Canned Column

Column spiked by the Halifax Daily News

"You can’t say that in my newspaper"

By Stephen Kimber

My most sweetly satisfying moment as a columnist for the [Halifax] Daily News came on the afternoon of Nov. 20, 1997 when the publisher called to complain about a column I’d written for the next day’s paper.

The column criticized the newspaper’s new owners and local management, including Publisher Mark Richardson, for short-sightedly cutting the paper’s editorial budget at a point when, it seemed to me, the Daily News was on the verge of finally challenging the Halifax Herald for dominance in the local newspaper market. Instead, five months after buying the paper, Conrad Black’s Hollinger Inc. had just announced plans to lay off staff and slash costs by eight per cent.

That seemed to me to be "a clear signal that Conrad Black sees the newspaper less as a long-term investment and more as just another profit squeeze."

Which is what I wrote in my column.

When Mark Richardson called that afternoon, his first words were: "I want you to know we’re going to run your column, Steve, but I think you’re wrong about some things and I’d like to talk to you about them."

We talked for close to an hour. He didn’t convince me to change the thrust of the column (which, four years later, I now believe may be even more valid than I thought at the time), but I did incorporate some of the arguments he made into the column so readers could make up their own minds.

To me, Mark’s phone call that day — and his willingness to tolerate dissent, even if the dissent involved criticism of the newspaper itself — not only epitomized the best of what journalism can be but also symbolized what made the Daily News such a special newspaper for so many of us.

I’ve been a Daily News columnist during every ownership regime since David Bentley brought his feisty Bedford-Sackville Daily News to the city in 1981, so I’ve had a front row seat for the evolution of the newspaper’s relationship with its writers — and, implicitly, its readers.

It wasn’t until the Black era at the newspaper when certain subjects, or at least certain opinions about certain subjects, finally became unwelcome. These mostly had to do with Conrad Black himself — his vanity-publishing decision to pour profits from his other newspapers into the sinkhole of the National Post, for example, or his silly tiff with the prime minister over his desire to become a lord, or his larger-than-life view of his own importance in the world — but the range of the verboten remained fairly narrow and mostly manageable.

The newspaper’s new owner, CanWest Global Communications Corp., takes a more . . . well, global view. CanWest’s owners, Winnipeg’s Asper family, which made its fortune in the television business, appear to consider their newspapers not only as profit centres 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 health care delivery.

And they believe their newspapers, from Victoria, BC, to St. John’s, NF, should agree with them.

The most recent result has been nationally written corporate editorials running in the space where local papers used to run local editorials. Theoretically, there is still the opportunity for dissent on the op-ed pages but the reality is different. The owners, through their national editorial managers, take an interest in — and want to control — everything from the views of newspaper editorial cartoonists to freelance columnists like me.

I’ve had more than one recent column sliced and diced. I can only assume it was done to remove opinions that did not correspond with those of the new owners. They didn’t. And I admit I’ve also done some self-censoring too, steering clear of certain subjects on which I know the owners have taken a stand for me.

This isn’t unique to me, or the Daily News. I’ve read — mostly in other media, of course — about a similar stifling of opinion at other Asper newspapers.

This might not be so bad if the Aspers owned one or two newspapers, but they are the dominant player in the newspaper business in Canada today. They own the National Post, 14 major metropolitan newspapers, 126 smaller papers and Global Television. In most of the markets in which their newspapers operate, they are the only game in town.

Why shouldn’t freedom of the press, as legendary press critic A.J. Liebling once put it, be "guaranteed only to those who own one?"

Because, quite simply, real democracy depends on the free flow of ideas, of debate and disagreement. And newspapers are the best forum for those debates.

Which is why we need to consider the real impact of concentrating so much newspaper ownership in so few hands.

Last Mar. 12, Canadian Press reported that, "in response to criticism by the Tories, the NDP and the Bloc Quebecois that CanWest Global is trying to put a chill on journalists who cover Prime Minister Jean Chretien . . . the federal government is appointing a panel to study media concentration."

Within days, Heritage Minister Sheila Copps was backpedaling desperately. What her parliamentary secretary Sarmite Bulte had described as a "blue or red-ribbon panel of experts" to investigate concentration became simply hearings by the Commons’ heritage committee. The promised wide-ranging examination suddenly did not include newspapers.

Perhaps not surprisingly, there was no disagreement about this among newspapers; in fact, they’d barely mentioned the panel or its demise.

But perhaps the rest of us should be asking whether this increased monopoly of opinion is good for us, or good for Canada.

You can let Heritage Minister Sheila Copps ( know what you think.