Columns

Power moves from Toronto

Anthony Wilson-Smith August 21 2000
Columns

Power moves from Toronto

Anthony Wilson-Smith August 21 2000

Power moves from Toronto

Columns

Anthony Wilson-Smith

The first thing conspiracy theorists need to know is that there is such a thing as a Toronto media cabal, obsessed with itself and ignoring the rest of the country. There are, in fact, several. People who work in the CBC’s Toronto headquarters are invariably fascinated by themselves and each other, and remarkably oblivious to the achievements of the private networks who routinely clock them in the ratings. At The Globe and Mail's Front Street HQ, a similar tunnel vision prevailed, until the launch of the National Postwoke people from their reverie. At the Post, which likes to pretend it’s not a Toronto paper (with its offices tucked away in an industrial parkland), they overlook the fact that it and the Globe are obsessed with each other to the exclusion of almost all else. Then there’s The Toronto Star, the country’s biggest newspaper, which is different because it looks at the world through a left-of-centre prism. Add to that The Toronto Sun, Maclean's, CTV, Global TV, other print and radio outfits, and it’s easy to see why, for outsiders, a visit to a media-related Toronto social event can seem like a preview of life in a particularly crowded, gossipy and incestuous subdivision of Hell.

The point is that Canada’s self-declared media capital isn’t the united, cohesive, all-powerful community that people elsewhere presume it to be. Rather, it often features the same petty intrigues, backbiting and other antics that might seem more at place in, say, a Tory caucus meeting. And these days, you can add fear to that mix—brought on by the realization that Toronto’s hold over the national media scene is increasingly tenuous. The most obvious sign is the Asper family’s purchase of most of the country’s big newspapers from Conrad Black. That means their Can West Global Communications Corp., which operates the Global TV network, is now the country’s leading media force—run out of Winnipeg. But even before the sale, you could make the point that Black’s Hollinger—the company that sold the Aspers the newspapers—is centred in London, where Black spends most of his time. Then, there’s the Sun Media chain, bought by Montreal-based Quebecor Inc. And CTV, bought earlier this year by Montreal-based BCE Inc. And the Globe, part of the Thomson chain that some years ago moved its head offices to Stamford, Conn. At the CBC, CEO Bob Rabinovitch lives in Montreal, has an office in Ottawa, and makes a point of minimizing his time in Toronto.

In short, the earth has literally moved beneath many of Canada’s media operations in recent years, and the implications for readers, viewers and listeners are only starting to play themselves out. It’s hard to make sense of the gleeful rubbing of hands in some media quarters over Black’s decision to sell most of his Canadian properties, because his overall contri-

bution was overwhelmingly positive. He left the Southam newspaper chain in better shape than when he bought it, and sharply increased spending on some newspapers. Journalists, in particular, should be grateful, since more people are working for major media for more money today than when Black arrived. Moreover, the Post, no matter whether you like its aggressively right-of-centre views, has caused a complete rethink of the way print journalism is carried out—and such an intellectual exercise is never a bad thing.

In fact, Black’s mistake in public perception terms—and not necessarily an error in other ways—was the blunt way in which he espoused his views, and expected his publications to reflect them. Many employers do that, but few admit it as cheerfully. Why wouldn’t you, as CEO, staff your company with people whose style and ideology resemble your own? Have you ever heard anyone say something like “Bill isn’t a very smart guy: his ideas are too much like my own.” And you can hardly blame CEOs for the fact that senior employees often ape their views or style. At Microsoft, Bill Gates acolytes have been known to copy their master’s ways, right down to rocking on the heels of their feet as they talked, and pressing their hands together, steeple-like, to make a point. Gates is a born geek: the others chose to be that way.

Now come the Aspers, and the media world is about to change again—more because of personality and geography than ideological considerations. People talk so much about Izzy Aspers smarts that they miss or ignore similar qualities in Leonard, whose polite, soft-spoken manner and enormous devotion to his family belie his toughness. He’s the guy who argued—privately and successfully—with his father to invest in the Internet business when Izzy was dead set against it. Since taking over as CEO last year (while his father stays on as a very active chairman), Leonard has formed a coterie of smart, intensely loyal people who will form the next generation of management. From Winnipeg, the family has built an empire composed of people from all over the country. That means a different Rolodex than most media moguls, and an equally different way of looking at Canada.

The last time Southam ownership changed, it was remarkable to discover how many red-blooded conservatives had been hiding in newspaper closets, awaiting only Black’s arrival to declare fealty. Now, it’s the Aspers’ turn to have every comment parsed to divine their goals. The same is happening among the newly-bought employees of CTV and Sun Media as everyone scrambles to figure out what their bosses want. In Toronto, great attention is now paid to what goes on in Winnipeg, Montreal and elsewhere. No matter where you sit, it’s hard to see how that can be a bad thing.