Skip to comments.The real threat to press freedom (Canada)
Posted on 02/11/2002 7:59:56 AM PST by jodorowsky
Ever wonder why Canada's journalists have a peculiarly statist ideological tilt? You could start to answer the question by taking a look at the country's journalism schools. Nobody pays much attention to these operations and with good reason; the training of journalists is about as interesting to watch as the training of pipefitters and dental hygienists. But when some of the big players in journalism education start to lecture the rest of us on the grand sweep of journalism and the media, and their role in society and the economy, everybody should pay attention.
Over the last week, two pooh-bahs in the business of training journalists, Peter Desbarats and Christopher Dornan, appeared in The Globe and Mail as part of the paper's jihad against CanWest Global, owners of the National Post, Southam newspapers and Global television. Dear Izzy: Get Your Foot Off the Media's Throat, said the headline on a commentary by Mr. Desbarats, former dean of journalism at the University of Western Ontario. Two days later Mr. Dornan, director of the School of Journalism and Communications at Carleton University, wrote a commentary titled The CanWest Mess Starts at the Top.
The director of newspaper journalism at Ryerson University in Toronto, John Miller, took his ritual kick at CanWest in December. "If you don't speak up," wrote Mr. Miller in The Toronto Star, "one of Canada's major media owners will have gotten away with one of the worst abuses of corporate ownership in recent history." Mr. Miller declared it is time for Ottawa to step into the newspaper business, a theme echoed by Mr. Desbarats. "Freedom of the press is not a property right of owners," said Mr. Desbarats, quoting from a 1981 federal royal commission.
The reason for these outbursts of high-blown rhetoric is the CanWest decision to place "national editorials" in Southam newspapers, a chain that includes most major dailies across the country. The editorials, written under the direction of Winnipeg-based former newspaper editor Murdoch Davis, have been appearing in Southam newspapers weekly since late last year. The practice is unprecedented. Whether it's good business and good newspaper management is an interesting question.
But business and management practices, especially in the chronically self-absorbed precincts of journalism, are just so much inside baseball compared with the allegations flowing from the country's leading journalism schools and other CanWest critics. Charges of censorship, abuse of press freedom, suppression of opinion and foot-at-throatism have appeared across the country. Some columnists claimed to have been subject to CanWest "censorship" through decisions to kill their columns. Many of the charges and anecdotes, however, appear to have been feverishly exaggerated or even fabricated.
In a commentary that appeared in the National Post and Southam newspapers a week ago, Mr. Davis reviewed some of the most obvious misrepresentations. As one example, he cites Globe columnist Lysiane Gagnon's claim that The Gazette in Montreal had sent an article to Winnipeg for vetting by head office. "It never happened," said Mr. Murdoch. "It's a goofy rumour out of The Gazette newsroom." So far, the Globe has declined to correct the error.
So far, also, nobody in the journalism industry has thought to respond in any substantial way to Mr. Murdoch's rather pointed illustrations of journalistic hysteria. It's one thing to disagree with the policy; major distortions and herd repetition of inaccuracies are another. Instead of taking a look at what appear to be some pretty serious (but typical) instances of shoddy journalism, the big thinkers of journalism have been mounting their own shoddy campaigns for an even worse threat to journalism, government intervention and control.
Of the three, Mr. Dornan's attack on CanWest had the merit of making valid points about the editorials. It is wrong, he said, to call the initiative censorship. "It is not an assault on democracy," he said. For having said this, Mr. Dornan deserves credit. He was taking direct aim at the Desbarats-Miller axis that portrayed the CanWest editorials as crimes against democracy and a free press. Mr.Dornan's democracy point, however, was buried deep in an article that otherwise trivialized Mr. Davis's criticisms of the media and ridiculed CanWest management capabilities. In the end, in a slippery bit of juxtaposition, Mr. Dornan linked CanWest with Enron and Canadian Airlines.
Why bury an important policy conclusion -- that CanWest is not a threat to democracy -- in the middle of a rush of inside trivia and speculation? The campaign to spin the Southam editorials into a crusade for government intervention is no small issue.
Attempts to get the government into the newspaper business have been underway for decades. It's a campaign that has deep roots in a perverse interpretation of the ideas of a freedom of the press -- the same ideological twists that attempt to turn free trade into fair trade and corporations into bastions of social responsibility.
In his Globe comment, Mr. Desbarats recalled the Kent 1981 Royal Commission on Newspapers and its stunning rejection of freedom of the press. "Freedom of the press is not a property right of owners. It is a right of the people. It is part of their right to free expression, inseparable from their right to inform themselves." The Kent commission called on Ottawa to take away the rights of owners and restructure the industry.
In 1969, the Davey commission on the media proposed a Press Ownership Review Board. It would function as a CRTC for print media, issuing licences and guidelines. At the same time, the government should provide direct funding for other newspapers and publications, creating a CBC-like structure of subsidies and government interference "to supplement the privately owned media" which, the Davey commission concluded, were a menace to a democratic society.
Whether the CanWest national editorial plan is a good or bad idea is a debatable management and journalistic topic. It certainly clashes with tradition and conventional newspaper practice. It might be a dumb idea; it could also be a brilliant innovation. But it is not a threat to freedom of the press or democracy. For that we can look to deans of journalism schools and others who would ensure freedom of the press by taking it away from the people who own it.
Stupid, or Evil?
That is the number one responsibility of a free press, and that is why we call it a "free press," that is, it is free from government coercion, to go about the business of exposing government so that government's abuses are swiftly known and dealt with by the people.
Well, that was the point.
The media in the US -- all privately owned and supposedly free -- are the Government's lapdog and are especially good at lying to / misinforming the American people when it comes to the United States' foreign affairs.
Nominal democracy at home, tyranny abroad.