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
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.