By Laurie King and Nigel Parry, The Electronic Intifada

The 7 December 2001 broadcast [Real Audio link] of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s As It Happens uncovered a disturbing example of corporate and political interference in freedom of the press. The program reported on a new editorial policy directive from CanWest Global, a leading Canadian media conglomerate, that impairs readers’ ability to make up their own minds about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, among other issues.

As It Happens reported that over two dozen journalists at the Montreal Gazette have pulled their bylines to protest a new policy imposed by the newspaper’s owners, Southam Newspapers Inc, which is owned by CanWest Global.

The new policy requires the company’s main local newspapers to run editorials written at headquarters in Winnipeg by Southam Editor-in-Chief Murdoch Davis.

Bill Marsden, an investigative reporter at the Montreal Gazette, noted that up to 156 times a year — about three times a week — the editorial would be imposed and that the remainder of locally-written editorials would be required to reflect the viewpoints and stances taken by the paper’s corporate headquarters.

Does this influence really matter? Yes, it does. CanWest’s 2000 Annual Report states that:

…[O]n July 31, CanWest announced its acquisition of all of the major Canadian newspaper and Internet assets of Hollinger Inc., including the metropolitan daily newspapers in nearly every large city across Canada and a 50% partnership interest in the National Post. We closed that transaction successfully on November 16, 2000, following completion by the Competition Bureau of its three-month review of the transaction.The magnitude of these deals is unprecedented. Just a few months ago, the $860 million WICpurchase was the largest acquisition in the history of Canadian media. The $3.2 billion transaction to bring the Hollinger newspaper assets to CanWest remains the biggest media convergence deal ever consummated in Canada. The deal transformed CanWest into a $7.5 billion international media company and the largest Canadian publisher of daily newspapers.

Note that CanWest Global has not just limited itself to the Canadian media. It additionally owns media organisations in Ireland, Australia and New Zealand.

The centralised editorials penned at corporate headquarters will be published in Southam’s metropolitan newspapers in key populations centers in Canada — Victoria, Vancouver (The Sun only, not The Province), Edmonton, Calgary, Regina, Saskatoon, Ottawa, Windsor, St. Catharines, Montreal, Halifax, Charlottetown and St. John’s — and will be reprinted in the National Post. Editorials will be clearly identified as emanating from Southam News, not from the various local papers’ own editorial staff, who will be forbidden to alter or contradict them in any way.

According to Marsden, since taking over the chain of newspapers CanWest Global has encouraged all of its subsidiaries’ editors to hew to a particular political line, resulting in less criticism of Canada’s prime minister as well as the consolidation of a pro-Israeli perspective in editorials about the Middle East.

Regarding Middle East reporting, Marsden quoted the Montreal Gazette’s editor as characterising Can West as “very sensitive,” and went on to explain:

“[T]hat is to say they do not want to see any criticism of Israel. We do not run in our newspaper op-ed pieces that express criticism of Israel and what it is doing in the Middle East etcetera. We do not have that free-wheeling debate that there should be about all these issues.

We even had an incident where a fellow, a professor at… the University of Waterloo, wrote an op-ed piece for us in which he was criticising the anti-terrorism law and criticising elements of civil rights etcetera. Now that professor happens to be a Muslim and happens to have an Arab name. We got a call from headquarters demanding to know why we had printed this.

Now this kind of questioning goes on all the time. Our TV critic…devoted half a column to a documentary which was run on CBCWitness, on Israeli soldiers targeting journalists — and primarily Palestinian journalists — in Hebron. Now this column was almost killed. She had to go to protest to the union before it was finally run, and [the management] asked her to make changes which would have somehow, in their view, softened it or something.

This kind of chill is through the whole place and it’s very dangerous because it breaks the trust with readers and I think eventually will hurt the asset.

In a second interview on As It Happens, Southam Editor-in-Chief Murdoch Davis, who writes the editorials from headquarters, argued that the development was reasonable, noting that there were perhaps 50-60 editorials and pieces of local commentary a week in addition to the 2-3 from the head office. However, he did not deny the issues of primary importance to those concerned with coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict:

Interviewer: But if the paper’s editorial board took a position on say ‘Prime Minister Chretien [garbled]’, or Israel, that was absolutely contrary to the editorial written from your office, would they be able to write that?Davis: No. It is clearly the intent that the newspapers will speak with one voice on certain issues of overarching national or international importance…

PROBLEMS

1. CENTRALISATION LIMITS DIVERSITY OF OPINION – CanWest’s editorial policy demonstrates the dangers posed to press freedoms by the corporate centralization of news media, a process that has been accelerating over the last decade throughout North America. Such threats to press freedoms pose serious dangers for democratic governance itself. Without a free and lively debate of every issue from all angles, citizens cannot participate fully in the political decision-making process conducted in their names domestically or internationally. This is particularly important in the case of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which is already dominated in the media, as it is on the ground, by the Israeli worldview.

As noted in a December 11th statement issued by 55 Montreal Gazette journalists who have pulled their by-lines to protest this new policy:

“Far from offering additional content to Canadians, this [policy] will practically vacate the power of the editorial boards of Southam newspapers and thereby reduce the diversity of opinions and the breadth of debate that to date has been offered readers across Canada.Journalists have a duty to be faithful to the interests of their readers. Our responsibility is to seek the truth and encourage free-wheeling debate on a full range of issues and present stories and ideas in as dynamic a way as possible. Blatant pressures applied to editors by CanWest have damaged this process at major newspapers across Canada. The company is narrowing debate and corrupting both news coverage and commentary to suit corporate interests. A free press is no longer free when competing voices disappear, yet the federal government has recently permitted two large corporations, CanWest and BCE Inc., to secure a stranglehold on Canada’s major, privately-operated television and newspaper outlets.”Source: “How CanWest is threatening press freedom”, Globe & Mail, 11 December 2001.

SOLUTION

This action item is considered closed. EI’s original call for action remains below.

Express your support for the 55 journalists at Montreal Gazette who are defending Canadian citizens’ right to participate fully and responsibly in democratic decision-making processes by expecting a diverse, opinionated media.

Express your displeasure to Don Babick or the corporate offices of Southam Newspapers at this centralisation of editorial policy, which limits diversity of opinion, squashes debate, and distorts public perceptions and knowledge of key national and international issues, thereby obstructing the very processes of civic participation so necessary to sustain a vital democracy:

Alert all your colleagues and networks to this corporate attempt to gag and limit editorial policies across Canada.

This action item (#21, 11 December 2001) was prepared by Laurie King-Irani and Nigel Parry.

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