To really begin to understand the nuances of media concentration and its influence, we must look at the case of CanWest Global. As explained in part 1 of this series, Canwest Communications used to be a giant in the communications media industry before it went bankrupt due to issues with debt. CanWest was the former owner of newspapers such as the National Post, Montreal Gazette, and broadcasting companies such as the GlobalTV network, and a host of private TV networks in Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, and others.
In 2002, CanWest set off a ripple in the media industry between themselves and their journalists. They had issued a decision to require all daily newspapers to run corporate editorials produced in its Winnipeg head office. At the time of the policy decision, journalists all over were critical of the newspaper chain’s unusual editorial policy. Once a week, every Southam paper was required to run the same editorial from the front office. The company had also stated, locally written material should not contradict the party line handed down in corporate editorials. The ownership and management of the company clashed with journalists and columnists who decried the new controls.
The controversy helped propel media concentration onto the public agenda and organizations that represented journalists across Canada had called for a parliamentary inquiry into media concentration. The Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ), and the Quebec Federation of Professional Journalists (QFPJ) had both denounced the actions of CanWest as a “disturbing pattern of censorship and repression of dissenting views.”
Journalists at the Montreal Gazette held a byline strike, and enlisted in the support of the union and other journalists. Michael Goldbloom, publisher at the Montreal Gazette, had resigned over what he called CanWest’s
centralized management style
On January 30, 2002, at the annual shareholders meeting, CanWest owner Izzy Asper said,
on national and international key issues we should have one, not 14, editorial positions
Comments such as these, undermined the guarantee of local autonomy and independence that was promised to regulators, when they had allowed the merger of Conrad Black’s empire into CanWest. CanWest went on a type of shopping spree, picking up independent dailies from the 1970s through the 1990s.
The Asper family had dismissed the widespread criticism of their actions. The publications committee chair, David Asper, sang the following lyrics in a January speech. He said, “I can say to our critics and especially to the bleeding hearts of the journalist community that it’s the end of the world as they know it–and I feel fine.” However, by mid-February, the company had backtracked its stance somewhat, and announced that they would not go beyond imposing one editorial per week.
Also, on January 27, 2002 Vince Carlin, chairman of the School of Journalism at Ryerson University told the Washington Post, “You can fit everyone who controls significant Canadian media in my office. This is not a healthy situation.”
CAJ vice president Paul Schneidereit said, “
We feel it’s time for the elected officials of this country to be looking at what the repercussions [of media concentration] are for the general public.
Even the Newspaper Guild of Canada, the largest journalist union in North America, had chimed in on the controversy, demanding that CanWest “immediately cease its attack on divergent opinions.” The guild had issued a call in February for the media conglomerate to adopt principles that would respect the editorial autonomy and independence of each paper and its journalists and columnists, and allow editors, rather than corporate headquarters, to make news judgments.
The CanWest Global Chairman Izzy Asper was well known for his ties with top officials, including a friendship with the prime minister Jean Chretian. In fact, their friendship is what some journalists argued led to the firing of a publisher.
Russell Mills, publisher with the Ottawa Citizen, refused to resign and was fired on June 16, after he had published an article critical of Jean Chretien on June 1. In that issue’s editorial, the paper had called for Chretien’s resignation due to alleged misconduct in the Chretien cabinet and issues of conflict of interest.
“Their conduct in this case is indefensible,” Mills said. “Things the CanWest people were saying were absolutely false. ” Mills also said that the newspapers were not allowed to disagree with CanWest’s “core positions”. “Whatever we agree to would have to reflect that,” he said.
Two days after the firing, the International Press Institute issued a statement critical of the move.
It’s an attack on press freedom by an unholy coalition between politics and big business,
Johann P. Fritz, director of IPI, said. “Many believe that it is only in autocratic countries of the Third World or in countries in transition that democracy and a free press are in danger. But the Mills affair will have a chilling effect on critical reporting in Canada and will bring an increase in self-censorship.”
As a broadcasting company, it was in CanWest’s best interests to maintain good relations with the Canadian government, which grants broadcast licenses.
Courtesy of FAIR, below were specific instances of media censorship that CanWest Global was engaged in
Stephen Kimber, a columnist for 15 years with the Halifax Daily News, quit in January after his column was killed by corporate headquarters. Kimber wrote in the column, which was eventually published in the Globe and Mail (1/7/02), stating,
CanWest’s owners, Winnipeg’s Asper family, which made its fortune in the television business, appear to consider their newspapers not only as profit centers and promotional vehicles for their television network but also as private, personal pulpits from which to express their views. The Aspers support the federal Liberal Party. They’re pro-Israel. They think rich people like themselves deserve tax breaks. They support privatizing healthcare delivery. And they believe their newspapers…should agree with them.
Following this incident, Kimber told the Toronto Star, “I think that they (CanWest) could have gotten away with the ‘national editorials’ policy, but it’s clear now that what they really wanted to do was stifle other people’s opinions.“
Toronto Sun columnist Peter Worthington was critical of the Aspers and had his column pulled from the Windsor Star, a Southam paper, as a result. “I got a rather embarrassed call from the Windsor Star…saying they had been ordered to drop my column and not run [it] under any circumstances,” Worthington told the Toronto Star (1/16/02).
Author and Southam columnist Lawrence Martin’s contract was not renewed in 2001, because of his criticism of Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chretien–a friend of Izzy Asper, who once led the Manitoba Liberal Party (Toronto Sun, 8/26/01).
Stephanie Domet, another freelance columnist for the Halifax Sunday Daily News, resigned a few days later after writing a column in support of Kimber, for The Coast (a Halifax Weekly), that was later posted on the CBC’s website on June 7, 2002.
In early March of 2002, four reporters at CanWest’s Regina Leader Post were suspended for five days, because they had spoken to outside media. and another six reporters were given letters of reprimand after they withdrew their bylines in a protest over incidences of censorship at the newspaper. Management at the Leader Post had censored a story by reporter Michelle Lang about a speech critical of CanWest by the Toronto Star’s Haroon Siddiqui.
In March, the International Federation of Journalists accused CanWest of corporate censorship and victimizing journalists who are trying to defend professional standards. “If this had happened in Eastern Europe 15 years ago there would have been widespread protests from media owners and journalists’ groups,” the IFJ said in a press release March 14. “The issues today are no different–the fight for editorial freedom and protection from censorship.”
And finally, Doug Cuthand, a First Nations columnist for the Regina Leader Post, wrote an essay in early January that was sympathetic to the plight of Palestinians in the West Bank, comparing them to Canada’s indigenous peoples. The Aspers, who are “well known for their unstinting support of Israel,” according to the Toronto Star (1/12/02), had the column killed.
Californian American journalist Ernesto Cienfuegos also wrote about censorship of journalists. In his piece, dated January 14, 2002 he also mentioned the case of Doug Cuthand when he wrote,
Journalists, if they write for the mainstream media in the United States, Mexico, Canada or in most other major countries in the world, can not write a pro-Palestinian article and have it published. This was the recent unfortunate experience of well-known columnist for the Canadian dailies Regina Leader-Post and the Saskatoon Star Phoenix. Well respected columnist Doug Cuthand wrote an essay last week sympathetic to the plight of Palestinians in Israel but now his column has been axed by editors at both Southam newspapers, part of a large chain controlled by the Jewish Asper family of Winnipeg, Canada through its media giant, CanWest Global Communications.
When Cuthand wrote the piece, Cuthand was not given a reason why the column was axed, but it was his first-ever piece that was killed in the 10 years that he wrote for writing for CanWest. At the time, Cuthand said, “My belief is that what I wrote went against the corporate policy of CanWest. Of course I’m going to carry on and continue writing. But it will never be the same … I’ll always be looking over my shoulder.“
The Giant Falls
Some could argue that the demise of CanWest Global Communications’ was inevitable. The disagreements and public backlash against the company from its own journalists, coupled with its own financial troubles, began CanWest’s downward descent into bankruptcy. When the Senate committee visited Vancouver in 2005, CanWest was Canada’s largest media company, controlling nearly 30% of total Canadian daily newspaper circulation and 90% in Vancouver, with the Vancouver Sun, The Province and National Post, plus a chain of community newspapers. CanWest also owned Global TV, which held a 70% viewing share of the all-important 5-7 p.m. dinner newscast slot.
The financial woes began when Izzy Asper bought Conrad Black’s media chain of newspapers including the National Post, for $3.5 billion back in the late 1990’s. The purchase was the largest in telecom history, and riddled the company with a debt load they could not afford to handle. The additional complications of the recession which occurred in 2008, and the subsequent after-effects in the disappearance of advertising revenues, helped to nail in the coffin for the media giant, causing CanWest to file for bankruptcy protection.
The bankruptcy was carefully monitored by CanWest’s competitors, and two companies emerged victorious in the quest for its’ assets. Shaw Communications won the television network and specialty channels for $2 billion, and Postmedia Network, acquired the newspapers with a bid of $1.1 billion. Part 3 discusses civil society opposition to the consolidation in the media space of Canada.