If you want to know what could happen if Kerry Packer was allowed to take over Fairfax, check out this alarming update on what Channel Ten’s controlling shareholder, Izzy Asper, is doing to press freedom in Canada.
Mills’ career at the Citizen dates from 1971 and after holding several editing positions, he became editor in 1977 and publisher in 1986.
He is a past chairman of the Canadian Newspaper Association and an executive board member of the International Press Institute.
His community involvement includes holding positions as treasurer of the Audit Bureau of Circulations, chairman of Ottawa’s School of Dance and chair of the Community Foundation of Ottawa.
From 1989 to 1992, he was president of the Southam Newspaper Group, owner of the Citizen and Canada’s largest newspaper chain.
The current owners of the Southam Group are CanWest Global Communications a company controlled by long-time Liberal Party supporter Izzy Asper.
Southam is CanWest’s first major investment in newspapers and the Winnipeg-based Aspers think that Canada’s media is too Toronto and Ottawa-centric.
“We believe that the prism of how our country has been presented, too often, in virtually all so-called national media has been viewed through Toronto and Ottawa-centric eyes,” David Asper, chairman of CanWest’s publication committee, told the Calgary Chamber of Commerce in April 2001.
And last weekend, Asper ended Mills’ 30-year career at the Ottawa Citizen over an editorial calling for the resignation of Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chre51tien.
“I was fired for failing to seek approval from CanWest headquarters for the publication of an editorial that called for the resignation of the Prime Minister,” Mills says.
The sacking has rekindled Canadian journalists’ fears about freedom of the press and diversity of comment.
CanWest is the country’s largest newspaper publisher with 14 major metropolitan daily newspapers, 126 community newspapers and the National Post one of two national daily newspapers.
It has been regularly criticized over its policy of running national editorials, written by its Winnipeg head office, in all of its big-city newspapers and not allowing local editorials to disagree with what are described as “core positions”, according to Mills.
Since the introduction of the policy, core positions have been taken on issues that include support for the Canadian federal Liberal party, for increased military spending and for Israel in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The policy has caused protests, industrial action and resignations from several Southam journalists including Stephen Kimber, a columnist at the Halifax Daily News, who is also head of journalism at the University of King’s College in Nova Scotia. Kimber recently gave evidence about concentration of media ownership to an Australian Senate committee on the cross-media ownership bill.
Canadian opposition MPs are now questioning the relationship between the CanWest and the Liberal government.
The Asper family is known to be friendly with Prime Minister Chre51tien, who is being accusing of playing a role in the Mills firing and interfering with freedom of the press.
Chre51tien has, along with some of his senior ministers, been facing increased pressure over allegations of conflicts-of-interest and misuse of government funds, but denies any involvement in the sacking.
Last Monday, a CanWest spokesman said that the circumstances of Mills’ departure were a “private matter between him and the company and we have no comment on that.”
By Wednesday, CanWest president Leonard Asper had to respond to the mounting speculation, saying Chre51tien did not ask the company to fire Mills.
Asper also claimed that Mills was not fired because of the Chre51tien editorial.
“It has nothing to do with what the Citizen wrote about the prime minister – it has everything to do with basic principles of journalism which we feel Mr Mills breached and did so on a repeated basis.”
The Citizen had failed to publish a diversity of views about politics in general, and was consistently negative in its news coverage and commentary about Chre51tien, Asper said.
Mills strongly refutes that accusation, and claims that he was offered money to keep quiet about the reasons for his departure.
“The company offered me a financial settlement that was only available if I would portray my departure as a retirement and sign an agreement not to discuss the situation,” he says.
“I refused. I said that I had not spent 30 years in journalism attempting to pursue the truth in order to leave on a lie.”
“If I was being fired, I wanted to be able to say so.”
Thousands of readers are reported to have cancelled their subscriptions over the sacking, but one journalists’ union is asking people to join a campaign for editorial independence at CanWest’s newspapers.
“This community needs a good, strong newspaper and cancelling subscriptions is not the way,” said the Newspaper Guild of Canada.
In other industry reaction, the Toronto Press Club unanimously adopted a motion condemning CanWest’s firing of Mills and the International Press Institute said that Canada’s outstanding reputation for freedom of the press has been badly damaged by the firing.
As CanWest’s share price dropped to a six-year low of C$8.50 on Wednesday, the Toronto Globe and Mail reported that the concerns over editorial policies were registering with investors.
Some investment and media analysts thought that CanWest had mishandled the Mills affair and were questioning the Aspers’ ability to manage newspapers.
In other developments in an eventful week, CanWest announced a major reorganisation in its Winnipeg head office that indicates executive chairman and patriarch Izzy Asper is again taking a more active role in its management.
The Globe and Mail reported industry sources as saying the management shuffle might indicate that Izzy is unhappy with the leadership of his youngest son, Leonard.
A former music industry executive with no media experience, but a reputation as a cost cutter, Richard Camilleri, has been appointed chief operating officer to manage day-to-day operations of the Global television network, the Southam newspaper chain and broadcasting operations in Ireland, Australia and New Zealand.
Locally, CanWest has a controlling shareholding in the Ten Network and ownership of New Zealand’s TV3, TV4 and about half that country’s commercial radio.
Stuart Mackenzie can be reached at [email protected]