Well-known "independent conservative" radio talk show host Michael Savage has been catapulted to a new level of controversial notoriety, this time on an international level. On May 5, 2009, the Drudge Report broke the news in the U.S. that Savage had been put on an official list of people banned from entering the United Kingdom.
The so-called "least wanted list" of foreign undesirables who are now prevented from traveling to the UK is maintained by the British government's Home Office, roughly the equivalent of the U.S. government's Department of Homeland Security. "Since 2005," the BBC noted in reporting on the list, "the UK has been able to ban people who promote hatred, terrorist violence or serious criminal activity."
"Controversial daily radio host. Considered to be engaging in unacceptable behaviour by seeking to provoke others to serious criminal acts and fostering hatred which might lead to inter-community violence."
"Individuals banned from the United Kingdom for stirring-up hatred have been named and shamed for the first time, the Home Secretary announced today. The list covers people excluded from the United Kingdom for fostering extremism or hatred between October 2008 and March 2009. It follows the Home Secretary's introduction of new measures against such individuals last year, including creating a presumption in favour of exclusion in respect of all those who have engaged in spreading hate."
For some of those named, including Savage, "presumption in favour of exclusion" appears to mean that the British government is taking preemptive and protective action against people with no known history of inciting or committing violence or criminal acts -- in other words, against the possibility of offensive speech or a "thought crime" occurring on British soil.
The list also includes the names of some convicted criminals. CNN noted that "Russian skinheads Artur Ryno and Pavel Skachevsky are also on the list. The Home Office says they are ‘leaders of a violent gang that beat migrants and posted films of their attacks on the Internet.' Samir al Quntar, a Lebanese man who spent three decades in prison for killing four Israeli soldiers and a 4-year-old girl in 1979, is also on the list."
Never one to shrink from a challenge, especially one as potentially outrageous and damaging as this one, Savage devoted his entire nationally syndicated radio program on Tuesday, May 5 (it airs live M-F from 6 to 9 PM EDT) to defending himself from the allegations and threatening legal action for libel against the UK's Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, if his name was not immediately removed from the list. According to independent audience ratings, Savage is the third most popular radio talk show host in the United States with eight million listeners a week on close to 400 terrestrial radio stations coast to coast. He is also a widely read author, with four of his non-fiction books having made it to the New York Times bestseller list in recent years.
Savage's career as a radio talker is noteworthy for its success and novelty. He began in talk radio in 1994 at age 52, after getting a Ph.D. and spending several decades writing books on nutritional and herbal medicine under his birth name, Michael Weiner. Adopting the name "Michael Savage," he emerged as a conservative political analyst -- and, in an extremely competitive, market-driven field, he became one of the most successful talk show hosts in the history of the medium. His take-no-prisoners style earned him ratings success locally (ironically, in liberal San Francisco) and later on around the U.S. when his daily talk show, "The Savage Nation," went into national syndication in 1999. Early on, he targeted "borders, language, and culture" as core issues, and was a harbinger of the emerging problem of illegal immigration.
While Savage (as he himself has noted) is generally considered persona non grata and is typically ignored by the mainstream media, there is also little love lost between Savage and many notable conservatives (former CBS News correspondent and conservative author Bernard Goldberg put Savage at #61 on his list of "100 People Who Are Screwing Up America"). Despite Savage's being a kind of "non person" in conventional quarters, the potential ramifications of the banned-in-the-UK story were inescapable and ensured that it would eventually be widely covered. The larger context includes growing fears about indications that the Obama administration and the Democrat-controlled Congress are setting the stage domestically to regulate and restrict political content on talk radio (dominated by conservative hosts), and possibly the Internet, as well (see "Doctrine Air Democracy"). On September 12, 2008, Bill Moyers' weekly PBS program Bill Moyers' Journal helped to set the stage for the latest UK-based demonization of Savage by implying in an inaccurate and one-sided report, "Rage on the Radio," that the work of conservative American talk show hosts -- Savage in particular -- may have inspired the fatal shooting last year of two people at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville, TN. (Books by Savage and other conservative writers were found in the shooter's apartment, according to Moyers. But interestingly, when the shooter, Jim David Adkisson, pleaded guilty to the crime in February 2009, he said that he wanted to kill all 100 people on Bernard Goldberg's list -- a list that, as noted above, includes Michael Savage.) On September 15, 2008, I reported on Moyers' PBS hit piece on Savage in an article at American Thinker. Eight months later, the British government seemed to be basing its decision to ban Savage on a similar, and similarly undocumented and flawed, theory, as it described Savage as "Considered to be engaging in unacceptable behaviour by seeking to provoke others to serious criminal acts." The possibility exists that the British government was at least partly inspired by the Moyers report.
During the second hour of his radio program on May 6, in between listener calls, Savage, who insisted that he had no plans to travel to the UK and hadn't set foot there in twenty-five years, said:
"I have never advocated violence. . . I've been on the air for fifteen years, three hours a day, five days a week -- fifteen years. They [Savage's critics] take a few sound bites that amount to one, two, or three minutes and they try to redefine me by extracting sound bites out of context. I could do that with anyone in the public eye. I could take anybody and edit what they say and turn them into what they are not. You can do it with anyone on the planet. And that's what has been done to me.
"And now, for the English people to permit their government of Lilliputians to take a talk show host and put him in the same category as murderers who are in prison in Russia, as Hamas operatives who have been released from prison after serving ten years for having smashed in the head of a four year old Jewish child after killing her parents, it says something terrible about Jacqui Smith, not about Michael Savage. And I will straighten the record out. That's all I'm telling you -- I'm standing up for myself. You should be proud of me and you should support me. That's all there is to it. OK?"
As he described the possibility of bringing a libel suit in the UK, Savage said,
"I have incurred some very severe damages already which are likely to become viral very soon. For example, I lead a rather elusive and reclusive life. But as of right now, I have 24 hour security. This is a direct result of this incident."
Mainstream Media Slow to Report
In the first 24 hours after this story broke in the U.S., the three American cable news channels were slow to report on it. The exception was a mention, and brief discussion, of the banning on Lou Dobbs Tonight on CNN (7-8 PM EDT) on May 5. Meanwhile, the story was a lead item in the British press -- both print and electronic. Here at home, at 10 AM EDT on May 6, more than twenty-four hours after the story first broke in the UK, using their sites' own search features, I searched the Web sites of all three American cable news channels. Using "Michael Savage" as the search terms at each site, the Fox News Channel and MSNBC had only the same brief AP story datelined London about the UK ban (featuring Savage's name in the article headline). CNN.com had a story, interestingly at CNN.com/Europe, attributed to CNN about the ban in general.
Meanwhile, the same search at foxnews.com turned up links to past stories like "Groups Call on Syndicator to Fire Michael Savage for Autism Remarks."
Ditto for MSNBC.com, which among other links had one that went back to a 2007 article that quoted Elizabeth Edwards saying "Michael Savage, host of the radio talk show ‘Savage Nation,' is another example of someone who uses awful inflammatory language that degrades the political process."
Searching for a reference to "Savage" on the front pages of all three cable news channels' Web sites on May 6 yielded nothing.
The next evening, Thursday May 7, however, Fox News' most popular program, The O'Reilly Factor (host Bill O'Reilly and Savage have an ongoing animus toward each other), did an about face and devoted two-thirds of its hour to reports on discussions of "hate speech," the UK banning, Savage, and censorship.
O'Reilly's first guest, Sarah Baxter, Washington, D.C. bureau chief for the Sunday Times of London, offered her opinion that, in coming up with the banned list, Home Office Minister Smith:
"Got advice from civil servants, intelligence services, et cetera about who to include. But what really happened was that she wanted a list of Muslim extremists and so-called ‘preachers of hate' banned from the UK for domestic reasons, ‘cause we've got a lot of preachers of hate preaching from the pulpit that we can't get rid of in Britain. And so it was like, ‘At least we can stop them from coming into the country.' But then, of course, that was looking a bit like borderline racist, so the instruction went out, ‘Go and get me some angry white guys and put them on the list, as well.'"
Left wing bloggers, too, are busy weighing in on the Savage-UK-ban brouhaha. Glenn Greenwald, a leftist constitutional lawyer and author of several books highly critical of President George W. Bush and the Republicans, for example, has written a lengthy blog entry at salon.com about the UK ban, titled "The faux defense of Western liberties from the anti-Muslim, Mark Steyn Right." (Steyn's column that Greenwald cites is here.) Greenwald, and many others on the left, argue that governments that American conservatives generally approve of, like the U.S. under George W. Bush and Israel, have been guilty of doing the same kinds of things (if not worse) that the British are now being criticized for. Readers can decide for themselves if Greenwald's arguments hold water. Since this is a story in progress, it remains to be seen how it will ultimately play out -- for example, will Savage's early promises of a libel suit ever make it to a British court? Also, as some surmise, is the targeting of Savage attributable to President Obama or his administration, and does it presage a wave of similar future media censorship actions here in the United States?
Finally, most importantly, now that the left is in control, will the emerging, potentially epic, battles over free speech, political correctness, and thought control result in people like Michael Savage disappearing from the airwaves?
Peter Barry Chowka is a writer and investigative journalist who writes about politics, health care, and the media.