BROOKE GLADSTONE: When Canadian media giant CanWest bought the Southam Publishing chain including the National Post and more than 135 other newspapers last summer, it was described as the largest media deal in that nation's history. CanWest, once seen principally as a TV company, suddenly was having an impact on editorial boards across the great white north. Last December CanWest issued a new policy that required all of its 14 major metropolitan newspapers to run the same national editorial each week sent directly from the company headquarters in Winnipeg. The policy also states that the national column may not be contradicted by unsigned editorials written locally at those papers. That's about the time when Stephen Kimber, former editorial writer for the local Halifax Daily News and director of the University of Kings College School of Journalism quit.
STEPHEN KIMBER: I began to recognize that there were certain stories we couldn't cover or I couldn't write about in my column; you could not write something positive about the Palestinians or something negative about Israel. You couldn't write a particularly negative column about Canada's prime minister. You also couldn't criticize any of the CanWest's editorial policies or management policies.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So how did you respond? Were many of your columns rejected or did you find yourself self-censoring?
STEPHEN KIMBER:It was a bit of both. At first I discovered these areas you couldn't write about by writing about them and being told that those columns were a no-go or parts of columns were a no-go. After a while you sort of do begin to censor yourself. And then I began to recognize that you know I was in a good position to actually take a stand. So what I decided to do was to write a column which directly confronted the issue of censorship by CanWest of its columnists and writers, and of course that was the column that they rejected flat outright, and at that point I decided I had no choice but to quit.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Is the idea of newspaper owners influencing the editorial pages really so unheard of? Don't owners usually determine the editorial voice of their papers?
STEPHEN KIMBER: They do and I don't have any problem with them having their point of view in their newspapers. That's certainly not an argument that I would make. I think what's happened in this country anyway was that it was a kind of unspoken understanding that at the newspapers became more monopolistic that they would recognize not only that they had power but that they had a certain responsibility - a community responsibility too to allow for the expression of different opinion.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Let me just quote David Asper [sp?]. He was responding to what he called the "bleeding heart critics in the journalistic community" with some coined lyrics from the pop group REM. He said "it's the end of the world as they know it, and I feel fine." He can say that. He owns the company.
STEPHEN KIMBER: He does, and you know one of the things that I think is difficult in this country is that there are so few alternatives. Just to outline very briefly what they own -- 14 major metropolitan daily newspapers in every city except Winnipeg and, and Toronto; the National Post, the National Global TV Network; these 126 other newspapers; Canada.com which is the third most popular Internet site in the country; 6 digital TV channels. It is a, a massive empire, and if somebody says well fine -- I quit, and I'm going somewhere else -- then they look around and say where else do I go?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thank you very much.
STEPHEN KIMBER: You're welcome.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Stephen Kimber, former columnist for the Halifax Daily News but still director of the University of Kings College School of Journalism in Halifax. And now we turn to Murdoch Davis who oversees editorial and news-gathering functions for the Southam Publishing newspaper chain owned by CanWest. Welcome to OTM.
MURDOCH DAVIS: Thank you very much.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So we just spoke to Stephen Kimber about the controversy over CanWest's national editorial policy. He says the national editorial policy limits the number of viewpoints and ideas that can get voiced in Canadian papers. Would you say that's true?
MURDOCH DAVIS: No, I wouldn't. The only thing we have said is that within the editorial column itself which is, you know, people must recall, traditionally that is the publishing company's space, and within that column on what I've called the "core positions" we take in these editorials, we don't want to say one thing one day and another thing the next day. But elsewhere on those pages, signed pieces, op-ed pieces, guest columns, freelance columns, columns by the editors in chief themselves, there is absolutely no constraint on what people can express.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:He said that there were certain points of view that really couldn't get expressed freely in the papers after they were taken over by CanWest. Those concerning Israel and Palestine were a couple he mentioned, and those concerning the policies of CanWest!
MURDOCH DAVIS: Well let me take the second point first. Yes, we have said that we are not going to have members of our staff who are freelancers or other contributors, you know, using our pages to argue with the decisions of senior management of the company, and certainly not to mischaracterize them which is what Mr. Kimber did in the column he submitted.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What was inaccurate about Stephen Kimber's column?
MURDOCH DAVIS:Oh, well we're talking about a column from a couple of months ago. I don't - I'd have to go back and re-read it, but he certainly characterized our policy as if it was going to constrain the viewpoints that could be expressed by other individual contributors, including himself, and that was 180 degrees wrong. There have been times when we have put out a national editorial and, and then simultaneously commissioned from somebody a piece to express a contrary view. You know, we're not trying to be Johnny One Note here.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What about on other issues such as, say, Israel and the Palestinians as he mentioned earlier. [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
MURDOCH DAVIS:Well, the only thing that we have said to our editors and our publishers and our staff generally on Israel or any other topic is that in order to be fair comment, any opinion has to be based on facts. You, you have a little bit of a different standard in the United States, but this is actually, you know, embraced in Canadian law.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:And so are you saying then that there has been no pressure on editorial or commentary writers not to address certain issues in way that would run counter to the central office at CanWest?
MURDOCH DAVIS: No.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Prior to this new policy, the individual newspapers had the right to determine pretty much what their unsigned editorials said. Why was this decision made to have a unified voice?
MURDOCH DAVIS: Traditionally when a new provider took over a newspaper, if they wanted to influence what was said in the editorials they basically, you know, shot the editor and got a new one. I think we've taken a much more open and above-board approach. These editorials when they published are clearly identified as national editorials from Southam News. They are not camouflaged or disguised as the newspaper's own editorials. We are not leaning on the editors to, you know, say what we want to have said.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:It sounds that you are saying though that in the unsigned editorials that are the purview of the individual editors, they aren't allowed to contradict the national editorial.
MURDOCH DAVIS: No. My point is that the unsigned editorials are not solely the purview of the individual editors. The editorials express the publisher's point of view.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well thank you very much.
MURDOCH DAVIS: Okay.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Murdoch Davis is vice president and editor-in-chief of Southam News, the newspaper chain owned by CanWest. [MUSIC]