Last Updated:Friday - 09/24/2010
Decembrer 24, 2001
CanWest imposes its vision
It was in 1979, after another monumental Alberta Tory landslide, that a brash Patrick O'Callaghan announced that The Edmonton Journal was going to be the official opposition to the governing Tories. The Journal beefed up its legislative bureau and its reporters unearthed major controversies in the province's social services department.
O'Callaghan belonged to a now disappeared class of local newspaper publishers - intelligent, informed and fearless, he saw his newspaper as a crusading force against corruption and injustice. He occasionally waded into The Journal's pages himself with lengthy essays, suggesting future directions for society and assailing those more concerned with their own power than with the common good as he understood it.
Southam News, which owns The Journal and a raft of other major Canadian dailies, encouraged its publishers to speak independently of corporate group-think and to develop newspapers with a strong local identity.
How times have changed! When Southam eventually sold its newspapers to Conrad Black, journalists feared that they would soon mirror his outspoken conservatism. Although there were some clear shifts on opinion pages, the newspapers were, by and large, given enough latitude to go their own ways.
All that changed with Black's sale of his papers last year to Winnipeg TV mogul Izzy Asper's CanWest Global Communications Corp. One of CanWest's first actions was to not renew the contract of national affairs columnist Lawrence Martin who was critical of Asper's friend, Jean Chretien.
The process has now gone further with CanWest's plan for nationally-written editorials to run in its major newspapers. These will appear once a week at first and increase to three times. The voice of all its papers on national and international issues will be determined at corporate headquarters. Local papers will be forbidden from writing editorials that contradict the corporate editorial vision.
The day of the independent publisher is over. A former publisher of the Ottawa Citizen, Clark Davey, has said CanWest's canned editorials has turned the chain's newspapers "purveyors of syndicated thought."
The first of these national editorials called for tax breaks for contributors to private foundations, the second for increased private health care. The direction has been set. Southam papers will march to the corporate drumbeat that identifies private interest with the common good.
Even The Journal's local editorials - a mere shadow of their even recent high calibre - have stooped to the sort of obsequiousness to the provincial government that would have embarrassed O'Callaghan. The transplanted Irishman is probably turning over in his grave.
For democracy to thrive, there needs to be a variety of voices that examine and debate issues critically from a variety of perspectives. The narrowing of the range of voices and their unwillingness to challenge myths about the value of private self-interest are a dire sign for Canada's future.
This change is a direct outgrowth of the concentration of media ownership that the federal government's Kent Commission warned against 20 years ago. The government ignored Kent's recommendations to limit the number of newspapers one company can own and to ban cross-media ownership. CanWest's one-dimensional newspapering is a direct outgrowth of the government's failure to act at that time.
Southam's first canned editorial did have one thing right: It said, "Government's primary role is to ensure the country has the means, not to be the chief means." Applied to the nation's media, that view should lead the government to finally ensure that the Canadian public is freed from corporate concentration in the media.
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