Truth chill: CanWest Global squashes freedom of the press

We Canadians like to believe we live in a mature democracy. We like to think we live in a community of open dialogue, where every individual has a voice.

We are not a country of Pollyannas. We also understand the effects of political correctness, lobby groups and spin-doctors.

In spite of these realities, we need to believe that media can rise above political correctness. We want journalists in print, radio, television and Internet media to report truth in their own voice.

Only then can we read diversity of opinion and make informed choice.

We understand that there cannot be total consensus… for that is truly democracy. There will always be media who are conservative, liberal, Marxist or whatever. This is what lively democratic debate is all about, isn’t it?

However, CanWest Global’s firing of The Ottawa Citizen’s publisher, Russell Mills, on Sunday June 16 was inexcusable political interference. It was the muzzling of the press at its worst.

David Asper, owner of CanWest Global along with his father Israel Asper, fired Mills. Why? Because Mills is a journalist of integrity who refused to agree to have an editorial criticizing Prime Minister Chrétien pre-approved by them prior to its publication. (On June 1st the Citizen ran four pages on Prime Minister Chrétien, followed by an editorial suggesting he should resign.)

This Tuesday’s House of Commons erupted while the Opposition claimed that the Liberals were involved directly in the dismissal of Mills. CanWest Global is a strong, “paid-up” supporter of the Liberal Party of Canada, a fact which New Democratic leader Alexa McDonough addressed in the Commons.

Certainly, this was perhaps the most ironic of firings.

Why? Because Russell Mills is an outstanding community supporter, notwithstanding being a man of journalistic integrity who started with the Citizen as a copy editor in 1971.

But that’s by no means all. The particular irony is that on Saturday June 15, one day prior to his being fired, Mills received an honourary doctorate from Carleton University and gave the convocation address to the graduating class of ‘02.

In that speech, Mills directly addressed the issue of freedom of the press. Perhaps he did so very specifically because, as he admitted on CTV’s national news on June 17, by that time he already knew he was facing a termination meeting with David Asper the following evening.

Now, we Canadians must be able to count on our media to speak truths.

In Mill’s words, as published in June 18’s Ottawa Citizen, “Every political leader would like to control how his or her performance is portrayed in the media. In a democracy, this must not be allowed to happen.” (Quotation from his speech to Carleton’s graduating class, Saturday June 17)

The issue of pre-approval is abhorrent to all writers. It is equally abhorrent to readers.

But what is truth? It’s a complex question for we all perceive truth differently.

Canada is a “mosaic” of cultures, which means that our nation possesses a splendid diversity of backgrounds, beliefs, and politics that we enjoy celebrating – and hotly debating.

We do not, we trust, live in a dictatorship where we are fed only one single “truth.”

But the Asper family evidently prefer a dictatorship. They have decided to be the kind of publishers who muzzle writers – and thus you.

Shame on them.

Their company, CanWest Global, owns Global television. It also owns 14 major English dailies: including the National Post, which aims to give the Globe and Mail a run for its money as Canada’s leading national daily newspaper.

We’re talking big money, big influence, and big control over what you and I think.

And another thing: control over what you and I take as truth.

Now, we didn’t just fall off the turnip truck, you and I. We are not country bumpkins. We know that media has bias: it always has and it always will.

But firing a publisher because he has not pre-approved copy (i.e. his written article) prior to its publication is a heinous act.

Mr. Mills must be reinstated (if he wants). The kudos Mills received from Carleton University for excellence in journalism must reign, not this shabby act of political and editorial interference.

Otherwise, the Aspers and CanWest Global have now really inflamed the wildfire of “truth chill” in Canadian media.

As Canadians, we demand honesty. We demand that media at all levels… including here at The Equity… report what is perceived as truth with freedom, without censure from their editors and publishers. Here at The Equity, I’m fortunate to have such freedom. Whether the topic has been the Bristol mine as a potential landfill site, spreading sludge on farmers’ fields, solar aquatics or whatever, I have never experienced interference with the topic of this environment column since I started writing in October 1989.

And that’s important: you may not agree with what I write, and that’s fine. But at least you know I’m reporting what I, personally, see, believe, or wish to debate with you.

This is journalism as it must be.

Ironically, yesterday (June 17) was also the anniversary of Watergate hitting the press… an event that toppled US president Richard Nixon. The issue? Political interference.

What have media moguls like the Aspers at CanWest Global learned from Watergate? Do they celebrate open dialogue in the press? As publishers, are they brave enough to stand back and let their reporters report the truth as they see it, without political interference?


What should the Aspers do? Reinstate Mills. Insodoing, they would admit they were guilty of appalling control of the press. Insodoing, they would also be acting as honourable people who realize they stepped over the line. Are they capable of this? Time will tell.

Why is this important to us, here in the Pontiac? Urgently so. Why? Because the Citizen is delivered throughout our region. If we are interested in a national perspective, we cannot avoid CanWest Global dailies. Unfortunately, the Globe and Mail won’t deliver to us. So, we look to CanWest for hard reporting, vibrant editorials, honest takes on stories.

And so I call upon the Aspers: do the right thing. If he’ll agree to return, I urge them to reinstate Russell Mills, the publisher who dared to write and publish truth as he calls it.

Insodoing, CanWest will reinstate some credibility and integrity in its media empire.


Katharine Fletcher is a freelance writer who telecommutes from her farmhouse north of Quyon, Quebec.