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Free Speech for Press Barons

Larry Zolf

Media watchdogs, fervent civil libertarians and PEN devotees have lately been very neglectful of the right of free speech for press barons. This is a right, which if not already entrenched in the Magna Carta or the Charter, most emphatically should be. There has to be an end to the vicious and unceasing working press attacks on the rights of press barons to air their personal and political views or those of their friends in high places in the newspapers and TV stations the press barons just happen to own.

This insidious and rebellious working press New Think first surfaced when lawyer David Asper, he who freed David Milgaard, argued in the National Post and in the 139 newspapers of the Southam chain that he owns with father Izzy, that the Right Honourable Jean Chrétien had suffered enough in the Shawinigan affair.

Prior to the Aspers taking ownership and David Asper penning his thoughts, the Conrad Black-owned National Post and his Southam chain had written 4,999,999 words about Chrétien's conflicts of interests, Chrétien's criminal friends, Chrétien's nasty phone calls in the middle of the night and Chrétien's attempts to literally strangle Joe Clark into submission on the very floor of the House of Commons. No wonder David Asper was under the delusion that since the Aspers now controlled the National Post and the Southam chain that perhaps these freshly-minted Asper newspapers could stand at least one article in defence of the prime minister.

The Aspers were of course guided in this hasty, improvised decision by their keen observance of the faultless corporate behaviour and the highly developed sense of ethics of the previous proprietor of the National Post and Southam chain, Conrad Riley Black. The Aspers noted that Black publicly and severely cuffed a journalist, now Canada's Prince Consort, one John Ralston Saul. Saul fought back. The prospect of a Conrad Black libel suit hung fatefully in the air, but Black settled for this "robust reply": Black dismissed Saul as "peevish, puerile, sniggering."

When Black's oeuvre on Union Nationale Premier Maurice Duplessis emerged - that is Duplessis of the Padlock Law and heavy-duty harassment of labour unions and Jehovah's Witnesses - an opus that placed Duplessis in the front rank of Quebec and Canadian political gods, historian Ramsay Cook tore gaping holes in it. Black then spoke "to my friend Dick Malone the publisher of the Globe." Malone gave Black "a five paragraph response to avoid any possibility of defamation." Black consoled himself by dismissing Cook, one of Canada's leading historians, as "a slanted, supercilious little twit."

Peter Newman in The Establishment Man, his Boswellian biography of Conrad Black, described this columnist as the CBC's "caustic wit" and Conrad Black's "favourite humourist." Yet when I received a menacing anonymous phone call from a Black admirer telling me to give Black's Duplessis a rave review in a Toronto daily - or else - I did not laugh. I didn't even smile.

If ever the media term libel chill applied to anyone in Canada it applies to Conrad Black. On June 30, 1989, the Globe "finally published," as Black himself puts it, "one of Canada's most extensive litigated libel retractions." The recanting Globe then proceeded to call Black "Canada's most respected businessman."

If ever a press baron used his newspapers to push his personal viewpoints, that press baron is Conrad Riley Black. Neither Black's persistent libel chill, nor his constant strikes against his own unionized papers, could deflect Canada's liberally minded mass media from a bended knee genuflection for the Almost Lord, Conrad Black.

Bizarrely Canada's liberal media turned a blind eye to Conrad Black's vendetta against Chrétien resulting from the prime minister's shredding of Black's House of Lords robes. In a vengeful response, Black's National Post broke the Shawinigan story. It was the Almost Lord who daily pummelled the Shawinigan peasant from pillar to post. It was Conrad Black, his National Post and the Southam chain that set the entire media agenda on the Grand Mere merry-go-round.

Watching all this Conrad Blackness at Noon must have been mesmerizing for the Aspers of Winnipeg. One could hardly blame the Aspers, River Heights hillbillies one and all, for feeling that they too could set the media agenda and still be beloved by the ink-stained wretches in their newspapers' and TV stations' employ.

Surely a touch of revisionism laced with a tincture of Liberalism was called for. The Aspers, devout fans of Paul Martin, perhaps also felt that Chrétien's martyrdom was making him hang on too long as Liberal leader. Chrétien was possibly pulling a Diefenbaker and refusing ever to leave. A thoughtful Asper piece could quench the fires of Chrétien's martyrdom.

The poor non-Christian Aspers waded right into the media lions' den. After David Asper defended Chrétien in the Izzy press, The Globe and Mail's and Canada's Walter Lippman, Hugh Winsor, who never ever criticized Black's coverage of Shawinigan, echoed Frank magazine and called Asper's defence of Chrétien "infamous."

Even the politicians got into the Asper-baiting act. Joe Clark, who lists himself in the Canadian Parliamentary Guide as "a journalist," said mysteriously: "If I were a journalist, I would be concerned about what happened in the Asper case." When the National Post and Southam were later told by the Aspers to run a column by Chrétien spinmeister, Warren Kinsella, the working press and political lamentations could be heard as far as the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem.

Inside Zolf wonders why Conrad Black can libel chill the press or control it outright, while the media Aspers are given no media quarter whatsoever. Is it because the Blacks, Conrad and Babs, are both writers and wordsmiths, are chic and glamorous, while the Aspers are from rustic Minnedosa and backward Winnipeg?

Now the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission is trying to fence in the Aspers. The CRTC wants Izzy's newspaper peons to have no truck nor trade with Global TV reporters.

Intermarriage between National Post male reporters and female Global TV stars or vice versa will be strictly forbidden. The CRTC also looks askance at the Asper desire to have on-air Asper editorials following up and denouncing anti-Martin, anti-Chrétien Global news items.

Canadians do not need press censorship, least of all the censorship of press barons. Press barons can always be stopped dead in their tracks - by a public that stops watching their banal TV stations and stops reading their slanted and tendentious newspapers.

CanWest's can of worms

Martin O'Malley

Nobody expected CanWest Global's purchase of the Southam newspaper chain would be a bold stroke for good journalism in Canada. But nobody expected CanWest would be so stupid, outrageous, myopic, thick-headed – choose your epithet – as to dictate what editorials should run and not run in all of its 14 Canadian daily newspapers, with orders coming directly from Winnipeg.

I mean, who does Izzy Asper think he is, John W. Dafoe? (We'll return to this in a minute.)

It started in December when word came from CanWest headquarters in Winnipeg that member newspapers are obliged to carry corporate editorials – CanWest prefers the term "national editorials" – once a week, with the expectation that the number soon would increase to three times a week.

Protests against the policy began to erupt across the country, but for the most part the protests have been rather tame. Fifty-five journalists at the Montreal Gazette signed an open letter to The Globe and Mail expressing their displeasure.

"We believe this is an attempt to centralize opinion to serve the corporate interests of CanWest," the journalists said. "Far from offering additional content to Canadians, this will practically vacate the power of the editorial boards of Southam newspapers and thereby reduce the diversity of opinions and the breadth of debate that to date has been offered readers across Canada."

Southam executive Murdoch Davis wrote the first Winnipeg-ordered, one-size fits-all editorial, arguing that the federal government should reduce, then abolish capital gains taxes for private charitable foundations. The Asper family happens to own CanWest and Southam and happens to run its own private charitable foundation, but I'm sure this did not enter the mind of Davis (who now will write on the flying ability of cows).

The latest CanWest debacle involves a column written by Stephen Kimber for the Halifax Daily News. Kimber has been writing for the newspaper for 20 years, recently doing a weekly freelance column that appeared every Friday. Kimber is director of the School of Journalism at University of King's College in Halifax.

This time he took a good run at the windmills of CanWest, writing about the Winnipeg-ordered editorials and questioning the "stifling of opinion" at the Southam/CanWest newspapers. "This might not be so bad if the Aspers owned one or two newspapers, but they are the dominant player in the newspaper business in Canada today," Kimber wrote. "They own the National Post, 14 major metropolitan newspapers, 126 smaller papers and Global Television. In most markets in which their newspapers operate, they are the only game in town."

And then he asked, "Why should freedom of the press, as legendary press critic A.J. Liebling once put it, be 'guaranteed only to those who own one'?"

Kimber submitted the column on Thursday to the editor, Bill Turpin, who read it and decided, like Pontius Pilate, to send it on to Winnipeg for a ruling. Word quickly returned to Halifax that no way in hell was this going in any Southam/CanWest publication. Kimber's column was spiked, which means canned, killed – no way, José.

Turpin asked Kimber if he would continue to write the column and Kimber said no, choosing to resign on principle, citing the "chill hand from Winnipeg." He thus relinquished the munificent fee of $170 per column Southam/CanWest was paying him.

As an ex-Winipegger myself, I know the most brilliant minds in the country and in the country's journalism come from Winnipeg, but the truly savvy ones know enough to get out of the city. The Winnipeg-based Aspers may be rich, but they ain't brilliant, and they ain't savvy.

Which brings us back to John W. Dafoe, a towering figure in Canadian journalism, whose editorial voice thundered from the pages of The Winnipeg Free Press in the early years of the 20th century. His columns weren't forced on any other newspapers because they didn't have to be.

He fought for Western Canadian interests, for free trade, lower tariffs, for conscription, for the formation of Sir Robert Borden's union government during the First World War. He turned down a knighthood from Britain. And in the 1930s, in a famous Free Press editorial titled "What's the cheering for?" stood alone in North America in condemning the Munich Pact in 1938.

Just the sort of thing we'd expect of Izzy Asper and Murdoch Davis, eh?

Yeah, right.

CanWest Exec. David Asper's Speech on National Editorials

Thank you for inviting me to speak with you this morning. We are a national company and it is just as important for us to be here as it is to be in Toronto, Ottawa, Vancouver and the other usual suspects. Oakville plays an integral role in the economy of our country and I salute you for creating the many social and economic achievements your community now enjoys. The spirit of enterprise is alive and well here.

As you know, when we applied to the CRTC to take over the ownership of CHCH in Hamilton, we unveiled a vision that was inclusive of the region stretching from Oakville to the Niagara Peninsula. We are very proud that slowly but surely we are making good on that promise. I salute Patrick, Heather and the team at CH for their determined effort. And, things will only continue to get better. I had hoped to speak today on a series of broad issues relating to the media and international affairs, because of the topicality of those subjects.

It has been said over and over that our world changed after September 11th, and we have felt those changes in our business as much as any other. But, if you believe what our competitors have been saying about us over the past week, an equally horrifying event occurred when, through our Southam News Service, we introduced national editorials in our papers across the country.

For those of you who actually have better things to do than read irrational tirades in the Star, Globe or Sun, this is what we are doing.

Commencing last Thursday, and continuing today, the major Southam daily newspapers will be carrying a lead editorial written or assigned by the editor in chief of Southam News. The frequency of these comments will increase eventually to three times per week as we expand the editorial base in Winnipeg and across the country.

Last week we expressed the view that Finance Minister Paul Martin ought to end the discriminatory tax treatment of public versus private charities. Snide news reporting of the editorial attempted to discredit it and prove a conflict of interest because of Asper family activities. It is true that my family is heavily involved in private charity, along with about 3,000 other like-minded Canadians. I ask you, when did it become wrong to promote the value of charitable giving in Canada and equal tax treatment of public and private charities? Instead of agreeing with the principle of the editorial, our critics can do no better than set my family up as some kind of evil bogeyman. It is part of a vacuous strategy of professional whiners, and I will come to that in a moment.

Today our national editorial speaks of the utility of considering a private component to the health care system in Canada.

These editorials are written principally by Murdoch Davis, our editor-in-chief of Southam, and a former editor-in-chief at the Edmonton Journal and Victoria Times-Colonist. He is a two-time winner of the National Newspaper Award, and he will be drawing upon our editorial resources across the country for input.

Yet, if you believe the nonsense uttered by our competitors, you must believe that we, the proprietors, have no business expressing a view in a newspaper.

According to them, by distributing these editorials, we have brought the entire world of freedom of expression to a crashing halt. They would have you believe that owners should either never contribute material, or that if they do, it should be done under a cloak of secrecy with a nudge nudge to our editors.

This of course is ridiculous.

One of the loudest critics has been the Toronto Star, which is slightly funny. As you may know, the Star's editorial policy is governed by a trust established by its long since deceased founder, Joseph Atkinson. Nothing that appears in the editorial section of the paper can deviate from Mr. Atkinson's five principles of social democracy. Okay, so Atkinson doesn't sit in on the editorial meetings, but his spirit sure does. In the case of the Star, a dead owner is controlling the show. At least in our case I'm actually here and accountable! (As are my father and brother in Winnipeg)

And, of course there is the incisive Peter Worthington. He doesn't like what we are doing. But his Sun management forced its Calgary and Edmonton sisters to endorse the Jean Charest Conservatives in the 1997 federal election, even though those papers had wanted to support the Reform Party. Some Sun people resigned in Alberta over that exercise of central control. And, was it just a coincidence that former Prime Minister Mulroney was - still is - on the Board of the Sun?

In our view, national editorials are an important part of our organization, sometimes behaving occasionally as a linked - converged, if you like - national organization.

While our local editors overwhelmingly fill their papers with local editorial views and op/ed columns, and will continue to do so, there is a good reason to also publish a national view from time to time. One that is independent of purely regional interests, and looks at what's best for the nation as a whole rather than local or regional communities.

One such time, in our view, was when Winnipeg lost, for blatant political reasons having to do with buying off voters in Quebec, an enormous economic opportunity to house the CF-18 aircraft maintenance contract for the armed forces. The deal went to Quebec, and we would have eagerly published a view in the Gazette which questioned the value of ongoing centralization of economic opportunity in Quebec and Ontario versus the idea of building out the nation from coast to coast, giving places like Winnipeg their fair share of the federal pie.

I seriously wonder whether all the fuss is really about the growth of a western-based source of opinion that is now being fed to the east. I mean, god forbid that a national point of view should come from anywhere but Toronto, Ottawa or Montreal!

We want to distribute our editorials to our papers openly and with accountability. Some critics have suggested that we could get all this done by hiring the right editors -compliant editors - who would do the job we wanted done without asking embarrassing questions. Well, that is patently dishonest and we want our readers always to be secure in knowing who is contributing to their paper. We do not expect that our readers will always or ever agree with us, but we will never deceive them.

Those critics, the proponents of back door editorial influence, are in fact calling the integrity of their own publications into question if they would publicly offer such advice. Are they 'fronting' for someone?

The role of a newspaper proprietor has been well defined by some of the most successful people in the history of the business. Lord Beaverbrook, William Randolph Hearst, the Sulzbergers and Ochs of the New York Times, the Scripps, Howards, Lord Black and Rupert Murdoch of News Corp. - all these media titans have established a tradition of owner-opinion. They had and still have the courage of their convictions, and readers were and are well served by their contributions.

How can it possibly be the case that an addition to the voices within the marketplace of ideas is a bad thing? Our editorials are designed to do just that and we will never be deterred by the censorship advocated by our critics. They would have Canadians believe that their freedom of expression is paramount to mine just because I am part of a group that owns the newspaper. It is an insidious position and instead of criticizing us, Canadians ought to be damned concern about so-called protectors of free speech calling for such censorship.

Since when do reporters at the Montreal Gazette have a right of free speech that is greater than that of anyone else? They have launched a childish protest, with all of the usual self-righteousness, and have been joined by the Communication Energy and Paperworkers union and its political proxy, the NDP. One or more of our staff at the Gazette betrayed our organization by leaking information to our competitors the night before we published. That person or persons violated our trust and there can be no legitimate claim that some greater good was being served.

But even if it were, civil disobedience is fine so long as the perpetrator is prepared to accept the consequences of his or her actions. Our courageous Gazette leaks remain underground, and this is part of the ongoing pathetic politics of the Canadian left. If those people in Montreal are so committed, why don't they just quit and have the courage of their convictions? Maybe they should go out and, for the first time in their lives, take a risk, put their money where their mouth is, and start their own newspaper? Maybe their great union should help them out. But, that won't happen, because with less than 10% of Canadians supporting the political left, the reality is that there is very few who want to consume such feeble patter.

If you accept the logic of these self-appointed protectors of the public good, perhaps I should hereby call on the government of Canada to investigate our competitors to enquire into their editorial policies. After all, Canadians deserve to know who is really behind the editorials in their papers, and what is their position on free speech? Was Peter Worthington hired because of his shared beliefs with his publishers, and is he really just a front man for Quebecor? Does he censor editorial opinion? Is he the kind of puppet that he suggests we employ as editor of our papers?

Is it appropriate that the Toronto Star has to mandatorily test its editorial voices against the Atkinson Trust? Is John Honderich, the publisher of the Star, another puppet hiding behind the dead hand control of a previous owner? Does he have any editorial freedom?

At CanWest, and within the Southam chain, we are being up front and honest. We hope that Canadians accept our editorials for their intended purpose, which is to stimulate thought and discussion. We are also distributing editorials written locally from one paper to others in order to promote understanding among the various regions in Canada. Readers in Victoria are getting a chance to see what is being written in Montreal. The Telegram in St. John's will run editorials from Edmonton, and vice versa. That is the hallmark of a good editorial page. It is part of what we consider to be a national mandate for the voices of the regions to be heard across the land, and we are proud to participate and even lead that national dialogue.

Yes, to paraphrase the rock music 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; it's the end of the world as they know it; it's the end of the world as they know it, and I feel fine."

I hope you will see the value of and support this important initiative because your best interest is being served rather than that of a feeble turf-protecting editors living in ivory towers and rabble rousing union bosses who apparently have nothing else to do that is relevant. Our editors are on board. You have our promise that we will serve our readers well. And I can assure you we fully intend to ignore the rest of the riff raff who, I suggest, are motivated by selfishness and perhaps a fear that they are not able to keep up with our drive for excellence. For the rest of us, we are headed to infinity, and beyond.

Thank you.