Papers learn to be Black like David
Vancouver Courier
September 27, 1998

With friends like publisher David Black, opponents of the Nisga’a Treaty don’t need enemies.

By now you’ve heard that Black, who owns 60 community papers in B.C., banned any pro-treaty commentary and demanded that his editors adhere to a strict anti-treaty editorial policy. Furthermore, to ensure his papers toe the party line, Black commissioned constitutional expert Mel Smith to write eight approved lectures that point out the treaty’s dangers.

Now, however, Black has been forced to moderate his position. Regular columnists will again be allowed to write what they want on the subject (thank you very much!) but the editorials will have to stay in lockstep. Top-down editorial direction is one thing, but the initial ban on rebuttal commentary perverted the very principle of a free press and has given rise to justified criticism.

The one thing above all that gives the press credibility is its image of impartiality. Politicians and their opponents can be expected to spin propaganda, but the public needs to be assured that the press won’t join the chorus. A newspaper should have a point of view on matters of great public import, but such a view should be expressed in a way that encourages assent, not obedience.

The best way to alienate readers is to tell them what to think, because readers have an unfortunate tendency to want to make up their own minds. In politics there is no absolute truth—only opinions of varying credibility. The greater the respect readers accord an editorial argument the better the odds of agreement. However, a newspaper that tries to dictate judgment to its readers will be perceived as partisan and its message will be discounted.

Black’s editorial crusade, I suspect, was hatched during a talk Smith gave during the annual B.C. and Yukon Community Newspaper Association awards this May in Penticton. I attended the talk, which centred around Smith’s criticisms of the Supreme Court’s Delgammukw decision.

It was a good speech and Smith was clearly playing to a friendly crowd, as everyone in the room seemed to be of the same critical mind. Afterwards, Black jumped to the front and suggested there be a coordinated editorial effort to fight the Nisga’a Treaty. He was promptly “volunteered” to organize it.

The best case against the kind of selective commentary Black is promoting comes from CBC anchor Peter Mansbridge. A week ago Friday, during the panel discussion Media Wars: The Battle For Your Time, at UBC’s Chan Centre, Mansbridge said that a newspaper or TV newscast will only succeed to the extent it can convince the public to invest time with it. With more choice of news outlets, the task is difficult and expensive.

If people suspect they’re being spun, Mansbridge said, they will tune out and seek news elsewhere. This is how Black shot himself in the foot.

Those who already worship at the feet of Mel Smith will of course be heartened, but Black can’t be content with preaching to the converted—he must appeal to his opponents and the undecided. Unfortunately, his strongly partisan position has destroyed his power to persuade.

Black is so convinced that the Nisga’a Treaty is a disaster, he feels a personal duty to stop it. Like any true believer he is blinded by the light of moral self-righteousness. He cannot see that he has sunk to the level of the government propagandists he attacks. When the Vancouver Sun asked Black if he would run a series of articles by pro-treaty supporters to counter Smith’s, he demurred, saying that he has trouble finding treaty supporters who don’t have an agenda.

In his defence, Black said all along that news reporting would continue to be balanced and that contrary views will be allowed in letters to the editor. But this clearly wasn’t good enough, even for his own papers. Employees at the Surrey/North Delta Leader, for one, circulated a petition against his interference. Even though Black has backed down on his rebuttal ban, it’s too late. His partisanship has compromised journalism and his own cause in the bargain, which is a shame. He has good points to make.

Black’s stunt was largely unnecessary, a lesson which he’s now learning. He should have taken a tip from his namesake, who shows up from time to time in the commentary pages of his Southam chain.

Notwithstanding the concern expressed over the number of newspapers he controls, Conrad Black, to the best of my knowledge, has never imposed editorial diktat on his editors. When he has something to say, he simply writes an opinion piece. In a similar way, David Black could have told his editors to run the Smith pieces, and to keep a consistent editorial voice on the treaty. He need never have considered banning rebuttal articles, or made it a personal crusade.