A dispute between Canada’s largest media company and its journalists has put media concentration on the political agenda as seldom before. In January, organizations representing journalists across Canada called for a parliamentary inquiry into media concentration, especially at CanWest Global Communications. The Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ) and the Quebec Federation of Professional Journalists (QFPJ) denounced actions of the media giant as “a disturbing pattern of censorship and repression of dissenting views.”
CAJ vice president Paul Schneidereit said the federal government needs to examine the issue of media ownership concentration. “We feel it’s time for the elected officials of this country to be looking at what the repercussions [of media concentration] are for the general public,” he said. The Quebec provincial government has said it might introduce legislation to force “a plurality of opinion” and diverse sources of information, according to culture minister Diane Lemieux.
The Newspaper Guild of Canada demanded that CanWest “immediately cease its attack on divergent opinions.” The Guild–the largest journalists’ union in North America–called in February for the Winnipeg-based media conglomerate to adopt principles that would respect the editorial autonomy of each paper and its columnists, and allow editors, rather than corporate headquarters, to make news judgments.
Buying the chains
In 2000, CanWest bought up the Hollinger and Southam newspaper holdings from conservative media mogul Conrad Black (who was profiled in Extra!, 11-12/96). In 2001, it acquired majority control of Black’s National Post, a Toronto-based Canada-wide daily.
In addition to the National Post, CanWest now owns 14 large city dailies, 120 smaller dailies and weeklies, and the Global TV network, Canada’s second-largest private broadcaster. The company also has private TV networks in Australia, New Zealand and Ireland, among other holdings.
CanWest set off the media furor in December with its a decision to require all of its daily newspapers to run corporate editorials produced in its Winnipeg head office. Initially, the company sent out one editorial weekly, but said this would increase to three times a week. The company also said locally-written material should not contradict the party line handed down in corporate editorials. Ownership and management have clashed with journalists and columnists who’ve cringed under the new controls.
Journalists at CanWest‘s Montreal Gazette led the resistance, holding a brief byline strike, putting up a website to rally support, and enlisting the support of the union and other journalists. The Montreal Gazette’s publisher, Michael Goldbloom, had earlier resigned over what he called CanWest‘s “centralized management style” (Canadian Press, 1/11/02).
CanWest chair Israel (“Izzy”) Asper told the CanWest Global annual shareholders meeting on January 30 that “on national and international key issues we should have one, not 14, editorial positions.” But this reverses the guarantee of local autonomy the newspaper chains promised regulators when they were allowed to amass their empires, gobbling up independent dailies from the 1970s through the 1990s. Even under Conrad Black’s determined watch, Southam was still running a “Statement of Editorial Independence” in its annual report in 1995. “For more than a century, Southam has proudly upheld its policy of editorial independence on all matters involving news and opinion. In the widely different environments in which Southam operates across the country, publishers and editors make their own editorial decisions,” the annual report said.
Initially, the Asper family, which owns CanWest, arrogantly dismissed the widespread criticism of their actions. CanWest publications committee chair David Asper borrowed lyrics from the rock group REM: “I can say to our critics and especially to the bleeding hearts of the journalist community that it’s the end of the world as they know it–and I feel fine,” he said in a January speech.
By mid-February, however, the company backtracked somewhat, announcing that it would not go beyond imposing one editorial per week.
Observers say the controversy is a result of media concentration in Canada, where five companies, including CanWest, control most media outlets. The telephone company Bell Canada owns the Globe and Mail as well as CTV, the largest private television network; it also controls Sympatico, a Web portal and high-speed Internet link. Montreal-based Quebecor owns the Sun newspaper chain, magazines, cable TV, the Canoe Internet portal, music and video stores and the private TVA network in Quebec. Torstar Corporation, publisher of Harlequin romance novels, also owns the Toronto Star, Canada’s largest circulation daily, as well as four other dailies and 69 weeklies. Rogers Communications has interests in cable, radio, television, magazines, video stores and wireless telephone.
“You can fit everyone who controls significant Canadian media in my office,” Vince Carlin, chair of the School of Journalism at Ryerson University in Toronto, told the Washington Post (1/27/02). “This is not a healthy situation.”
John Miller, director of Ryerson’s newspaper journalism program, told the Washington Post that CanWest newsrooms have become demoralized. “It is not so much the national editorial, but the fact that everyone has been sent the message they have to watch what they write,” Miller said. “If it goes against what is perceived as the Asper line, then some stories aren’t going to get written, or some stories will be written and then they will be killed.”
Author and Southam columnist Lawrence Martin’s contract was not renewed in 2001, because of his criticism of Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chretien–a friend of Izzy Asper, who once led the Manitoba Liberal Party (Toronto Sun, 8/26/01).
Toronto Sun columnist Peter Worthington was critical of the Aspers and had his column pulled from the Windsor Star, a Southam paper, as a result. “I got a rather embarrassed call from the Windsor Star…saying they had been ordered to drop my column and not run [it] under any circumstances,” Worthington told the Toronto Star (1/16/02).
Doug Cuthand, a First Nations columnist for the Regina Leader Post, wrote an essay in early January that was sympathetic to the plight of Palestinians in the West Bank, comparing them to Canada’s indigenous peoples. The Aspers, who are “well known for their unstinting support of Israel,” according to the Toronto Star (1/12/02), had the column killed.
Stephen Kimber, a columnist for 15 years with the Halifax Daily News, quit in January after his column was killed by corporate headquarters. Kimber wrote in the column, which was eventually published in the Globe and Mail (1/7/02), that
CanWest’s owners, Winnipeg’s Asper family, which made its fortune in the television business, appear to consider their newspapers not only as profit centers and promotional vehicles for their television network but also as private, personal pulpits from which to express their views.The Aspers support the federal Liberal Party. They’re pro-Israel. They think rich people like themselves deserve tax breaks. They support privatizing healthcare delivery. And they believe their newspapers…should agree with them.
“I think that they could have gotten away with the ‘national editorials’ policy,” Kimber told the Toronto Star (1/12/02). “But it’s clear now that what they really wanted to do was stifle other people’s opinions.”
Stephanie Domet, another freelance columnist for the Halifax Sunday Daily News, resigned a few days later after writing a column in support of Kimber for the Coast, a Halifax weekly, that was later posted on the CBC’s website (1/7/02).
The name of the game
Four reporters at CanWest’s Regina Leader Post were suspended for five days in early March, for talking to outside media, and another six were given letters of reprimand after they withdrew their bylines in protest over an incident of censorship at the newspaper. Management at the Leader Post had censored a story by reporter Michelle Lang about a speech critical of CanWest by the Toronto Star’s Haroon Siddiqui.
In March, the International Federation of Journalists accused CanWest of corporate censorship and victimizing journalists who are trying to defend professional standards. “If this had happened in Eastern Europe 15 years ago there would have been widespread protests from media owners and journalists’ groups,” the IFJ said in a press release March 14. “The issues today are no different–the fight for editorial freedom and protection from censorship.”
In 1991, after acquiring a 20 percent stake in New Zealand’s TV3, Izzy Asper gathered 200 employees of the station in the cafeteria and astounded them by asking a journalist, “You. What business do you think you’re in?”
The journalist replied that “the business we’re in is to make sure our audience gets the most carefully researched news and information possible.” Asper asked the same questions of the drama and entertainment departments and got similar answers.
“You’re all wrong,” he told them. “You’re in the business of selling soap.”