Straight dodges bullet; Sun shoots self in foot
November 2003

Among the titles heaped upon recently deceased CanWest founder Israel Asper, “thug” was conspicuously absent. Of course, one isn’t meant to speak ill of the dead, especially the barely cold, but the damage Asper and his gormless spawn have wrought on Canadian journalism will doubtless be his most lasting legacy.

Even though Conrad Black and his Hollinger henchmen led the open assault on the free press five years ago this month, the CanWest campaign is far more blatant and unsophisticated.

For example, on Oct. 31, 2002, in the Montreal Gazette, Asper scribbled a frothing tirade against “anti-Israel bias” in the media. He dredged up the Jewish holocaust, of course, and regurgitated the libel of how those who criticize Israel are “anti-Semites” (a nonsense term); and even advocated denying funds to universities that didn’t toe the zionist line.

The source of this distemper was really Asper’s own impotence. For all of his overwhelming control of Canada’s media, he could not prevent others, especially the CBC, from giving Canadians informed criticism of Israel, and not depicting Palestinians as “terrorists.”

Asper failed to win the hearts and minds of Canadians because they have hearts and minds, and resent being manipulated. CanWest’s flagship paper the National Post still haemorrhages red ink for want of readers and advertising, and the corporate practice of filling local dailies with centralized canned copy has created an insipid conformity.

If Asper thought this was the way to cut costs and boost readership, he didn’t know newspapers, and that’s the point. He wasn’t in the newspaper business—he was in the propaganda business. He feared honest journalism, especially on Israel, and that meant dissenting opinions had to be squashed. That is his bequest to Canada.

We saw a local example early last month regarding the tax status of the Georgia Straight.

To recap: the provincial revenue ministry announced on Sept. 30 that it intended to strip the Straight of its newspaper status under the Social Service Tax Act. At issue were the paper’s “Time Out” listings, which the government wanted to reclassify from editorial to advertising. That decision would have brought the total editorial content of the Straight below the 25 percent minimum needed to qualify as a newspaper for provincial tax exemption purposes. The upshot was the Straight faced an assessment of  $1 million in back taxes for printing costs dating to April 1, 2000.

After a blizzard of protests and critical media stories, the government caved, claiming the whole affair was just a bureaucratic blunder. Publisher Dan McLeod, though, maintains that it was a politically co-ordinated attack by CanWest and the government to put his independent paper out of business.

Since the Straight is not paid to run the “Time Out” listings, which are compiled by staff, the government’s case for reclassification is absurd, so McLeod’s argument for malice doesn’t seem far-fetched. In true Asper fashion, corroborating evidence comes from the Vancouver Sun, one of CanWest’s local organs.

On Oct. 11, the Sun ran an editorial supporting the tax reversal, but assailing McLeod for claiming malice. Given the compromised nature of the Sun, this was to be expected, but the editorial’s inflammatory language and personal attacks only validated McLeod’s case. Had the Sun shown a modicum of restraint and sophistication it could have defended its owners without shooting itself in the foot. Here’s an excerpt

“It may well be that the politicians were blindsided by a bad call from bureaucrats. But Mr. McLeod missed no opportunity to cynically punch the buttons of every half-informed reader who ever had a grudge against government. The statements he has made twist fact and fancy to try to tie CanWest… to the short-lived tax attack on the Straight.

“Never mind that CanWest owns several community newspapers that—like the Straight—carry extensive listings. His innuendo is mere propaganda and is absolutely false. He ought to have known that. Facts and logic simply weren’t allowed to get in the way of Mr. McLeod’s self-serving rant.”

The Sun doth protest too much, methinks.

On Sept. 26, the National Post ran a picture of Premier Gordon Campbell and Sun publisher Dennis Skulsky standing at the northeast corner of Georgia and Burrard hawking copies of the paper. (Also along for the photo op was Liberal heir presumptive Paul Martin.)

Was this proof of collusion? No, but it refutes the Sun’s hysterical denial of “mere propaganda and…  absolutely false.” Moreover, as McLeod noted, Campbell held private meetings with Skulsky and Asper’s eldest son Leonard shortly after the 2001 election.

Taken together, these factors, along with the Sun’s cheerleading for Campbell’s government and $30,000 in CanWest political donations, are enough to focus attention on the Sun’s hysterical language, thus enhancing McLeod’s credibility.

Second, the Sun doesn’t address McLeod’s charge that the Campbell government determined that all Asper-owned papers were “newspapers” under the act, thus leaving the Straight vulnerable. Without addressing this point, the Sun’s attempt to equate papers is useless.

Third, the “blindsided by a bad call” argument is inane In an Oct. 15 interview, McLeod said government auditors had been visiting the Straight for months.

“Dec. 3 last year was the first I heard of this,” he said. “I got quite upset and told him the whole charge was ridiculous. I just went away. The comptroller later told me the auditor was satisfied.”

McLeod said a subsequent audit on Jan. 23 found that editorial content exceeded 25 percent. Six days later, the government said it wanted to do another one.

Against this history, the Sun cannot be taken seriously. It didn’t even have the courage of its convictions; it hid behind the craven “it may well be,” as if to absolve itself from having to do research.

The three Ds of attack propaganda are: Denial, Denigration and Dishonesty. All are present here. All the Sun had to do was cheer the government’s reversal and cast reasonable doubt on McLeod’s contentions. But when your job is to cast aspersions, reason and research get in the way.