Ottawa

Nobody here but us chickens

ROBERT LEWIS April 27 1981
Ottawa

Nobody here but us chickens

ROBERT LEWIS April 27 1981

Nobody here but us chickens

Ottawa

ROBERT LEWIS

They are quiet, undemonstrative men from private schools who stepped into family firms with revenues today of more than $1 billion a year. They own equal shares of the weekend supplement Today and their newspapers claim almost 58 per cent of the circulation in English Canada. Gordon Fisher, president of Southam Inc., operates a jewel of Canadian publishing that includes English-language monopolies in Vancouver (Sun and Province), Montreal {Gazette), Ottawa {Citizen), and Hamilton (Spectator). Ken Thomson of Toronto —and Lord of Fleet— oversees an empire spanning The Bay, Simpsons and Zeller’s stores, North Sea oil and 50 newspapers from St. John’s to Kamloops.* Like Fisher, Thomson prefers the Greta Garbo school: “I’d like to be unknown.”

Fat chance. Both men were front and centre last week in Ottawa as the Royal Commission on Newspapers held the last of 30 public hearings across the land. More than 300 witnesses have ranged all over the lot, including the three groups that control 90 per cent of the French-language circulation in Quebec, and the Irving brothers of New Brunswick, who own all the English dailies. But the central question is whether Thomson and Fisher have become too big in their niches.

Surprisingly, both allowed that the time for outside limits on growth may have arrived. While insisting that “I have the intent, integrity and judgment to know when to stop,” Thomson conceded that “there could be a point” at which “the public wouldn’t feel comfortable.” If so, “there has to be a controlling factor enter the picture”—preferably in the form of a nongovernment body. Fisher was less conditional and more specific. He proposes “a newspaper ownership review process” for sales between groups “whose size raises legitimate public concerns —Southam accepts that it has reached that size.”

*They range from the Toronto Globe and Mail to the Bathurst, N.B., weekly Northern Light. The chain also owns more than 100 papers in other countries.

The humility may flow from two parallel developments: establishment of the commission, chaired by ex-newspaperman and former Ottawa mandarin Tom Kent; and an investigation by the consumer and corporate affairs department into possible charges of conspiracy to reduce competition. The evidence from that investigation is now in the hands of the justice department and, now that Kent has finished his public task, charges may be filed—as a kind of prelude to a new competition act promised by Consumer and Corporate Affairs Minister André Ouellet for the fall.

The process began after a stunning series of deals last August in which Southam closed the money-losing Winnipeg Tribune and Thomson shut down the crippled Ottawa Journal on the same day. Thomson also sold Southam its interest in Pacific Press, which publishes the two Vancouver dailies, dealt off the Calgary Albertan to The Toronto Sun and merged two dailies in Victoria. Southam bought out Thomson’s minority interest in the Gazette. By then, FP Publications already had closed The Montreal Star, FP, in turn, was acquired by Thomson.

Kent and his fellow commissioners, Borden Spears, a retired Toronto Star senior editor, and Laurent Picard, expresident of the CBC, intentionally avoided looking into potential wrongdoing. Their assigned mission, with a July 1 deadline, is to recommend changes in the notoriously lax competition laws as they relate to newspapers. But the testimony has turned up indications of a cosy club of owners based in Toronto who, while minions scrambled for scoops, appeared to have carved up the journalistic map for their mutual advantage. “You can’t look at the situation paper by paper in isolation,” said George Currie, president of FP until Thomson took it over. And why did FP pour so much money into the effort to keep the Ottawa Journal alive? Replied Currie: “Obviously, so we would have a card to play against Winnipeg.” Both Fisher and Thomson Vice-President John Tory denied there was any deal to play the Tribune off against the Journal. But the scenario was mooted in a confidential document obtained by the commission. The strategy for the Journal, it stated, involved “keeping a trader for the future—especially until Winnipeg begins to resolve itself.”

That advice to George Currie came from the Canada Consulting Group of Toronto. Ironically, it was the firm in which Jim Coutts was a partner—before the newspaper deals, and before Coutts became principal secretary to Pierre Trudeau in 1975. In the tight little world of Canada’s ruling elite, it was gloriously coincidental that the day the papers folded, Coutts was on the line to an out-of-work reporter and declared: “The only thing we can do now is give you a royal commission.”