Why has the Australian media failed to report the disaster that is unfolding in Canada where Izzy Asper’s CanWest group was allowed to dominate television and print. Let’s open up with Stuart Mackenzie’s latest piece and below that is his original April 14 piece.

Four reporters on Regina, Saskatchewan’s LeaderPost were suspended for five days last month for talking to outside media, and another six were given letters of reprimand, after they withdrew their by-lines in a protest over censorship at the paper.

The ruckus apparently blew up when an editorial page editor for the Toronto Star delivered a lecture at the University of Regina School of Journalism, in which he accused CanWest’s owners, the Asper family, of ‘creeping censorship.’

According to The Canadian Press, the LeaderPost reporter covering the lecture wrote the following lead paragraph for her story:

“CanWest Global performed ‘chilling’ acts of censorship when it refused to publish several columns containing viewpoints other than those held by the media empire, a Toronto Star columnist said Monday.”

But newsroom management at the LeaderPost changed the lead to read:

“A Toronto Star columnist says it’s OK for CanWest Global to publish its owners’ views as long as the company is prepared to give equal play to opposing opinions.”

The LeaderPost has still not reported on the suspensions or the censorship controversy, except for a rebuttal of the lecture in a ‘national editorial’ written in CanWest’s head office.

Gag orders have been slapped on all reporters in the CanWest newspaper chain and have also been extended to its television newsrooms across the country.

CanWest owns a coast-to-coast television network that reaches over 94% of English-speaking Canada, in addition to 14 major metropolitan newspapers, 126 community newspapers and the National Post one of the country’s two national daily newspapers and Canada.com the third most popular Internet site in the country.

Television news staff were informed by memo of a policy that now prohibits the company’s electronic media reporters from taking part in the same type of protests that have occurred at the Montreal Gazette and the LeaderPost.

CanWest refused demands by The Newspaper Guild of Canada, which represents the workers at seven of the chain’s newspapers, to withdraw the discipline against the LeaderPost staff. The two sides have now agreed to proceed directly to arbitration over the matter.

Guild representative Dan Zeidler, says he was not surprised by CanWest’s position. “The disciplinary action in Regina and the warnings to their newspaper and television staffs show how far this company is willing to go to intimidate all their employees into silence.

“The company seems to have accomplished one thing, and that’s to create a chill and uncertainty in every CanWest newsroom in the country,” Zeidler said.

CanWest has a significant presence in Australia and New Zealand with a major shareholding in the Ten Network and ownership of New Zealand’s TV3, TV4 and about half that country’s commercial radio.

ends

Now, let’s take a look at the original piece that was published on April 14.

The Canwest thought police out in force

By Stuart Mackenzie

Excellent freelance journalist

Last year the mainstream Australian media dutifully reported Conrad Black’s exit from the Canadian newspaper market, but there appears to have been no subsequent coverage of editorial issues arising from CanWest Global Communications buying Black’s papers.

In December, CanWest issued instructions that national editorials, written by its Winnipeg head office, would be run in all 14 of its big-city newspapers each week and that other un-signed editorials written locally at the papers should not contradict the line taken in the national ones.

Israel H Asper, a former Winnipeg lawyer and leader of the Liberal Party in Manitoba province, built CanWest into Canada’s leading broadcasting company, with a coast-to-coast television network that reaches over 94% of English-speaking Canada.

It has a significant presence in Australia and New Zealand with a major shareholding in the Ten Network and ownership of New Zealand’s TV3, TV4 and about half that country’s commercial radio.

Late last year, in reputedly the biggest media deal in Canadian history, CanWest also became Canada’s largest daily newspaper publisher with the US$3.5bn acquisition of 14 major metropolitan newspapers, 126 community newspapers and the National Post one of the country’s two national daily newspapers from Conrad Black’s Hollinger Inc.

According to reports, CanWest’s papers will take consistent national editorial positions on issues such as support for the Canadian federal Liberal party, for military spending and for Israel in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

A Montreal Gazette reporter, Bill Marsden, claimed that his paper’s new owner had banned opinion pieces critical of Israel. When he and more than 50 other Gazette reporters protested, CanWest’s David Asper suggested they should resign.

Responding with lyrics coined from pop group REM to what he called the ‘bleeding heart critics in the journalistic community’ Asper said, “It’s the end of the world as they know it, and I feel fine.”

Meanwhile, Stephen Kimber, a columnist at the Halifax Daily News, was becoming suspicious about the way in which his work was being edited.

Kimber, who is also head of journalism at the University of King’s College in Nova Scotia, claimed in an interview with New Zealand’s Mediawatch radio program that his columns had been ‘sliced and diced’ before print, apparently to remove opinions in conflict with those of the publisher.

After contributing to the Daily News for 15 years, Kimber decided to quit in protest and has said he will not write for any Asper publication.

While acknowledging that newspaper owners have the right to take a position in their editorials, Kimber has two problems with CanWest’s approach: the scale of their media ownership; and the extension of the policy guidelines outside the editorial columns.

“The Aspers are not just the owners of the local paper or a couple of papers,” he told Mediawatch.

“Their power in [Canada] is incredible when you think about it.

“They have 14 major metropolitan daily newspapers in every city except Winnipeg and Toronto; the National Post, the National Global TV Network; 126 other newspapers; Canada.com the third most popular Internet site in the country; and six digital TV channels.”

The views of newspaper columnists like himself, who are theoretically employed to have independent opinions, are being censored if they take a contrary line to the publisher, claims Kimber.

He told radio WNYC New York’s On the Media that there were certain stories he couldn’t cover.

“I couldn’t write something positive about the Palestinians or something negative about Israel. You couldn’t write a particularly negative column about Canada’s prime minister. You also couldn’t criticize any of the CanWest’s editorial policies or management policies.”

Kimber’s initial response was self-censorship.

After discovering which areas you couldn’t write about by writing about them, you sort of do begin to censor yourself, he says.

“And then I began to recognise that you know I was in a good position to actually take a stand. So I decided to write a column which directly confronted the issue of censorship by CanWest of its columnists and writers, and of course that was the column that they rejected flat outright, and at that point I decided I had no choice but to quit.”

CanWest deny that their national editorial policy limits the views and ideas that are voiced in Canadian papers.

Murdoch Davis, vice president & editor-in-chief of CanWest’s newspaper operations, Southam Publishing, told On the Media that the policy only applies to the editorial columns themselves, which are traditionally the publishing company’s space.

“The unsigned editorials are not solely the purview of the individual editors. The editorials express the publisher’s point of view,” Davis says.

“But elsewhere on those pages, signed pieces, op-ed pieces, guest columns, freelance columns, columns by the editors-in-chief themselves, there is absolutely no constraint on what people can express.”

But the pressure on journalists does not need to be overt or official.

John Miller, director of newspaper journalism at Ryerson University, Toronto, told the Washington Post that CanWest newsrooms have become demoralised.

“It is not so much the national editorial, but the fact that everyone has been sent the message they have to watch what they write,” Miller said.

“If it goes against what is perceived as the Asper line, then some stories aren’t going to get written, or some stories will be written and then they will be killed.”

CanWest’s New Zealand chief executive, Brent Impey, claims no pressure has ever been put on the editorial independence of its local media businesses. He told Mediawatch he was surprised to be told of the newspaper policy and was seeking further information.

CanWest do not own newspapers in Australia or New Zealand, but media convergence is a key business strategy for the group.

Murdoch Davis has a key role in CanWest’s overall convergence objectives, according to his bio on their website, “particularly in linking the Southam newsrooms across the country with the company’s television and Internet newsgathering operations.”

CanWest’s vision is also on the site:

“As we continue to expand our geographic reach and product depth, our overriding mission is simple: If you can watch it, read it, hear it or download it we want to be the source.”

If Canadian style media diversification is a likely result of the Coalition’s media policy in this country, Australia’s citizens and politicians had better make up their minds if it’s what they want, before it’s too late.

In order to do so, of course, they will need to know the facts.

And they might, therefore, question our media’s impartiality in the cross-media ownership debate when consequences of media convergence such as this go apparently unreported.

Stuart Mackenzie can be reached at [email protected]

Peter Fray

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