It was another strange trip home that last week of June and first week of July.
It seemed the media world in my Home on Native Land had exploded in outrage and recrimination the previous week after the Aspers, owners of CanWest Global Communications and now the former Southam newspapers, fired Ottawa Citizen publisher Russell Mills for daring call for the resignation of their much-favored Prime Minister Jean Chretien. I read and listened with interest on my visit home from Singapore, fully intending to stay out of the debate and instead concentrate on getting my boat into the water. That was until I heard Donna Logan, director of the School of Journalism at the University of B.C., guest with Rafe Mair on CKNW radio on June 28. What I heard her say simply floored me.
When Rafe asked a panel of three, including Logan, whether the Asper moves put freedom of speech in jeopardy, she insisted not. “I think it might be going a bit too far to say freedom of the press is in jeopardy,” said Logan. “We should really avoid overblown rhetoric.” She was just getting started in her defence of the Aspers.
When Rafe raised the question of whether CanWest Global wields too much power in Canada by now owning the largest newspaper chain in addition to the second-largest commercial television network, she immediately resorted to the line promulgated recently by Ken Goldstein, vice-president of strategy for the Asper empire.
“Newspaper readership is a very small proportion of where people get their information, unfortunately,” insisted Logan. “Most people now get their information from television and the Internet. . . . People have already diversified in where they get their news.”
This is, of course, not what they tell advertisers. In fact, if you
visit the Canadian
Newspaper Association web page, you will see they are claiming that,
while circulation (which is audited by the Audit Bureau of Circulations)
is down, readership (which they simply estimate) is actually up!
But the clincher came when a woman called in and decried ownership of almost of almost all Vancouver-area newspapers by the Aspers, who also own the Lower Mainland's largest television station (BCTV).
“I think the situation in Vancouver is one of the things that gets overblown, because we actually are in a very competitive situation here,” Logan actually said. “Yes, the Aspers control both of the newspapers, but we’ve got two new television stations that have just come into the market. We’ve got a third one coming on line. These are not owned by the Aspers, and so the television situation is becoming much more competitive. For national news there’s the Globe and Mail, for local news you’ve got the CBC, you’ve got CTV. . . .”
When Rafe directed her back to the medium in question, newspapers, and pointed out that almost all of the Lower Mainland press is owned by the Aspers, Logan countered by naming a couple of free weeklies that are not. “There is the Georgia Straight . . . . and there are [sic.] the West Ender . . . so there are alternatives. I mean, I don’t think the situation is as dire as that.”
As this position is exactly opposite to the thesis of my recent book, Pacific Press: The Unauthorized story of Vancouver’s Newspaper Monopoly (Vancouver: New Star Books, 2001), steam started coming out of my ears. I phoned up Rafe’s producer, whose number I have from a previous appearance on the program. I mentioned off the air that, in the interests of full disclosure, it should be pointed out that Donna Logan and the School of Journalism at UBC are beholden to the Aspers for a recent $500,000 endowment. It was on the air 10 seconds later, and while Donna squirmed, she insisted there’s no connection between it and her apparent defence of their Vancouver monopoly.
“It’s not going to influence us. The Aspers have been supremely correct about the gift. It is fully paid up. They’ve said they want nothing to do with the selection. They don’t even sit on the panel that chooses the person, and they have not in any way been involved.”
I then did some research and turned up the following items regarding the Asper endowment. What I had not realized previously, and which puts matters in a whole new light, was that two months before the $500,000 was donated to the School of Journalism at UBC, Donna Logan gave favorable evidence before the CRTC. Speaking at hearings into the licence renewal applications of CanWest Global Communications and CTV, Logan spoke glowingly of the benefits convergence will bring for journalism.
"One of the things that has always disturbed me about journalism in
Canada is that there were too many reporters chasing so few stories," Logan
told the CRTC.
"Converged journalism offers an opportunity to break out of that mould by freeing up reporters to do stories that are not being done and are vital to democratic discourse."
I turned up her testimony in a Canadian press report in a database search. It was rather long, and her comments were buried near the bottom, so perhaps it’s understandable that, even with the dedicated research assistance of SFU Ph.D. student Arthur-Martins Aginam, her quote could not be found in any Canadian newspaper archived in a database. It can, however, be found on the Toronto Sun web site. Just type in “Donna Logan” on their search engine. It’s the only story that comes up. Or read it here.
But veteran commentator Claire Hoy at least had his b.s. detector up
and running. "Is she serious?" he wrote in his Hill Times newsletter.
"What converged journalism really does is provide an opportunity for the
TV-print operation to cover the stories with a single reporter instead
of two or more reporters.
They're not interested in freeing up reporters to chase stories they're not doing now. They're only interested in freeing up their bottom lines by doing the same work with fewer reporters. Read his column here.
Two months later, CanWest made the $500,000 endowment to the UBC School of Journalism school. "We're going to become the premier news organization in the country,'' said Leonard Asper, providing quite a laugh in hindsight. "We're going to invest in the nuts and bolts of that by starting with journalism. We believe in the principles of journalism and their enhancement.'' Read it here
I phoned back and spoke to Dallas Brodie, who is Rafe’s senior producer. I asked for equal time and she agreed to have me on at 9 a.m. the next day. I outlined the sequence of events on the air, and Rafe was outraged. "The thought that occurred to me, Marc, is that it's very dangerous, approaching the unethical, for any head of a school of journalism to give evidence on behalf of any of the media in Canada."
Of course, I could not disagree with him. I then proceeded to outline the funding problems that led UBC to turn to corporate funding in the first place, which raised serious ethical questions on campus. Click here for the story on that. The corporate approach blew up in a major embarrassment once already. Click here for more about that.
After I left the studio, and before I could get my rental car out of the Pacific Centre parking garage and get CKNW on the radio, Rafe had more to say, which I later transcribed from the CKNW web page.
"I don't like to be hard on the School of Journalism at UBC. I think a lot of Donna Logan, she's a fine person and all the rest of it. I hope she seeks time to come on the program and talk about what Marc Edge said today. . . . Corporations don't usually provide money unless they expect something back for that money. . . . In something like this, you've got to think that the corporation has in the back of its mind that it may need some help. The corporation needs evidence in a media hearing. The journalism school head gives favorable evidence. The next thing in the sequence, the school gets $500,000. . . . It's a relationship that is just not a healthy one. I do not blame Donna, nor the School of Journalism, for doing whatever is legal to raise money. That money should come from the public purse. . . . as any other faculty is funded. It has not been. It even had to name itself after a corporation at one point in order to get money, and that's wrong. You have to look at the whole situation and ask if this is healthy."
As Claire Hoy says, stay tuned!