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            The Month in Newspapers
by Matt O'Grady

Back in early January, one of the proprietors of this magazine handed me an assignment: write about the state of newspapers in Canada. And so I have. I thought about writing a story on the state of opera in Canada, or senate reform – or why Saint John is Saint John, and St. John’s is St. John’s – but it likely wouldn’t have made it past the glazed eyes of Editor Scissorhands. As Editorial God, Publisher and Secretary of State at Forget Magazine, Kent gets to decide what will appear in its pages. That is his prerogative as proprietor. My prerogative, of course, is to take that scintillating St. John's opera story to the CBC, where career civil servants get paid big bucks to recruit small talents like me.

This is the hot topic in newsrooms across Canada: the rights of the publisher. Canada’s largest newspaper publisher, CanWest Global, has caused a minor uproar – mostly audible from the benches of their competitors, the Globe and Mail and Toronto Star – with the recent decision to institute a “national editorial”, three days a week, in all CanWest newspapers. This means that whether you are a reader of the Vancouver Sun , Regina Leader Post, Montreal Gazette or Charlottetown Guardian, you will be subject to the immortal words of the Asper family of Winnipeg – via their marionette-du-jour, editorial director Murdoch Davis. You will get the Asper line on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (they’re pro-Israel), on capital gains taxes (they’re anti-tax) and on the Chretien Liberals (they like ‘em). If you work for CanWest, and you do not subscribe to Aspervision, then you are encouraged to flip to another channel. Media jobs, after all, are a dime a dozen in this Information Age.

So, what's the big deal? Employers impose asinine rules all the time: you either live with them, or you move on. Well, the media elite – which means, of course, the Toronto media – is waging a campaign to “create a crisis” (to lift a phrase from John Snobelen) in newspaper journalism. Seeking to understand the motivations of the Toronto media is a treatise unto itself, but consider this explanation from the usually tiresome Leah McLaren, in a February 2nd Globe column: “The Toronto media type is the most worthless sort of hypocrite – a completely unprincipled, outwardly smug coward. The kind of person who is, technically speaking, intelligent enough to be self-critical, but instead chooses to mask radical self-interest behind a hollowly plumped-up ideal of free speech and independent thought.” Journalists (and columnists, in particular) have become commodities, traded on the open market from one newspaper baron to another. By creating a crisis in journalism - tossing around the lofty ideals of "freedom" and "democracy" - these media types have shifted the focus away from their own working conditions, and onto the perilous plight of humankind. By writing in haughty prose about the weakness or wrong-headedness of the competition, newspaper writers' real aim is to draw attention to their own purported strengths and, in the process, increase the value of their stock.

The hypocrisy becomes abundantly clear in the example of CanWest, excoriated at the hands of their competitors. The “plumped-up ideal of free speech and independent thought” that McLaren identified amongst Toronto media types is personified by her colleague, former Globe editor (and now Globe columnist) William Thorsell. In a January 14th column, Thorsell made this bold assertion about the Aspers: “Never in the history of Canadian journalism has so much authority been claimed by so few in the name of so many. Never has anyone attacked the intellectual capital of Canadian journalism with such force and such contempt for the diverse nature of this country…making eunuchs of the regions, impoverishing journalism and wounding Canada’s intellectual life in the process.” Never. Ever. Except, perhaps, during those decades when the Thomson family controlled every newspaper in Canada - including the Thorsell-edited Globe and Mail. A convenient omission. An equally egregious example of hypocrisy comes from the editorial pages of the Toronto Star. In a December 13th column, John Miller lambasted CanWest's editorial policy and warned his readers that, "if you don't speak up, one of Canada's major media owners will have gotten away with one of the worst abuses of corporate ownership in recent history, and one that has the potential of permanently damaging the spectrum of public debate and the credibility of the press in this country." This is particularly rich coming from a paper whose "spectrum of public debate" runs from left-liberal to very-left-liberal, and where said debate is dictated by the so-called Atkinson Principles (initiated by former owner and publisher, Joseph Atkinson). As a condition of its ownership trust, the Star must uphold these particular principles in all editorial endeavours (principles that include support for workers, public ownership, the equitable distribution of wealth and Canadian nationalism). In effect, then, the Star's "public debate" is orchestrated from the grave by a long-dead proprietor.

My point here is not to decide the winners and losers of the Ethics Grand Prix. Whether under the control of George Brown, Joseph Atkinson, the Southam family, the Honderich family, Ken Thomson, Conrad Black or Izzy Asper, the history of Canadian newspapers is marked by the heavy footprints of a proprietor, trying to sell copies. The bigger issue is whether the CanWest newspapers can maintain the trust and loyalty of their “customers”, their readers, in the face of this new editorial homogeneity. Readers – even cynical ones, such as myself – look to their morning paper for both information and entertainment: reportage of objective value, and editorials that provoke thought. The day that my paper ceases to offer me this, I will cancel my subscription. If we, as a reading public, value divergent viewpoints, then we will ultimately abandon those publishers who fail to fulfil our editorial needs. That is the power of the free market.

Freedom of the press will only flourish when government allows for people of divergent views to publish, and not when government dictates what such publishers can and cannot say. The reading public will - and must - be the ultimate judge and jury for CanWest's new editorial policy. As Financial Post columnist Terence Corcoran observed in a February 10th commentary, “whether the CanWest national editorial plan is a good or bad idea is a debatable management and journalistic topic. It certainly clashes with tradition and conventional newspaper practice. It might be a dumb idea; it could also be a brilliant innovation. But it is not a threat to freedom of the press or democracy. For that we can look to deans of journalism schools and others who would ensure freedom of the press by taking it away from the people who own it.”

CanWest's detractors say that in many cities (including Vancouver, Saskatoon and St. John’s), CanWest newspapers are the only game in town: if you want to get local news, you have to read their papers. They argue that free expression is threatened in these cities, as there are no news alternatives and the barriers-to-entry for potential publishers are prohibitive. Yet this is a decidedly parochial view: the world of news has changed. Community newspapers, catering to every special interest, continue to flourish; all-news radio stations dominate every major market in North America; a multiplicity of news organizations, from every corner of the globe world, are easily accessible by cable, digital and satellite television. And then there’s this thing called the Internet. Apparently, anyone can get published there.

Even hacks like me.

Matt O'Grady is not quite glib enough. For us.


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