Draft of Content's Brief to
to the Kent Royal Commission
By Robert Theobald
distorts information and absolute power distorts information absolutely.
THERE IS IN CANADA TODAY de facto censorship
newspapers. That it is not ordered nor carried out by government does
not make it less acceptable.
The censoring is realized in two ways.
First, there is the structural reality that most
of our communities
have only one mainline print channel and the gatekeepers at that
channel — however well-meaning they may be — heft a
relative dictatorship of news and comment.
To rejoin here that citizens have access to radio,
TV, periodicals and
books does not greatly lessen the contention. Newspapers remain the
agenda-setters for most radio and TV newsrooms. Radio, TV and
newspapers are the main source of day-by-day news and comment for most
of the public.
Second, there is a dangerous sameness to most of
what the gatekeepers
allow to be printed. This is noticeable in the main run of daily
material and in the outer limits of comment generally allowed.
By gatekeepers I refer to owners, publishers, news
executives and senior editors.
The vast majority of these people, who choose
personnel and make all
major decisions on the allocation of human, financial and technical
resources, reside within a range of the socio-economic spectrum that is
middle class, a part of the racial spectrum that is white, a part of
the sexual spectrum that is male and — give or take a few
mavericks — inhabit the stands right of centre in the
By contrast, a large proportion of the Canadian
population and a fairly
significant proportion of the newspaper-reading population, is lower
class, non-white and of course female. Perhaps a fifth of the Canadian
population, as shown by democratically-cast ballots in elections,
fairly consistently indicates it sees merit in left-of-centre programs,
ideas and leaders whereas few of our papers, on their editorial pages,
or in columns, ever do.
In other words, a significant proportion of the
Canadian newspaper reading population is informationally
As ex-Southam writer Harry Midgley writes in the
Newspapers/The Inside Story: "While Southam claims, and I
do not doubt
that it is true, that it does not interfere with its publishers'
authority, it is also true that people do not reach positions of power
within the organization unlss their ideas and opinions are congenial to
those of the establishment."
It might be argued the word censorship is too
strong. If so, it is not
as far out of line as declarations — trumpeted by newspaper
proprietors and editorial page writers — that our press is,
simply and gloriously, "free". (A recent instance in a lead editorial
in Toronto's Sunday Star
characterized reporting in the western world
as "uncensored, unbiased and truthful."). According to this
conventional rhetoric, what we have is "a free press in a democratic
In the real world, all of us live on a continuum
of freedom/unfreedom in every area of life.
The most useful way to approach a definition of
our relative state of press freedom is to examine the important
Some of these particulars:
• The supposed adversaries in the news
business increasingly do
business with each other. Besides the telling events of Black
Wednesday, there is the fact that Southam Inc. jointly owns with
Torstar Corp. the company called Southstar which publishes Today, the
monopoly rotogravure supplement, distributed in Southam, Thomson and
independent papers. Southam and Torstar also jointly own Informart, as
• The extensive non-media
holdings of some of the chain
owners. Southam as a stated company policy "will have no financial
interest in enterprises outside the communications field" and Torstar
practices the same policy.
But Thomson has big holdings in trucking, oil,
gas, insurance and department stores, as this Commission is aware.
Paul Desmarais, publisher of French Canada's
largest daily, La Presse,
owns three other dailies and massive interests in transport, finance
and forest products.
Even these and other similar interlocks may not
suggest the depth of the situation in Canada.
• In 1965 sociologist John
Porter published The
Mosaic, a pathfinding study of the distribution of power
and wealth in
Canada. It was really investigative reporting; Porter sweated for years
over who's-who books, college year books,
birth records and so on.
A Porter protege, Wallace Clement, has published a
follow-up study, The
Canadian Corporate Elite. Clement identified 105 members
of the media
elite. Sixty-nine per cent of these had significant connections with
the non-media elite. Fifty-one "are simultaneously members of the
economic elite (i.e., are members of the executive or hold
directorships in one or more of the 113 dominant corporations in the
economic sector and, at the same time, hold one of these positions in
one of the dominant media complexes.)" Only 15 of the 105 had worked
their way into the media elite through careers in journalism.
In their status, interests and outlook, the
newspaper owners (and the
publishers they appoint) do not by any stretch of the imagination
represent a cross-section of the Canadian public. Yet their papers,
according to their repeated assertions, are supposed to properly
reflect and serve "the total interests of all the participants in (the)
community." The words are those of Southam president Gordon Fisher.
The key characteristics, then, of daily press
ownership in Canada are that:
- It is monopolistic except in four cities.
- It is largely chain owned.
- It is almost entirely privately owned.
- The owners do considerable business with each other.
- The owners generally are intertwined with the economic elite.
- The nature of the ownership suffuses the system with people and decisions favouring one socio-political outlook.
the real world of Canadian newspapers is not nearly so simple as the
list above would suggest, the list deserves more attention:
The owners and apologists tell us, always with
regret, that daily
newspapers are "natural monopolies." That this is not true of larger
cities, provided the papers are sufficiently different from one
another, is shown by Toronto which supports three vigorous dailies.
In some smaller Canadian cities, however, the lack
of even a competing
weekly (remember the need for "diverse and antagonistic voices"
required in a democracy is involved) is less "natural" than that the
daily (usually, in Canada, chain-owned) squashes upstarts ruthlessly.
A feature story in my magazine two years ago told
of the death in
British Columbia of Kelowna
Today, an excellent and feisty weekly which
went belly up at 17,000 circulation after 20 months. Its management
made mistakes but what sent it reeling was the "super shopper"
Thomson's Courier started,
offering free ads to merchants to run ads in
the regular Courier. And the 10 ad salesmen Thomson's Courier put on
the street to Today's
two or three. When Today went under, there wasn't
even a news item in the Courier
but there was a jubilant party with
When Canadian cities have lost a paper, through
death or merger, here are some of the effects besides the obvious loss
• Decline in journalistic
enterprise. At a public meeting
attended by about 200 journalists in Toronto in November, a staffer for
Southam's Ottawa Citizen
said that three months after the Journal's
death removed the Citizen's
competition there's "not much room for hard
news in our newspaper. Even major stories
— budgets or Throne
speeches — might get six or seven column inches ..." Some
reporters had taken stories to The
Globe and Mail — which has a
large readership in Ottawa — because they knew they wouldn't
proper play in their own paper.
• Reduction in innovation. This
is shown in the converse by
noting it was precisely one day prior to the entry of the new Calgary
Sun when Southam's 98-year-old Herald showed up
with new typefaces, improved layout and increased use of colour.
• Net loss of newspaper readers.
• Waste in setting up barriers.
Robert Kerton wrote in the
December issue of Canadian
Consumer: "A monopolist will invest
money in barriers to ensure that no one enters the market."
We must distinguish between chains but have time
to deal only with Southam
Southam maintains a major news service with
domestic and overseas bureaux. Thomson does nothing of the
sort and quickly killed the excellent 11-person FP News Service when
bought the FP chain for $165-million last year.
Southam finances fellowships annually at The
University of Toronto for
four to six senior journalists from any Canadian paper. Thomson gives a
few hundred dollars in journalism school bursaries.
Southam has a stated policy of refraining from
instructions to member papers. Thomson claims no interference but
"(ideas for) features which blatantly prompt ads are often handed out
by the city editor. Such story ideas (mostly) come from Thomson memos .
. ." This quote is from a story about the workings of Thomson's
which ran in my magazine in 1977.
OF PRIVATE OWNERSHIP FOR PROFIT
This is an area frequently overlooked, because it
unthinkable that papers should be other than privately owned, or
because it's considered thinkable but impractical.
Obviously there are few examples of successful
papers run on a basis
other than profit making. In Canada the leading example is Montreal's
independent Le Devoir.
Devoir is operated by a non-profit corporation, whose
the publisher 51 per cent of the shares. The publisher is also made
chief executive officer and chief editorial writer, so has virtual
absolute ultimate power.
Devoir and its publishers have left large footprints in
history books; the paper is clearly acknowledged as the most
influential paper in French Canada, although its circulation is just
The private enterprise ethic — which is not synonymous with
democracy — is, by and large, the filter through which
newspapers, in overt editorials and covert use of language throughout
the papers, report.
This generalization, which would cause apoplexy
among some, is
documentable. The way it happens, as I see it, begins with a
self-serving self-delusion at the top.
The owners repeatedly claim they "do not interfere
in editorial." "I
stay out of the newsrooms of all my papers," Ken Thomson told Stef
Donev of the Toronto
Star Jan. 13,1979.
The essential truth is precisely the opposite of
apparently believes. Thomson is omnipresent in his papers' newsrooms.
Thomson head office (and any chain head office) appoints all publishers
and controls all budgets,
as ex- Vancouver Sun
publisher Stuart Keate
recently pointed out in his memoirs, Paper Boy. That
interference, of course. It goes light years beyond it.
Thomson doesn't want to and doesn't have to (and
couldn't) keep phoning
editors to tell them what to put into their papers and leave out. The
interfering is all done for him within and by the Thomson
which includes the expectations and responsibilities of those chosen to
Structure is interference in slow motion (see
Alfred D. Chandler Jr.'s Strategy and
Structure, Doubleday Anchor Books, 1966).
Self-delusion number two is entwined with the
"Generally speaking our papers do a good, sound job ..." Thomson told
Mail reporter Margaret Mironowicz Jan. 12,1979. The
inexactitude of the assertion is breathtaking.
Go back to the publishers. The experiences,
beliefs and predilections
of those publishers have many significant impacts on the newsrooms.
Thomson's appointments follow a clear pattern: the sales manager or
sometimes general manager is placed at the helm. Seldom is it the
editor, ME or anyone with a firm background in journalism, let alone
someone known for his or her identity with the history and principles
of press freedom and the means of achieving, nourishing and protecting
Conrad Black has written: "With the rise of the
newspaper chain, the
publisher has become a local co-ordinator and functionary, answerable
to his absentee employer on economic matters, with a mandate to ensure
the journalistic content is sufficiently anodyne to avoid disputes with
advertisers." Conrad Black owns the 11-paper Sterling chain and also
heads Argus Corp., Canada's richest holding company, acknowledged to be
the pinnacle of the Canadian economic establishment, so there is reason
to believe his comment deserves a hearing.
on economic matters. With Thomson, that translates into
perpetual penny pinching on editorial: pay low wages, discourage or ban
overtime, overwork people. Quality is bound to suffer. Penny-pinching
on editorial is an editorial policy, a policy of discouraging
excellence so widely and so often as to effectively prevent it.
The publishers, with exceptions so rare that to
mention them would
constitute an intellectual crime, firmly support the status quo, which
is an identifiable and strongly political bias.
I want it understood I do not oppose, per se,
concentration of ownership or monopoly. I'm a private owner myself.
Concentration is needed in Canada's publicly and privately owned high
technology industries, such as telecommunications equipment, to enable
them to compete properly in international markets. And I want my local
waterworks utility to be a monopoly.
But there is no compelling reason why Canada's daily newspapers
be concentrated in a few hands and those hands all private.
The credibility of the press in Canada has begun
to suffer because of the concentration and because of the press linkups
with other big business, which the public is becoming increasingly
aware of. This reflects badly on Journalists, who are not primarily
responsible for the grave flaws of the newspapers.
As an editor, I find a recent little-publicized
court case to be most germane to the ownership/control issue, and
In 1977 Charles King, then 50, a former National
Newspaper Award winner and Southam foreign correspondent, got into a
disagreement with Southam's Ottawa Citizen
where he was associate editor.
He was "involuntarily terminated;" he sued for
$89,100 in severance pay.
On Sept. 19 last, as the trial was proceeding,
Southam suddenly offered an out-of-court settlement. That was just
after Christopher Young, general manager of Southam News, told
the judge that King was "a first-class journalist" who was unable to
get a job with an established news organization since the incident.
"It's destroyed his journalistic career," Young testified.
Young testified he felt King was eminently
qualified for a reporting job that opened with Southam News a year ago.
He said he had asked Southam to give King the job if King would drop
the lawsuit, but Southam refused.
King testified he had been unable to get a job
with an established news outlet despite making many applications since
The implications are not lost, one way or another,
on the personnel in the Canadian news media. Blacklist is as strong a
word as censorship, but it cannot be denied that the opportunity for
blacklisting — whether formal or informal — becomes
ever greater as the number of owners decreases and the job situation for journalists tightens.
The owners and their apologists may tell this
commission the situation is. not really so bad as to require action
other than by themselves.
They will invoke the bogeyman of government
intervention, and expect once again the knee-jerk reaction they have
My opinion after six years as editor and publisher
of an independent journalism review with no axe to grind other than to
examine the media in light of standard Western democratic yardsticks of
performance, is that we have a de
facto censored press and the nature of the ownership is at
the bottom of the problem.
In our newspapers — sinews of our
culture they be — we have surrendered the reality of real
diversity of comment and opinion to the god of the supposed democratic
economics of the marketplace.
That it doesn't work — at least in the
interests of our democratic heritage — now is abundantly
clear. Journalists have become, through selection and in-house
moulding, intellectual cogs in an economic wheel.
This Commission's efforts must not fall by the
wayside as did the Davey Committee's.
Two of that committee's recommendations
— its main ones — are as valid today as when the
Senate Committee's report was tabled in September 1970, and I for one
recommend they be acted upon:
Establish a Publications Loan Development Fund,
to enable newspapers, be they weekly, twice or three times a week, or
daily, to be established. The fund should have a positive bias in
favour of new publications based on prime motives other than
The fund should administer a sub program for the
second and other papers in a given community, based on the proven
Swedish sliding-scale system. The Swedish system has met with the
approval of journalists, owners, political parties and public and
arrested totally the decline in the number and diversity of papers in
- Establish a Press Ownership Review
Board, to examine proposed takeovers and mergers in
light of the public interest.
In conjunction with this, should be passed that
would require owners to consult with management and staffs in
connection with major practices and changes.
A code established in the Netherlands after years
of negotiation by sentatives of owners, managers and staffs provides a
promising model for this" legislation.
The board also should address itself to cross
ownership by newspaper proprietors of radio and TV outlets, A U.S study
has proved that cross ownership on balance causes a deterioration in
the amount and diversity of the news disseminated.
Cross-ownership should be discouraged, if not
banned. Ownership of non-media holdings by media corporations should
not be permitted. Legislation should be enacted to this effect, and the
law should have no "grandfather clause." In other words, as other
briefs have reccomended, Thomson should be obliged! to decide whether
it's in the business or non-media business.
The journalists of this country, if they had a
true spectrum of vehicles on which to ply their craft, would rise to
the occassion and make Canada a much better informed, and more exciting
Let's bring competition back!
can play a useful part
It is important that the connections between
editorial budget and flawed journalistic service to the community be
proven beyond all doubt before the Royal Commission on Newspapers.
Without persuasive documentation, apologists for
the status quo can claim that critics are "exaggerating."
will be in a position to include relevant examples in its
brief. But we need more examples, especially recent ones (within, say,
the last couple of years).
We know from unfortunate experience that too many
journalists in this
country practise self-censorship. Sometimes through fear of formal or
informal reprisals (such as being labelled a trouble-maker or being
passed over for promotion), editors and reporters decide not to push
for reforms or criticize openly.
As Derry McDonnell, editor of Victoria's excellent
writes in the letters section of this issue of Content: "It has
often intrigued and annoyed me that (one never knows whom one might
want a job from one day) reporters and editors will suppress stories of
management bungling, capriciousness and outright consumer fraud in the
media industry ..."
But the detailed, specific links in the chain that
starts with certain
owners — especially Thomson — pursuing profit above
else and that ends with the public having shoddy merchandise shoved
into its hands must
be placed on the record.
is the time for anyone with relevant evidence to make
sure it is put before this Commission.
If for any legitimate reason you cannot present
the Commission with
such evidence, we will consider including it in Content's brief,
directly or as an appendix.
We will maintain total anonymity for you if you
wish, destroying all
record of the source of the information once we are satisfied it is
Have you a story, an example, that should form
part of the evidence? A
story of how a journalist's attempts to properly report to the public
were thwarted by the system (to put it simplistically)?
Hurry it to us, together with your name, address
and phone number and your instructions as to whether it is to be in
The true journalist is the public's best friend,
and the public needs us now
Published in Sources Winter 1980/81
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Suite 201, Toronto, ON M6G 1L9.
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