Media spat: profit vs. free speech

In the past three months, three journalists in Canada have resigned after critical columns were spiked.

Last month, Stephen Kimber, columnist for the Halifax Daily News in eastern Canada, wrote an opinion piece criticizing his newspaper's owner, CanWest Global Communications Corp. Editors at the local paper spiked the column. Kimber, who'd written for the paper for the past 15 years, resigned. Two colleagues - writing about the aftermath - had critical columns pulled and resigned.

At about the same time, in the prairie province of Saskatchewan, Doug Cuthand, an aboriginal columnist, wrote an opinion piece comparing the treatment of Native Canadians and Palestinians for another CanWest-owned paper - knowing his company supports Israel. The piece was killed.

Over the past three months, Canada's largest newspaper owner has been at the eye of a nationwide controversy, accused of suppressing diverse opinion in its papers. Moreover, for the first time among big newspaper owners in North America, CanWest has introduced weekly editorials that all its newspapers, from coast to coast, are required to run.

There's nothing new about newspaper proprietors airing their views through their papers. What sets the CanWest example apart is just how much the Winnipeg, Manitoba-based company dominates the Canadian market, critics say.

CanWest owns 14 big-city dailies, one national newspaper, and 126 other dailies and weeklies - as well as a television network, radio stations, and Canada's third-most popular Website. CanWest also has television and radio interests in Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand.

With newspaper circulation reaching up to half of Canadians, CanWest has the second-highest concentration of papers in the Western world, after Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. chain in Australia, according to John Miller, head of the newspaper journalism program at Ryerson University in Toronto.

CanWest's actions in recent months have been "unprecedented and dangerous,' " Mr. Miller says. "With the freedom of the press comes the responsibility to reflect diverse opinion, and CanWest is stomping all over that.''

Concern about the national editorials has spilled over the border. Fred Fiske, past president of the US National Conference of Editorial Writers wrote a letter to CanWest in December urging it to rethink its decision.

"What concerns me most is this limits the abilities of local editorial writers to comment on national and international issues that are covered from this central editorial board,'' says Mr. Fiske in an interview. "This won' t please readers, and it's bad for business - readers want to think their newspaper is produced locally.''

CanWest was known as a television company. But that changed last summer when CanWest bought the National Post and 135 other dailies for C$3.5 billion (US$2.2 billion), the biggest media transaction in Canadian history.

CanWest, headed by the Asper family, says it introduced the editorials to encourage national debate. So far, the topics have ranged from property rights to privatizing health care and fighting the war on terrorism.

"People can huff and puff but look, it's only two months old, and we're still developing it,'' says Murdoch Davis, editor-in-chief of CanWest's Southam News, who oversees the national editorials. "Let's give it a chance to see if it can become something that's interesting for readers. What we want to do is have a discourse.''

He says the editorials are written by writers from across the country and that, when time permits, all editorials are circulated to the local editors for feedback before they're published. Moreover, columnists are welcome to respond to the editorials in their pieces, and the pieces that were spiked were done so because they were "inaccurate and badly reported,'' Davis says.

Other CanWest executives seem similarly unrepentant. In a December speech in Ontario, David Asper, publications committee chairman, borrowing REM lyrics, 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.' ''

Still, the company appears to have scaled back from its original plans. When the editorials were announced last fall, the company said it expected to run three per week. It's now running only one.

So far, CanWest has taken much flak for its decisions. For two days in December, reporters at the Montreal Gazette removed their names from the articles they wrote in protest of the national editorials, and 77 of the journalists signed an open letter to CanWest, criticizing the decision. In response, the paper's management said any reporter who continued to criticize the company would be dismissed.

Both the Canadian Association of Journalists and the Newspaper Guild of Canada have waded into the fray. The guild said in a statement that CanWest's decision "is bringing ridicule on the entire newspaper industry in this country.'' The journalist association has called for a government inquiry into the situation, saying the company's behavior represents "a threat to Canada's democratic traditions.''

"This isn't to say that owners' control of the message didn't occur like this before,'' says Robert Cribb, president of the association. "But a formalized policy like that with a routine national editorial is unprecedented. It basically formalizes an editorial agenda, which makes it much clearer to journalists at those papers what the right answers are.''

The biggest cause for concern isn't the well-publicized resignation of a handful of journalists, Mr. Cribb says, but what will happen to the journalists who remain at CanWest. "There have been numerous, numerous other cases we've heard about of journalists from CanWest papers who have run into trouble, or frankly, to avoid trouble, they just self-censor. And self-censorship is the big issue. It's not the four or five we've heard about, it's about the dozens of journalists who self-censor as a result of this very public policy.''

While journalists and journalism professors debate CanWest's approach in rival newspapers such as the Globe and Mail and Toronto Star, one question remains: Do readers care?

Kimber, the former Halifax journalist, says they do. He's received more than 200 e-mails since his resignation, many from concerned readers. Some said they were canceling subscriptions.

CanWest's Davis says readers seem to like the editorials. He says the editorials were established to provoke national debate and his papers are flooded with responses. If that was the objective, so far it seems to be working.

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