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Canadian media giant censures editorials deemed critical of Israel

Journalists up in arms over ‘national’ policy

Guy Tremblay
Special to The Daily Star

Canadian newspaper readers are being warned not to expect a balanced opinion from their dailies after executive orders from the country’s largest media corporation were given to run a select number of national editorials and homogenize remaining editorials across the country so as not to, among other things, reflect negatively on Israel’s occupation of Arab land.

Recently, media giant CanWest Global Communications Corp., owned by Israel (Izzy) Asper and family, announced that beginning Dec. 12 one, but eventually three, editorials a week would be written at corporate headquarters in Winnipeg and imposed on 14 dailies, which include the Vancouver Sun and Province, the Calgary Herald and the Montreal Gazette. CanWest also owns 50 percent of the nationally distributed National Post, which will be subject to the new directives as well.

Furthermore, in addition to the imposed editorials themselves, all locally produced editorial column pieces will be forced to conform to reflect the viewpoints of the CanWest Global corporation.  

CanWest last year became Canada’s dominant newspaper chain when it purchased Southam News Inc. from Conrad Black’s holding company, Hollinger Inc., for a reported $3.2 billion Can. ($2 billion) The deal transferred ownership of the 14 metropolitan dailies and 128 local newspapers across the country.

The story came to light on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s As It Happens radio program. Bill Marsden, an investigative reporter with the Montreal Gazette, contended his editor had said CanWest was "very sensitive" to editorial content.

"That is to say they do not want to see any criticism of Israel. We do not run in our newspaper Op-Ed pieces that express criticism of Israel and what it is doing in the Middle East. We do not have the free-wheeling debate there should be about these issues," Marsden said, paraphrasing the directives. As a result, 55 Gazette reporters pulled their bylines in protest at the decision, arguing that it was a disturbing example of corporate interference in the freedom of the press. They also argue that imposing editorial opinion across the country will limit diversity and dialogue.

In response, David Asper, son of Israel, launched a blistering defense of his corporate policy, asking "since when do reporters at the Montreal Gazette have a right of free speech that is greater than that of anyone else? They have launched a childish protest, with all of the usual self-righteousness … why don’t they just quit and have the courage of their convictions? Maybe they should go out and, for the first time in their lives, take a risk, put their money where their mouth is, and start their own newspaper." The editorials are written by Editor-in-Chief Murdoch Davis of Southam Newspapers, Inc.

Davis himself, when asked by As It Happens whether one of the dailies in question would be able to publish an editorial that was absolutely contrary to Southam’s position on Prime Minister Jean Chretien or Israel, responded: "No. It is clearly the intent that the newspapers will speak with one voice on certain issues of overarching national or international importance …"

But what is Southam’s "position" on Israel? Speaking to The Daily Star, Davis said: "Well, there isn’t just one position there. That’s a very complex issue, but we are essentially defenders of Israel as the only democratic country in that region and one which is generally under attack from its neighbors and surrounded by many neighbors who won’t even acknowledge its legal right to exist."

When asked whether Southam newspapers would allow the publication of an editorial which criticized Israel’s long-standing violation of international law and which called for a withdrawal form all occupied territory, including East Jerusalem, in accordance with UN resolutions 242, 338 and 425, Davis was frank.  

"(Southam Newspapers) disagree(s) with some of those resolutions." However, he refused to discuss what exactly his corporation found unsatisfactory with the resolutions.

"Look, I’m not going to debate the Middle East and the politics of the Middle East with you," he said.  

Davis declined to speculate on the content of any potential Southam editorial in terms of what he would or wouldn’t accept from his papers, but said: "Of course we’re not going to run editorials that we don’t agree with. Editorials express our viewpoint."

So far, Davis has written three such editorials, none of which discuss Israel directly. However, his latest edition, entitled "There is no negotiating with psychopaths," attacks the "pathological" opponents to violence as a means in the war on terror and calls for the destruction of a range of "terrorists," including "those who train their young to embrace suicidal martyrdom" and the hunting down of those who commit such atrocities, "whether they be in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria or Gaza."

Davis defended the corporation’s right to enforce homogeneity of opinion in the editorial column. "In the editorials themselves, we would not expect the papers to contradict themselves, simply on the argument that it would look foolish, to say the least.

"Editorials are unsigned pieces within the editorial column clearly intended to express the viewpoint of the publishing company. Op-Eds, or signed columns or other commentary are completely different and we will express a whole range of viewpoints in those," he stressed. Furthermore, Davis rejected the notion that his corporation should be confined to agree with any kind of legislation, UN or otherwise.

"I don’t know what your journalism culture is there, but certainly the journalism culture in North America is that the notion of a newspaper or a newspaper company taking issue with government policy is perfectly ordinary. We express the views that we hold (and) whether they happen to coincide with government foreign policy or not is a moot point.

"We embrace democratic, open debate, and that includes the freedom to disagree with the resolutions of the United Nations or resolutions of the Canadian Parliament, or resolutions of the Israeli Parliament or any other organization. That is what freedom of expression is all about." Others, however, are not entirely convinced by that argument and maintain that standardizing editorial column opinion across the country will only hurt freedom of expression.

Catherine McKercher, journalism professor at Carleton University, expressed her concern. "Concentration of ownership in the Canadian media business is at an extreme level. CanWest owns 60 percent of newspapers and other media outlets, and what we’re seeing now is the result of this kind of concentration," she said. "I think most people in journalism find it, frankly, appalling," she added. "It’s not so much the idea that anyone would want to trample on the owners’ right to write editorials, but the whole idea of a national editorial in this country is bizarre given that this is a country that is not only built on diversity, but one in which regional or provincial interests generally take precedence."

Southam newspapers whose editorials must have unconditional support to Israel:

Halifax Daily News

St. John's Telegram

Charlottetown Guardian

Montreal Gazette

Ottawa Citizen

Windsor Star

St. Catherines Standard

Regina Leader Post

Saskatoon Star Phoenix

Calgary Herald

Edmonton Journal

Vancouver Sun

Vancouver Province

Victoria Times-Colonist

Other websites regarding this article:

The other media giant in Canada is Conrad Black’s holding company, Hollinger Inc. Read about its zionist tendencies here.