Sources Select Resources
 
   

KENT COMMISSION—3
Draft of Content's Brief to to the Kent Royal Commission
By Robert Theobald

Power distorts information and absolute power distorts information absolutely.

THERE IS IN CANADA TODAY de facto censorship in the 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 political stadium.

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 disenfranchised.

As ex-Southam writer Harry Midgley writes in the book Canadian 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 nation."

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 particulars.

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 another instance.

•  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 Vertical 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.

Although the real world of Canadian newspapers is not nearly so simple as the list above would suggest, the list deserves more attention:

MONOPOLISM

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 bonus cheques.

When Canadian cities have lost a paper, through death or merger, here are some of the effects besides the obvious loss of jobs:

•  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 get 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."

CHAIN OWNERSHIPS 

We must distinguish between chains but have time to deal only with Southam
and Thomson. 

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 it 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 sending editorial 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 Belleville (Ont.) Intelligencer which ran in my magazine in 1977.

EFFECTS OF PRIVATE OWNERSHIP FOR PROFIT

This is an area frequently overlooked, because it is considered 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.

Le Devoir is operated by a non-profit corporation, whose board gives 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.

Le Devoir and its publishers have left large footprints in the Canadian history books; the paper is clearly acknowledged as the most influential paper in French Canada, although its circulation is just 44,000.

The private enterprise ethic — which is not synonymous with democracy — is, by and large, the filter through which Canadian 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 what Thomson 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 isn't 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 structure which includes the expectations and responsibilities of those chosen to compose it.

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 non-interference myth. "Generally speaking our papers do a good, sound job ..." Thomson told Globe and 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 it.

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.

Answerable 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, private ownership, 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 should 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 sobering.

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 early 1978.

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 taught us.

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:

RECOMMENDATIONS

  1. 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 profit-making.

    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 country.

  2. 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 country.

Let's bring competition back!


You can play a useful part

It is important that the connections between penny-pinching on 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."

Content 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 non-mainline paper, Monday, 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 all else and that ends with the public having shoddy merchandise shoved into its hands must be placed on the record.

Now 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 legitimate.

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 confidence.

The true journalist is the public's best friend, and the public needs us now


Published in Sources Winter 1980/81



Sources, 812A Bloor Street West, Suite 201, Toronto, ON M6G 1L9.
Phone: (416) 964-7799 FAX: (416) 964-8763
E-Mail:

www.sources.com

The Sources Directory     Include yourself in Sources     Mailing Lists and Databases

Media Names & Numbers     Sources Calendar     News Releases     HotLink.ca     Parliamentary Names & Numbers

 
Resources for Journalists, Reporters, Writers, Freelancers, Editors, and Researchers