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Press Censorship

Publisher Russell Mills' firing sets off storm

Russell Mills

OTTAWA - New questions are being raised about relations between the CanWest Global media conglomerate and the Liberal government after the publisher of the Ottawa Citizen was fired over an editorial calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Jean Chrétien.

Russell Mills, who had been at the Citizen for 31 years - 16 of them as publisher - confirmed Monday that CanWest Global chairman Izzy Asper and his son, David, fired him on the weekend after he refused to resign. The media company owns a national television network and country's largest newspaper chain. The Aspers are known to be friendly with the Prime Minister.

Opposition MPs argued Mr. Chrétien appears to have played a role in the firing and jeopardized freedom of the press - a charge that was denied by the Prime Minister's director of communications, Francoise Ducros.

Mr. Mills said the CanWest chairman complained to him that the Citizen had failed to submit for approval to CanWest an editorial in early June which blamed Mr. Chrétien for the government's conflict-of-interest problems and urged him to resign.

Mr. Mills said he does not want to speculate about possible political motives for his firing. Other newspapers in the chain, including The Vancouver Sun and The Calgary Herald, had run editorials calling for Mr. Chrétien's resignation.

"And there was no preclearance and no consequences for anyone that I know of. So it seems odd that the Citizen would be treated quite differently and I don't know why that is."

CanWest spokesman Geoffrey Elliot told The Canadian Press that the circumstances of Mr. Mills's departure are a "private matter between him and the company and we have no comment on that."

In the offending commentary article and accompanying editorial, the Citizen revisited Mr. Chrétien's problems over alleged conflict of interest in his own riding and concluded that he had set a bad example for the government and should resign.

Ottawa Citizen protest

The Asper family has frequently played down the so-called Shawinigate scandal and, after the Citizen editorial, required the newspaper to run contrary editorials supporting the Prime Minister.

CanWest has required its chain of Southam newspapers not to run editorials that run counter to the positions taken by the Winnipeg head office.

After news of the firing was broadcast Monday, the Citizen was inundated with calls from outraged subscribers, and had more than 500 cancellations by midday. Citizen employees issued their own news release, condemning the move and defending the newspaper's editorial independence.

Mr. Asper, a long-time Liberal supporter, has required Southam papers to carry editorials more sympathetic to the Liberal government, and Mr. Chrétien in particular.

The chain's national editorial policy has raised hackles among politicians, journalists and former Southam executives, who complain it limits diversity of opinion in the country.

In the House of Commons Monday, Mr. Chrétien was accused of using bully tactics to silence critics, though the Liberals insisted he had nothing to do with Mr. Mills's fate.

"Russell Mills was fired because the Prime Minister's buddy happened to be his boss," NDP Leader Alexa McDonough said.

"That is downright dangerous to democracy. We need a full public inquiry into media concentration, ownership and convergence."

Progressive Conservative Leader Joe Clark noted that CanWest Global is dependent on the government for broadcast licences and demanded to know whether the rumours are true that Mr. Asper met with the Prime Minister when he was in town for the annual Press Gallery dinner on the weekend of June 1, when the offending editorial ran.

After Question Period, Ms. Ducros denied that the Prime Minister had met with Mr. Asper that weekend, or had anything to do with the firing.

"I can categorically deny that the PM met with Izzy Asper that weekend or that he ever discussed personnel matters with him," Ms. Ducros said.

Answering in the House of Commons, Deputy Prime Minister John Manley, who has also complained about treatment by the Citizen, rejected suggestions that the Prime Minister played a role in Mr. Mills's demise.

"I have no idea whether the Prime Minister has an opinion on how Russell Mills did his job," Mr. Manley said.

"Clearly, Mr. Mills had an opinion on the Prime Minister. I suspect their opinions would have about the same amount of weight, in terms of whether or not the other holds his job."

However, Ottawa Mayor Robert Chiarelli said the firing was connected to the pro-Chrétien views of the Asper family.

"It's connected to the political aspirations of the Aspers, their political philosophy and the political associations of the Aspers. That's very, very clear," said Mr. Chiarelli, himself a Liberal but one with connections to former finance minister Paul Martin.

"If the Citizen had run editorials calling for the resignation of [former Canadian Alliance leader] Stockwell Day or [Ontario Premier] Ernie Eves you wouldn't have seen the reaction with this kind of firing."

Liberal Senator Joan Fraser, the former editor of the Southam chain's Montreal Gazette before its purchase by the Asper family, said she was surprised by the firing, but it is a fact of life that newspaper owners have a right to name publishers.

She said she expects a special Senate committee will investigate corporate media concentration this fall.

The most pernicious censorship occurring in Canada today is that imposed by the courts through sealing documents and publication bans. Don Smith had a gag order imposed upon him before his obscenity trial began. Prosecutors Bartlett Hughes and Liebovich deliberately misled the court.

Project P, the Ontario government's police arm to hunt down pornographers has cast a wide net to turn innocent citizens into criminals by raising a smokescreen about the danger to society of pornography at the same time taking advantage of the public's lack of computer savvy to make claims that computers hold evidence of crimes which simply didn't happen.

James LeCraw was charged in Operation Snowball. After further investigation charges against him were withdrawn but he never recovered from the stigma. He lost his job, His friends, His reputation.

James LeCraw killed himself.

-- Sheila Steele

Stephanie Domet, a columnist for the Halifax Daily News, wrote this column in defence of colleague Stephen Kimber

The Daily News refused to publish it and Domet resigned
(we got it from the CBC website)

When I first started writing a column in this space, back in 1998, Doug MacKay, who was editor of the Daily News at the time, gave me a piece of advice. "Don't censor yourself," he told me, "we'll take care of that for you."

I think what he meant was that I should write whatever I thought was necessary, that I should explore issues fully and express myself the same way, without thinking, oh, I can't write that in the Daily News.

And for the most part, I did. I rarely got censored (once, in a column I wrote about Viagra, I used the word vagina. The sentence it appeared in got edited out), but then, I also tended not to write about weighty topics in a weighty way.

Other columnists, in this paper and in other papers owned by CanWest Global, have found themselves censored in recent months. Whether they're writing about international matters that involve Israel, or questioning Global's commitment to Canadian television, columnists like my colleague Stephen Kimber have had their freedom of expression curbed.

Kimber, whose column appeared in the Daily News every Friday, resigned as a columnist this week over "editorial differences." You might have noticed, if you looked for him on Friday, that there was simply no mention of him this week. If you checked the website, his column logo was gone by Friday at noon. It's like he never existed. He's been disappeared.

But it's not like he didn't have a say in it. "I'd decided over the holidays that I was going to write a column that would take on the issue of censorship at Global," Kimber told me over the phone on Friday afternoon, after speaking with news outlets including the Chronicle-Herald, The Globe and Mail and CBC Newsworld, "and let the chips fall where they may."

Those chips - the same ones that had been falling all fall - led to the column being spiked, and Kimber filing his resignation. Kimber says he thought about what he was writing and asked himself if it would have been published under previous Daily News owners, like Conrad Black. He thinks it would have been. Under Black, he says. "there was an understanding that this is what newspapers do."

For if newspapers cannot offer their readers lively and diverse opinion on the issues of the day - all the issues of the day, not just the ones of which the publishers approve - what are they for? If columnists do not write to further illuminate those issues, to probe and challenge and analyse - why do they write? And why should readers read?

CanWest Global, with its stable of newspapers and its television network, has an "incredible power," Kimber adds, but the company also has "a real lack of understanding of what newspapers are about." He hopes his resignation won't be in vain. "It would be nice if Sheila Copps gets some e-mails saying 'appoint that committee you were going to appoint,'" to examine concentration of ownership in the Canadian media.

Most of the journalists who work at the Daily News aren't in a position to question what CanWest Global does. Those journalists aren't protected by a union, and if they get fired for speaking up, where in Halifax will they get another job? Columnists, however, who tend to have other sources of income, often have the luxury of their principles. Kimber resigned because he knows what newspapers are about.