The Revolt of Journalists: Can It happen in Canada?

In his book The Power to Inform, Servan-Schreiber writes that the very first journalists’ revolt began in France with the founding of the Journalist Association of Le Monde in 1951. What triggered this revolt was the resignation of Hubert Beuve Mery after a policy disagreement over articles printed in Le Monde questioning the "validity of NATO and the Atlantic pact."

The revolt also spread to many other European countries, with the same demands in common: the guarantee of political freedom in editorial matters; blocking the choice by stockholders of a publisher who would keep the editorial staff in line; and to grant a form of tenure for journalists. However, Le Monde was the only European paper where all the aims of the Journalist Association were realized.

Schreiber writes that the reasons for this revolt were rooted in European history. During the rise of fascism and the Nazi occupation, journalists in Germany, Italy, France, Spain, and other countries were killed, persecuted, jailed and censored. They realized first-hand how fragile both political freedom and freedom of the press can be. Another reason, he points out, is that journalists do not trust management and the policies of their papers, because during the Nazi occupation the majority of privately owned newspapers and their publishers complied with the laws of the occupying authorities and became an "instrument of totalitarian propaganda."

He goes on to say that further confrontation between publishers and journalists is inevitable because of "certain tendencies of contemporary society," such as growing criticism of big corporations and advertising, and people increasingly feeling alienated by bureaucracy and big business. Journalists cannot help being in the thick of it.

To understand why we need a journalists’ revolt in Canada, we must recognize our history and the role of privately owned newspapers, and of propaganda in a so-called free society. In pre-war Europe, it was the media that generated widespread public support for Hitler’s foreign and domestic policies. Unfortunately, in our own day, there is increased interference by advertisers, media owners and politicians to generate public support for their causes.

Servan-Schreiber points out that some reasons why stories do not get printed is because they might be offensive to advertisers, who supply an important source of income; another reason is political pressure. Major newspapers and magazines claim to be above such considerations and boast of their editorial independence but that is simply not true. The following example illustrates how advertisers do try to influence editorial material.

In 2000 the Jewish community was displeased with the Toronto Star’s coverage of the Middle East which it claimed was biased against Israel –” a claim Star publisher John Honderich flatly rejected. "I do not believe the stories are slanted against Israel," he said. "We’re fair and balanced." Honderich also dismissed suggestions that the paper’s coverage could lead to anti-Semitism. Asserting that it was really a case of "shooting the messenger," Honderich said events in the Middle East themselves determine coverage, not the Star’s agenda.

Nevertheless, to punish the Toronto Star, the owner of two funeral chapels decided to end a longstanding advertising relationship. Several real estate developers also pulled ads from the paper, resulting in hundreds of thousands of dollars of lost revenue.

Mr. Honderich left Toronto Star in 2004 and according to analysts, the editorial department was most alarmed by his absence, as it was the home base where he’d worked for much of his 28 years at the paper.

Another example is the case of Stephen Kimber of the Halifax Daily News, who wrote an editorial about the paper’s new owner, CanWest Global Communications. Kimber asserted that Winnipeg’s affluent Asper family, CanWest’s owners, appeared to consider their newspapers as private pulpits from which to express their pro-Israel stance, pro- capitalist views, and their support of privatization in key areas such as health care. Moreover, all the papers in their empire should agree with them.

The article added that, "This might not be so bad if the Aspers owned one or two newspapers, but they are the dominant player in the newspaper business in Canada today. They own the National Post, 14 major metropolitan newspapers, 126 smaller papers and Global Television. In most of the markets in which their newspapers operate, they are the only game in town."

Kimber was told in no uncertain terms by CanWest, "You can’t say that in my paper."

This example best illustrates the dilemma facing not only journalists, but also members of the public who are caught in the squeeze play of corporations like CanWest Global, whose political agenda takes precedence over the public’s right to know.

The Canadian Islamic Congress’s ongoing research program, "Anti-Islam Bias in the Media" has repeatedly shown that Asper-owned papers not only use propaganda techniques in their reporting to distort the facts about Palestinian suffering under the brutal Israeli occupation, but also use anti-Islam terms to denigrate the religion itself. The National Post leads the pack in this area.

The question is, why should freedom of the press — as legendary press critic A.J. Liebling once put it — be guaranteed "only to those who own one?" Recently, the Stephen Harper government banned news media from showing ceremonies honoring Canada’s repatriated war dead; this was done primarily for political reasons, in an attempt to minimize upsetting images that might erode public support for the mission in Afghanistan. The reality is that compliant editors and publishers are being influenced without the public’s knowledge by their advertisers, media owners and politicians in deciding what the public should know, proving that outside pressures do play a significant part in the decisions about what is printed in our daily papers.

In other words we are fed what the publishers and editors think will sell the most, and preserve their own status quo. In doing so, these media barons not only curtail the freedom of journalists to carry out their jobs, but ultimately deny the public’s right to know. This should not be tolerated in any free society. It is an abuse of everyone’s hard-earned freedom — the freedom to be informed and the journalist’s freedom to inform. Real democracy depends on the free flow of ideas, of debate and disagreement, and newspapers are the best forum for those debates.

As voters we need to consider the real impact of concentrating so much newspaper ownership in so few hands and whether the increased monopoly of opinion is good for us, for democracy, for journalistic integrity, and most of all, for Canada.