An hour after the annual Can West Global Communications Corp. general meeting in Ottawa last month, most attendees had forsaken the wine and hors d’oeuvres and gone elsewhere. The remaining few included CEO Izzy Asper and ex-PM John Turner, seated in a corner of the reception room, chatting with vigorous abandon. An acquaintance of Turner later remarked on the enthusiasm of their exchange. Turner, with his familiar barking laugh, responded that he and Izzy always have a million things to discuss, a bunch of issues they disagree about—and he always has fun either way.
One topic of potential dispute between them is media convergence. Asper’s purchase from Conrad Black’s Hollinger group last year of the Southam newspaper chain and half of the National Post added to Can West’s string of national and international media properties. Turner has concerns about that sort of thing, which he expressed in a thoughtful speech to a group made up mostly of journalists last October. His topics ranged from the “openly hostile relationship” between reporters and
Journalism must be the only business in which employees speak up, while their bosses are expected to shut up
public figures to the growing divide that he fears convergence has brought between media proprietors and journalists. “You’re lucky,” he told his audience, “in that many newspaper proprietors have shown precious little interest in ideas.”
But as we saw last week, the exception proves the rule. David Asper, a senior executive with Can West and one of Izzy s two sons, wrote a guest column in Southam papers and the Post in which he excoriated journalists for the “remarkably unfair go’ at the Prime Minister over alleged financial misdealings in Shawinigan.” The piece (excerpts appear in our Overture section) was written in an outraged tone that wouldn’t have been out of place coming from a strongly partisan Liberal.
Which, of course, is what the Aspers are. Izzy once led the Manitoba Liberal party, has raised piles of money for the federal Libs over the years, and dined with Jean Chrétien the last time the PM visited Winnipeg. David was rumoured to be a Liberal candidate before the last election. So his opinions aren’t surprising: what’s startling is their vehemence, and his criticism, by extension, of his company’s editorial product.
But the real problem with Asper’s piece is straightforward: its logic is shot full of holes. It reads as though it was scribbled on the back of an envelope in a fit of pique, and pushed out the door without any editing or further reflection. It sets up and knocks down straw men by answering charges that were never made, while ignoring important issues. Nobody dis-
putes that the Prime Minister directly intervened with a telephone call to the supposedly independent Business Development Bank of Canada to recommend a $600,000 loan to a man with a criminal record in his riding whose qualifications did not meet normal BDC standards. But that only came to light through reporters’ efforts. And after noting that “Mr. Chrétiens accusers holler that Howard Wilson, the ethics commissioner, reports directly to the Prime Minister as though that fact alone proves some impropriety,” Asper conceded to Greg Weston of the Sun Media chain that he would prefer that the ethics commissioner report directly to Parliament. That’s the point critics make. And so on. Before you judge how the PM operates and decide whether you care, you need the basic facts—and if Chrétien won’t offer them, others need to look for them.
But you can disagree with the piece while defending Asper’s right to write it. Journalism must be the only business in which employees speak up regularly on issues, while their bosses are expected to shut up. Reporters routinely write negative news about others—but are appalled when criticism spills back. Bob Rabinovitch, the head of the CBC, has remarked to acquaintances that he is stunned by the hostility that journalists at the Corp. show to any second-guessing.
It’s natural to worry when you and your boss aren’t on the same wavelength. But Asper made his views public, rather than use the tactic of quietly ordering editors to downplay or drop the story—which would be wrong. That used to be a tactic of newspaper owners in the past, long before worries about convergence. During the 1930s, Geoffrey Dawson, editor of The Times of London, often suppressed stories criticizing the Nazis by the paper’s Berlin correspondent. “I do my utmost, night after night, to keep out of the paper anything that might hurt their [German] susceptibilities” Dawson wrote in a 1937 letter to a friend.
Today, the danger isn’t media moguls rummaging through reporters’ copy and rewriting it. Rather, it’s journalists who tailor reports to fit with what they think their bosses want—without being told to do so. In Turner’s speech, he talked about the “false god of‘objective journalism’ ”—and wondered whether true objectivity exists. Maybe not: consider media coverage of that Can West meeting. The headline in the Post the next day read “CanWest back on acquisition trail—Hollinger assets purchase realizes new revenue.” The rival Globe and Mail, writing about the meeting, reported gloomily “CanWest to try selling assets to cut debt.” Factually, both were right—but as any experienced journalist knows, what you leave out is as important as what you put into a story: context is the most important consideration. The problem isn’t occasions like last week, when different sides in the same company duke things out in public. The problem is when they don’t.
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