Sing Tao
School of Journalism

""Journalism consists of buying white paper at two cents a pound and selling it at ten cents a pound."
- Charles A. Dana

APRIL 1999
Issue 3 Volume 1

The Musqueam Troubles
Fast Ferries Coverage
Cyberspace Cemetery
Dispatch from Germany
Al Franken the VJ

Censoring Greg Felton

Remembering Colombia

Designer Vaginas

The Cook Island News

This Month's Excerpt

Knowlton Nash
Eve Savory

UBC Copyright 1999


Should newspaper owners be allowed to tell columnists what not to write? Natasha Muslih looks at the case of Greg Felton, the Vancouver Courier columnist who was told by the paper's owner, Lower Mainland Publishing, to stop writing about Middle East issues.

Difference of Opinions: The Greg Felton Case

According to a recent BC Press Council ruling in favor of newspaper owner David Black, columnists – or any editorial staff for that matter – can be told by newspaper owners not to write about certain issues. This is in line with property rights protected under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Newspaper owners, just like any business proprietor, can and should be allowed to do what they want with their investments.

This is all fine, but the freedom of expression is also protected under the Charter. Hence the conundrum. What happens when one right is incompatible with another?

Might wins, according to David Radler, Chief Operating Officer of Hollinger Inc., Canada's mega-media corporation which owns Southam Inc.

“The publisher in every newspaper is the ultimate authority,” says Radler. “If the editor and the publisher can't agree on content, ultimately there is no future for the editor there.” Apparently, the same goes for columnists.

But is might right?

Greg Felton would probably say no. Felton has written often about the Middle East, and has published at least nine articles about the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. The battle is a difficult one to say the least. Israelis believe they won a war of liberation and so achieved independence, while Palestinians believe their society was destroyed and their population evicted. Much has been written about the conflict in the mainstream press, but the pro-Palestinian/anti-Israel opinion that Felton subscribes to is not a popular one.

Last Nov. 1, the Courier published a Felton column entitled “National Post Impaled On Its Own Hubris.” In it, Felton writes that the paper is essentially a mouthpiece for owner Conrad Black's ideas. Felton also criticizes an editorial about the recent peace accord between Israel and the Palestinians as being “more propagandistic than persuasive.”

Although he put forth what the Arab Community Association of BC has called “well researched views,” the Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC) took offence to these ideas. Felton's statement that “the tragedy for Arafat is that Hamas' position is morally and legally correct” was particularly controversial. Three days after the column appeared, the CJC issued a press release calling on Vancouver residents to boycott the Vancouver Courier.

Then came the directive. The Courier `s owners told editor Mick Maloney not to publish any anti-Israel commentary, thus silencing Felton. TheCourier has since been bought by Southam Inc., which is controlled by newspaper tycoon Conrad Black. It is no surprise that the directive against Felton has not been lifted.

“Crap” is how David Radler, Black's right-hand man, describes Felton's work.

The silencing of Felton directly affects other columnists' rights to express diverse opinions. It is disappointing, but not surprising, that journalists have not drawn attention to this issue. Disappointing because cases like Felton's bring up important issues – such as freedom of speech - that should be debated in public. Not surprising because of journalists' fears of censure from above.

Radler says he doesn't interfere with editorial content, but he has the power to if he should so desire. And he has definite opinions of his own on certain issues.

According to one journalist, he and his colleagues are “wage slaves.” They have to toe the line, or risk losing the stability of a job. Either way, journalists lose. We all lose. Even newspaper owners lose.

There is a wealth of information out there, and newspaper owners would be rather short-sighted to try to suppress relevant points of view. Such censorship deprives the public of a diversity of opinion, and in turn reduces people's ability to make informed decisions. This affects the health of democracy, and consequently the health of a free market economy. In short, it's an echo of the old adage “what goes around, comes around.”

The rights to property and expression are not necessarily incompatible. It just depends on how you define them. Property rights should essentially cover an owner's chattels and real estate. Since journalists and the ideas they bring with them are not chattels or real estate, owners should not assume the right to silence them when their opinions are not compatible with their own.

Everybody has a right to the freedom of speech. If might should be used to fight for anything, it should be such rights.

Want to know more about publishers' rights? See our story from last issue. David Black Ruling by Prof. Stephen Ward.