Media Concentration Scarier than Editorial Control

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What’s all the fuss about the Asper family imposing central editorials on all of its CanWest newspapers and otherwise throwing their editorial weight around? Why are Montreal Gazette and Regina Leader-Post reporters up in arms about it? What did they expect? Izzy Asper, through CanWest, owns the two newspapers lock, stock and barrel and, sure, owners are going to decide in the end.

Don’t get me wrong. I can understand the reporters’ outrage and I’m glad they’re raising their voices. One should protest editorial manhandling. It’s also important to put cases of abuse on the record, so the public understands what is happening. One should similarly do everything one can to increase autonomy for the reporters, columnists and editors who produce our newspapers. It would have been much more comforting, however, if the protesting reporters had spoken out when Asper, who already owned the Global television chain, took over Southam to begin with and raised media concentration to an even higher and more ominous level than already existed.

That’s the issue in the end: concentration of ownership. How much, for example, will it really profit to have centralized editorials eliminated when local editorial committees, both before and after, are under the control of publishers centrally chosen by CanWest in the first place? The choice of editors and columnists is also under CanWest control. It’s game over.

I for one enjoy the Aspers’ frankness. I’ve relished the imposition of centralized editorials because it tears off the veil that surrounds ownership. When the fuss around the policy first erupted, David Asper responded that his family was simply doing what owners have the right to do, and that it was much more honest than imposing editorial policy by a nudge-nudge here and a nudge-nudge there. He was right, it is more honest, although saying so was an irretrievable political mistake, one of the few the Aspers have made.

I also enjoy the goofy Asper sons playing media barons, like David, trying to emulate Conrad Black, dismissing Gazette reporters as “riff raff” and “bleeding hearts.” Conrad Black is too peculiar and outrageous to imitate successfully. Why, though, would anyone in his right mind want to imitate him?

I’m amused, too, by the bluff, smarmy arrogance of Murdoch Davis, the editorial hack in Winnipeg who produces those overdrawn central editorials for Aspers’ agents across the country. His crude sophistry, in a long op-ed piece in January condemning critics of CanWest, was a masterpiece of revelation — of how mediocrity can imagine itself wonderfully clever. Molière, who created marvelous characters of self-indulgent hypocrisy, would have loved it.

Molière would also have loved Izzy Asper, for his perfervid ambition and especially for his skill in exploiting the illusions of others, most notably the hapless crew that hands out television licences, upon which the combined CanWest media holdings were built.

I know, or at least knew, Izzy. I remember one morning, at a coffee break during a Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) hearing back in the early 1980s, when Izzy, in a klatsch of kibbitzers, referred to himself collectively as “we broadcasters.” I almost fell over. “Broadcaster” was the last thing Izzy was. Izzy was, and is, a lawyer. He has got what he has by talking and by drawing up documents, which is what lawyers do.

His first step was acquiring a licence for a start-up television station in Winnipeg, CKND, in the mid-1970s. Izzy and his partner, Paul Morton, like all the other TV-licence hustlers — from Moses Znaimer (with CityTV) to Al Bruner (the original promoter behind Global) — made nice-sounding programming promises, albeit in the Winnipegers’ case quite modest ones. Unlike the others, however, who at least went through the motions of fulfilling those promises before writing them off, CKND took a short cut: many of their promised Manitoba programs didn’t make it on air at all, not to mention those that did but were subsequently junked.

Izzy and Paul (CanWest) calculated that the CRTC, already captive to the industry, wouldn’t dare deny them a licence renewal when the time came. The commission scolded and fulminated — a lawyer takes that as part of the ritual — but left CanWest with the licence anyway.

CanWest in this same period, with another partner (IWC), also made a pitch for Global in Ontario, which had unceremoniously hit the skids. The takeover syndicate concocted a sweetheart deal with Global’s principals, who otherwise would have lost their shirts. No other applicants were allowed. Global’s creditors, meanwhile — including many independent program producers — soon ended up out in the cold with twenty-five cents on the dollar. Izzy estimated the value of this gift licence at $15-million, with the downside risk “almost nominal."

Global quickly became notorious for its broken Canadian-programming promises and for betraying the performers and producers who had so naively supported the licence transfer. The CRTC spluttered away with its usual ineptitude and servility.

Subsequently, CanWest bought out its Global partner, IWC, in one of those reciprocal buy-sell arrangements. Then Izzy,after a well-known contretemps with Paul Morton, bought out his old CanWest partner. Not too long after, CanWest capitalized on some financial support of CKVU in Vancouver to take over that licence, in a complex contractual imbroglio. Another licence hunter — an Edmonton doctor and capitalist, Charles Allard, who had shares in CKVU — took a run at the station, but Izzy “The Flatlands Flash” Asper prevailed.

You get the picture: a lawyer at work outmanoeuvring others who weren’t themselves lawyers, and a regulatory agency that always caved in. The whole story is told in my 1986 book, Closed Circuits: The Sellout of Canadian Television. None of Asper’s tactics, of course, would have been possible without the cash flow from American programming, which is what the licences in practice were about. It doesn’t take an entrepreneurial genius to buy and distribute American programming. It’s a parasitical, comprador, clerkish function.

American programming made and financed by others generated CanWest’s asset base and the cash flow by which Asper bought Southam.

There is a moral in this tale. We shouldn’t hesitate collectively, as Canadians, to democratize media ownership: to break up convergence (common ownership of broadcasting and newspaper properties) and also to break up concentration of ownership in each of those sectors. Asper built CanWest by playing games with supine governments and their weakling agency. If, in another game, he loses, why should he complain?

Of course, it may not happen. Izzy, as a long-time Liberal supporter and with his now massive media power, has more leverage than most. If, however, a federal government ever does summon up the courage to act, Asper and his sons can be counted on to complain loudly and passionately. They’ll cry expropriation, the heavy hand of the state, stabbing business in the back, and most of all an evil government robbing them of the fruits of a great entrepreneurial achievement.

If and when the time comes, don’t take those crocodile tears seriously for amoment.

Herschel Hardin is a West Vancouver author and media analyst. He can bereached at hhardin@vcn.bc.ca.

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