PODIUM

The press isn’t quite free

'We never know precisely who is going to own us—or our mortgages—next'

Robert Lewis June 15 1981
PODIUM

The press isn’t quite free

'We never know precisely who is going to own us—or our mortgages—next'

Robert Lewis June 15 1981

The press isn’t quite free

PODIUM

'We never know precisely who is going to own us—or our mortgages—next'

Robert Lewis

"Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.” Since the great American iconoclast A.J. Liebling penned his verdict on newspaper take-overs for The New Yorker in 1960, concentration of ownership in the hands of a powerful few—with their own axes and widgets to grind—has accelerated like Columbia rising over Cape Canaveral. Twenty years ago in Canada, independent publishers controlled three-quarters of daily circulation. Today, single owners reach only onequarter of the readers in English Canada and a mere tenth in French-speaking Quebec. With the demise of competition, the newspaper has become just another profit centre for conglomerates.

The damnable agony in writing about all of this is that so few of us in the trade are untouched by the squeeze. Our conflicts of interest are as thick as trees in the forest. When I started as a cub reporter with The Montreal Star in 1964, it was independently owned, as was our arch rival up the hill, The Gazette. Today The Montreal Star is gone, killed by the FP chain which, in turn, sold out to Thomson. The Gazette is now part of Southam Inc. As for government intervention, I worked for Time until a year before it closed its Canadian edition in response to a bill that encouraged the conversion of Maclean's magazine from a monthly to a weekly. All of which is to warn that, while we try not to tread softly, we never know precisely who is going to own us—and our mortgages—next. Veteran Southam columnist Charles Lynch best sums up the uneasy tenor of our trade when he notes, “You don’t feel inclined to stick your neck out and antagonize the remaining owners.”

One thing that can be said with a certain degree of confidence is that Tom Kent’s Royal Commission on Newspapers, facing the looming execution of its July 1 deadline, should concentrate on ways to get journalists back in control of journalism. It’s a daunting, probably impossible assignment, made no easier by the Trudeau government’s decision to ignore Senator Keith Davey’s call for a press ownership review board 10 years ago. The foxes from Bay Street have long since raided the hen house. Given their disinclination to start papers, there are few left to buy.

Kent and fellow commissioners Borden Spears and Laurent Picard have been urged to recommend divestiture by the chains. But for what? So that a Brascan or the Bronfmans can grab a paper from Thomson or Southam? Why not, then, go all the way and eliminate the ban on foreign ownership of newspapers? Would Arthur Ochs Sulzberger of The New York Times or Katharine Graham of The Washington Post be any less committed to editorial excellence than publishers Beland Honderich of the Toronto Star or Jean-Louis Roy of Le Devoir1!

To be sure, the Kent commissioners in their report next month should insist that no chain shall own more than one daily—and no radio or television outlets—in the same marketplace. Further, they should reiterate Davey’s call for an ownership review board and insist that companies, having given sufficient notice of mergers or closings, state their case in public. That way, citizens could judge whether merger schemes are in the public interest, and prospective purchasers could step forward before the presses are hustled out the door with the dismissed staff. The rationale for special measures is simple: newspapers are special. They set the agenda for public debate, to say nothing of the story lineup for The World at Eight, and serve as one custodian for freedom of speech.

The Kent commissioners should flatly reject the proposal for a print version of the CBC, fuelled by taxpayers. The state has no place in the newsrooms of the nation. The notion kicking around commission back rooms that local panels of citizens should be established to approve the appointment of newspaper bosses in a community is folly. Does a nation with a natural governing party in Ottawa and towering regional barons want its press anointed over lunch at the Board of Trade too?

Kent might consider using ¡tithe tax system to encourage excellence and commitment to the commonweal. Big chains land firms with assets above a fixed amount, for example, could be barred from deducting loans used in newspaper take-overs. Similarly, individuals or groups of modest means might qualify for federal bridge financing to launch or acquire a paper. If the taxpayers can bail out Chrysler, why not The Winnipeg Tribune?

The most important reforms, however, will have to come from the trade itself. Newspapers, even other publications, ought to sign up as voluntary members of new provincial press councils, totally independent of government. Newspapers should publish annual statements of editorial goals and reveal how much they spend gathering the news as a percentage of revenues. The press councils—say, a butcher, a baker, a mover-and-shaker—could examine the claims against performance and adjudicate complaints from the public. Conglomerates also should publish quarterly statements of ownership and interests over and above the newspaper. The press of Canada, in sum, should be open about its ways—with the same passion it brings to discovering truth about others. As another legendary American journalist, Heywood Broun, once observed: “I wouldn’t weep about a shoe factory or a branch-line railroad shutting down. But newspapers are different.” In fact, they are an endangered species and it’s time to give them special care.

Robert Lewis is Maclean’s Ottawa bureau chief.