Jul 11, 2002

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vol. 24, no. 6

The recent firing of Ottawa Citizen publisher Russ Mills is not the death
of free press in Canada. It isn't even the real story of CanWest Global Communications Corp.'s media empire and its editorial policies.

The real news is that despite being Canada's principal homegrown media family, the Aspers, father and sons, who control the corporation have no idea how to handle the media.

Mills, the well-connected, apparently well-loved Ottawa publisher, was not a newsman fired for enterprise writing, not a reporter gagged by a narrow-minded editor. He was an executive in a news organization who - like all executives (or indeed, middle managers) - served at the pleasure of his bosses.

Whether the Aspers did not like his editorial policy or were simply tired of the way he ran the newspaper they had every right to can him just as, presumably, Mills has fired non-union editors from time to time.

Even if Mills was fired because he denounced a national leader or policy the newspaper owners' defend - a charge the Aspers deny - there is nothing new in that.

Since the 1800s news moguls have consistently dictated the general political, social, and economic perspectives their media presented to the world.

William Randolph Hearst, the model for Orson Well's Citizen Kane, wrote front-page editorials for his newspapers. His editors were not free to disagree with him on the inside pages.

Gannett Corporation's chairman, Al Neuharth, created USA Today in the 1980s with the editorial instruction that it be a self-conscious booster for his nation.

Those who didn't like his partisan insistence that in USA Today Americans were to be called “our people” or the U.S. “our country” were free to leave. Editorial writers in his employ were not free to criticize Neuharth's politic agenda or perspective.

Canadian newspapers are no different, of course. It was Conrad Black, the now ex-Canadian media mogul, who reportedly said there is no fun in owning a newspaper if it doesn't reflect your views. In his reign he shifted news executives to assure his media reflected his perspectives at a range of publications.

After the imbroglio of the Ottawa story, British Columbians were faced with a wonderful hue and cry over British Columbia's Gordon Gibson being maybe fired because of a column he wrote for the National Post. As a result Rafe Mair, a former B.C. Socred government minister turned broadcaster, called for a boycott of CanWest media. He then announced that, in protest he would no longer write a column for the Asper's local tabloid, The Province, my onetime employer.

The problem was that Gibson couldn't be fired because he had never been hired. He was, like me, a freelancer whose work was received, edited, and published on an article-by-article basis. He had a submission rejected. So what?

If every freelancer had job tenure I'd be drawing paychecks from at least five newspapers and eight magazines. Alas, it doesn't work that way.

Gibson's bosses at the National Post had every right to say, “Gordon, we're tired of your style. You've become boring. Write somewhere else.” Or they could have just said, “Thanks Gordon, we're looking for a new point of view.” That's what happens when news executives decide a freelancer's work no longer suits their needs.

And to be frank: Can anyone remember what Gibson said in his column two, three weeks ago? I can't. Nor can any other reader of the paper that I know. That alone would be reason enough for editors to re-evaluate his status as a house freelance writer.

Neither the decision to terminate Mills nor the possible interruption of Gibson's freelance service has anything to do with freedom of the press in Canada.

Newspapers, newsmagazines, and broadcast news shows are all carefully crafted, closely edited products. There are a range of editorial postures, opinions, and perspectives that are declined on the grounds of political or editorial correctness every day. Columnists and freelancers like Gibson and Mair are not hired because they are impartial, judicious Olympians but because they have a perspective and point of view that editors and publishers both generally accept and believe will sell. When those assumptions change, the writer is . . . gone.

Nobody complains about this except, perhaps, members of the anarchist press. Broad diversity that now marks only alternate news sites would be a change from the way things have always been done in our media.

Canadian editorialists did not complain, for example, that U.S. president George Bush's recent order to his Central Intelligence Agency to get Saddam Hussain “by any means possible,” was issued in apparent violation of U.S. and international law. Nobody huffed that the order to get the leader of another country was itself arguably a terrorist act.

Nor have writers and broadcasters (editorial or otherwise) been quick to argue the inanity of the inefficient, ineffective, and horrendously expensive security system that prohibits toenail clippers, nail files and knitting needles on Canadian airplanes “for safety reasons?” Are we keeping the country safe from hangnails and badly cabled sweaters? Pfui.

You don't read about these things because they go against the accepted news perspective at present accepted by contemporary publishers and their editors. Simply, Canadian editorial policy is largely pro-U.S. That means placing an article contrary to the accepted agenda is near impossible.

The real question is why reporters across the nation raised their voices in condemnation of the Aspers' firing of a chain organization's news executive and then the non-firing of the non-employed freelancer, Gordon Gibson.

One answer may be that it was a slow news week.

Until the U.S. begins another war, or Jean Chretien decides to call an election, there is a surfeit of easy things to write about. These are the doldrums of the news year, the time in which everyone scrambles for a different tale. The economy, healthcare, poverty . . . it's all just getting a little stale.

Another reason is that many don't like the Aspers and their empire. They're not . . . fun. They react badly when criticized, or worse, they don't react at all.

Conrad Black was fun. He was quotable. He made no bones about his publications, his views, and his right to choose whom he liked to run the organs of his empire.

In the U.S., Al Neuharth was fun, too. Folks laughed at McPaper and he shrugged it off, promising its success would be his revenge.

Those guys were good copy. The CanWest owners are not. They seem uncomfortable with being interviewed. Instead of giving good quotes (“It's my paper, I can do what I want.”), they let the story get out of hand. Like high school students with an inexperienced teacher the journalism class took advantage, and got out of hand.

Canadians loved it because we do not trust the news and like to have our distrust confirmed. But at the same time a part of us would like to believe the myth of reporters and editors as honest, fearless, unrestrained seekers of the truth. When the brethren cried foul, the public happily followed suit.

What is truly surprising is that those who answered Rafe Mair's request for a boycott, or who cancelled their subscriptions to the Ottawa Citizen, really thought the news might be something it has never been: free of influence, untrammeled by office politics, and absent the direction of its owners.

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