaugh knew this, and never took the audience for granted. His fans didn’t just listen to the show, but partook in it.

My experience is not all that unique. It’s hard to find a conservative, least of all one in talk radio, who was not influenced by Limbaugh. All political talk radio hosts, even those not directly inspired by him, get to do what they do because Limbaugh built a medium for them.

When I started podcasting in 2010, it was difficult to not want to emulate Rush. So many broadcasters did – and failed. There was only one Rush, and only ever will be. But still, I listened. In fact, I studied.

Then came February 29, 2012.

Just under nine years ago, Limbaugh joked that Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke was a “slut” and a “prostitute” after Fluke testified that her Catholic university should cover her birth control under the student health plan.

In the span of a couple of days, dozens (some estimates say over 100) of sponsors dropped Limbaugh. In the eyes of the mainstream media, he was “done.”

At the time, I didn’t realize this had happened before. A few times. Limbaugh had triggered a few moral panics over the years. This was the first while I’d been listening to him. I, too, believed he was done.

My friend who had first introduced me to The Rush Limbaugh Show scoffed. I can’t recall whether he told me to have faith, but he as might as well have.

Rush survived. He outlasted Sandra Fluke, who was to be the woman that took him down, but is instead a footnote in Limbaugh’s 33-year reign.

I never spoke to Limbaugh, though on one occasion he cited a story I had written on his show. I nonetheless made my infinitesimally small contribution to the show by sending the odd story ideas to Mark Steyn, Limbaugh’s self-styled undocumented guest host, when he’s been behind the microphone in Limbaugh’s absence, something that happened with increasing frequency over the past year.

As Steyn has said on numerous occasions, Rush has been on the top for a third of the entire history of the medium of radio.

He’s survived the digital revolution, and every attempt to cancel him along the way – even picking up a Presidential Medal of Freedom last year, just hours after he announced to his audience of millions his cancer diagnosis.

Prayers – and dittos – to Rush, Kathryn, Snerdley, and the whole Limbaugh family.

2022

The first question I was asked after losing my 2018 bid for a seat in the Ontario legislature was whether I would give it another go in 2022.

I answered the question honestly.

“I have no idea. I didn’t even know I was going to be running this time,” I said.

The stars had aligned in my life and in Ontario politics, making the decision to stand for office a surprisingly easy one.

Having covered, as a broadcaster, Ontario’s economic decline, I was honoured to have the opportunity to champion the conservative vision the province needed at thousands of London West doorsteps, even if my journey ended there and not at Queen’s Park.

This experience seems like only yesterday, although next year, Ontarians will go to the polls once again. This means ridings across the province are gearing up, and it also means I’ve started to field a great many questions like that one I got on that evening of June 7, 2018.

To prove I’m no longer a politician, I’ll answer it directly: I will not be running in the next election.

I am in a different place in my life now than I was when I made the decision to run nearly three years ago. My long-time radio show had just been cancelled, and I hadn’t yet answered the question of “What next?”. Since losing, I have groomed a path that is both personally and professionally enriching, and one from which I am not interested in walking away.

I remain grateful to the people to voted, donated and volunteered for me in 2018, though I am also immensely grateful I was unsuccessful in my bid.

I will still fight for the freedoms and values that drove me to politics, but from my keyboard and microphone.

On a side note, does anyone know what I can do with 1,500 Andrew Lawton lawn signs?

“Alberta is an open and welcoming province”: Kenney promotes safe domestic tourism

As Alberta launches a pilot project to make it easier for Canadians who travel abroad to return home without quarantining, Premier Jason Kenney says it’s important to revitalize Canada’s tourism sector.

Under the pilot announced Thursday, anyone entering Canada at Calgary International Airport or Alberta’s Coutts border crossing starting Nov. 2 will be able to eschew the mandatory 14-day quarantine provided they test negative for COVID-19 on arrival and agree to a follow-up test six or seven days later.

For travellers who decline to participate, or those entering the country at other ports of entry, the 14-day quarantine is still in effect. The program doesn’t affect the federal government’s admissibility rules.

Alberta ministers, along with the CEOs of Westjet and the Calgary Airport Authority attended the announcement at Calgary International Airport, with Kenney joining by teleconference as he remains in self-isolation after having contact with a member of his cabinet who’s tested positive for COVID-19.

Kenney shared a grim picture of Alberta’s tourism sector, noting the importance of standing up for jobs that continue to be in jeopardy because of government policies.

Visitor spending in Alberta is expected to drop by 63 per cent to $3.5 billion for 2020, a decline Kenney attributes in part to quarantine and other government restrictions, such as the border closure.

“This has impacted countless jobs, from airline pilots and flight attendants and crews and dispatchers, ground personnel, ticket agents, tour operators and so many more. Behind every one of those jobs there is a family who’s facing uncertainty and a person who needs to pay their mortgage, or a parent who needs to put groceries on the table,” Kenney said. “That’s why we cannot turn our back on the travel industry, the tourism industry, and the Albertans whose lives have been thrown into upheaval as a result of the pandemic.”

Domestic recreational travel is still permitted to much of the country though public health guidance varies as to whether people should be partaking in it.

The Ontario government, for example, still tells people to “stay home as much as possible.”

Asked whether he wants to see Canadians visit Alberta, Kenney said the province is open for business.

“Alberta is an open and welcoming province,” he said. “The guideline is to limit travel to essential reasons but we have certainly welcomed tourists over the past several months, and we just ask if they come to Alberta that they follow the safety protocols that we have – the public health advice that we have in place. And I think this is an important point: we need to get not just international travel moving again, but safe domestic travel.”

Kenney added that Alberta has “resisted” pressure to close off its provincial borders as the Atlantic provinces have.

Anyone entering the ‘Atlantic Bubble’ – Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia or Newfoundland – must self-isolate for 14 days on arrival. Only pre-approved travellers, such as seasonal residents or essential workers, are permitted to enter.

While the bubble approach has kept case counts lower than elsewhere in the country, it has also “devastated” the provinces’ tourism industries, Kenney said.

Last week, Calgary-based Westjet cut its flights to four Atlantic cities while reducing frequency of service to the two remaining ones, Halifax and St. John’s.

Lawton and True North: 1. Canada: 0

I never thought I’d wind up in a battle against my own country, but for what it’s worth, they started it.

We finished it.

The Federal Court in Toronto heard Andrew James Lawton and True North Centre for Public Policy v. Canada (Leaders’ Debates Commission/Commission Des Debats Des Chefs) and Attorney General of Canada on Monday.

Or as the case will appear in court records, Lawton v. Canada, which has an oddly satisfying ring to it given events of the past few weeks.

It felt from the day True North’s and my stellar lawyer filed the case as though it was a David and Goliath story in the making. (Though my friend Mark Steyn thought Canada was the David in this analogy).

“In any showdown between you and the Dominion of Canada, a mere G7 and Nato member has to be accounted the underdog,” Steyn wrote to me.

He was right.

We won. Justin Trudeau’s government lost. Press freedom and freedom of speech were the real victors, however.

This whole case came about because the Leaders’ Debates Commission – a government agency set up to organize and run “independent” election debates, banned me from covering the debate for True North, a startup media outlet published by a registered charity, the True North Centre for Public Policy. Also banned were Keean Bexte and David Menzies of Rebel News, who filed a similar successful suit.

I applied on September 24th for accreditation – one day after the Government of Canada accreditation portal for the debates opened up. I heard nothing until October 4th, which was the last business day before the Monday debate. The rejection was a mere two sentences long. The reasoning was that True North, in the eyes of the Parliamentary Press Gallery, to which accreditation had somehow been outsourced, is “actively involved in advocacy.”

As I’ve noted in interviews and posted online, True North has no advocacy mandate. The charity’s sister organization, the True North Initiative does, but I have no role with it, nor does it have any role in the media division of the True North Centre for Public Policy. This may seem a bit confusing – my friend and True North’s founder Candice Malcolm’s column in Quillette offers more detail about the organizational structure, and how it’s not uncommon even in the mainstream media world.

Neither the Leaders’ Debates Commission nor Parliamentary Press Gallery asked any questions about this though. Had they done so, we could have easily cleared things up. No, they decided to drop the hammer on my coverage plans, which had been in the works for nearly two months, in the eleventh hour so no challenge or appeal would even have been possible.

So we did the only thing we could do by filing for an emergency injunction, which was granted after a hearing of less than 90 minutes, in which the presiding judge not only recognized True North and I as producers of journalism, but also accepted that we would be irreparably harmed, as would Rebel, by exclusion from a debate funded by Canadians for the benefit of Canadians.

I would have loved to have been in the courtroom, where our lawyer, Jessica Kuredjian, delivered a stellar case by the accounts of those present (and by the result). But I was following it all on Twitter from my hotel room in Ottawa, ready to get to the leaders’ debate in Gatineau on a moment’s notice in the event our case succeeded. Spoiler alert: it did.

The judge delivered his finding at about 4:45pm. Within 15 minutes I was in a car on the way to the debate location, where my press credentials were being printed off.

I can’t overstate that this was a team effort. Our lawyer worked all-nighters through the weekend to meet the federal government’s arbitrary timeline demands. Malcolm exhibited immense confidence in my journalistic credentials by deciding True North would take a stand and fight this. Our legal bills cleared $20,000. Had we not been successful and had the judge not awarded costs, we would have been on the hook for that as an organization. Malcolm put up a hefty sum of her own money to kickstart the case.

I must also thank donors from across Canada and as far away as the United States and Australia for believing in our fight as well.

My role in the case was a small one – albeit I have the honour of going down in the law books as the one who took on Canada. As much as I joke about it, I don’t take it lightly. I had minutes to decide whether I was comfortable putting my name on this case. I did so because I recognized instantly it was about something much bigger than me, and much bigger than True North. It is about the freedom for all journalists in Canada, and for those wishing to start their own ventures in a climate that’s inhospitable to traditional, legacy business models.

This is why I chose to use the first opportunity I’ve had in this campaign to formally pose a question to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to challenge him on his commitment to press freedom.

Trudeau claims to be a stalwart defender of press freedom while his party has banned me from covering its campaign. His attorney general vigorously fought against our press freedom fight in court.

“This afternoon, a federal court judge ruled that I had a right to be here, to cover this debate as a journalist despite opposition from your Attorney General,” I said to Trudeau in the scrum. “This comes after two weeks of me being kicked out or not being allowed into your campaign rallies. The Conservatives have criticized you for being ‘not as advertised.’ You’ve advertised yourself as a champion of press freedom. Will you take a stand right now sir, as the leader of the Liberal party, and allow me to cover your campaign like every other journalist?”

“We are a party, and we are a country that respects journalistic rights and who respects the freedom of the press and we will continue to,” Trudeau said.

Even a day later I’ve no idea whether his answer to my question was yes or no. My attempt to get a clarification yielded a nearly identical response.

“We are a party and a country that respects the hard work and the freedom of the press, and we will continue to,” Trudeau said on the second go-round.

Well at least he changed a few words.

While most of the response to this exchange has been critical of Trudeau, a few in the mainstream media commentariat have criticized my question as being self-serving. I was asking to be treated like every other journalist who’s asked to cover the Liberals – a question that would have been unnecessary had the mainstream media been standing up for press freedom for all, as my media colleagues did a few months back at the Global Conference for Media Freedom in London.

I had to ask Justin Trudeau about his party’s opposition to my press freedom with the country watching, because this attitude will extend to other journalists if it isn’t exposed and challenged now. And by court order and the grace of God, I had an opportunity to do that Monday night.

Trudeau’s answer, if one can call it that, shreds his ability to blame staff or a miscommunication. He had an opportunity to right a wrong in front of a national audience and didn’t take it. Silence, as they say, is deafening.

Nothing changed. The day after the debate, the Liberals made their way to Iqaluit, in Canada’s north. I would have followed them there, but no commercial flights could get me there before his event. Instead, I caught up with the campaign Wednesday in Markham. Once again, I was told I couldn’t enter the supermarket for Trudeau’s announcement, because I’m not “accredited media.” Even with a court decision saying I am. My inquiries to the Liberals’ communications director went unanswered. Trudeau’s press secretaries briskly walked past me in Markham with no willingness to stop and explain why, still, I am persona non grata in their view.

Despite the undoubted victory in the Federal Court’s ruling, Trudeau’s evasion of my question and the Liberal party’s continued refusal to recognize my credentials underscored the main issue facing independent journalists in Canada: rights are meaningless if governments and politicians don’t respect them.

Trudeau proved that his laudatory words about journalists and press freedom only extend to those his party approves of, which defeats the purpose of a free press.

Trudeau won’t let me cover his campaign. His ban is an attack on Canada’s free press.

First published in the Washington Post on October 2, 2019.

On Sept. 22, I showed up to cover one of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s campaign stops in a Toronto suburb on the first day of what was to be a week-long assignment to cover the Liberal campaign. But I wasn’t allowed to board the media bus that takes journalists from stop to stop. I was also barred from entering Trudeau’s press conference. The reason the Liberals provided is that I wasn’t “accredited.”

This was news to me. I’ve been accredited by the Canadian and British governments, by courts in Canada and the United Kingdom, and the Republican National Committee at various points in my career.

But this wasn’t the first time the Liberals had created roadblocks for my coverage.

The staff of Trudeau’s foreign minister, Chrystia Freeland, barred me and another conservative journalist from attending a newsconference of hers at the ironically named Global Conference for Media Freedom in London in July, for which I’d been accredited by the co-hosting Canadian and British foreign offices. Realizing the gross hypocrisy of this display, some journalists refused to attend themselves unless we were all permitted to attend. Finally, Freeland caved and we gained access.

Press freedom won. At least until now.

Despite several conversations with Trudeau’s secretary and director of communications, and even a direct request to Trudeau himself (from which he walked away without saying a word), I’m still not accredited. I’m relegated to covering the campaign from the sidewalk and finding my own way from whistle stop to whistle stop.

With a combination of last-minute flights, rental cars and far less sleep than is healthy, I followed the campaign for a week, basing my plan for the next day on the itinerary published by the Liberals in the evening.

This ended up being fraught with challenges. For starters, police pulled me over and detained me at roadside on the second day of my coverage wanting to know why I was “following everybody around,” despite the officer’s admission — which I filmed — that I hadn’t broken any laws.

The Liberals even had me removed by two police officers from a public rally —for which I had registered and been given an admission wristband — in a stunning overreach that the Liberals apologized for a day later.

At no point have the Liberals explained to me or anyone else what the standard for accreditation is. Just that I and my outlet, True North, don’t meet it.

True North is a start-up conservative news platform published by a registered charity with an investigative journalism mandate. I don’t hide my conservatism, though it’s ideological, not blindly partisan. I hosted a popular daily talk radio show until last year, and I’d often interview politicians of all stripes — including Trudeau, in fact — without issue.

By saying I’m not a journalist, which the Liberals are unilaterally doing, they’re not only undermining my career and credentials, but also press freedom more broadly. Governments and political parties cannot decide who gets to cover them without eroding the fundamental accountability a free press is meant to ensure.

This isn’t exclusively a Liberal problem. David Menzies, a journalist from Rebel News, was escorted by police from a Conservative news conference after party staffers told him he wasn’t accredited. The Conservatives have since said their position is to not accredit media organizations with a “history of political activism.”

This may come as a shock to Trudeau’s press team, but Canada has no centralized accreditation bureaucracy for journalists. Nor should any country whose constitution enshrines freedom of speech and of the press.

Anyone is entitled to practice journalism. That doesn’t mean anyone is capable of it, or even that anyone claiming to practice it is doing so with the standards it demands. But these are points for the industry and consumers to deal with — not politicians.

Politicians stand to lose the most by journalists covering them freely — so the media must swiftly and loudly condemn any effort to restrict access. I’ve received some support from my colleagues in media, though clearly not enough.

When a journalist’s rights are threatened, the rights of all journalists are. This display would be wrong from any political party in a Western democracy, but it’s particularly galling from Trudeau, who has extolled his commitment to media freedom to score political points against the Conservative party, which has historically been standoffish with the press.

“Freedom of the press is a fundamental right and must be defended everywhere in the world,” Trudeau tweeted in May.

I agree wholeheartedly. It’s a shame he, in reality, doesn’t.