As the late afternoon sun fills the newsroom, all the reporters and editors gather around the big desk in the publisher’s office and, after a full and frank exchange of ideas, they collectively decide what to say in the next day’s editorials.

At the risk of exposing the dirty underbelly of real-world journalism, I feel obliged to note that it doesn’t actually work this way.

In fact, most journalists have no say in their newspapers’ editorial positions, no input into what news stories are given prominence, nor any guarantee that their own stories — no matter how accurate and important — will even be published — all these things are ultimately determined by the newspaper’s owner.

This seems pretty straightforward. It explains why a publication owned by an environmental group generally doesn’t urge more reckless toxic waste disposal, and why the men’s magazine Playboy doesn’t point out how silly lecherous elderly men look in silk pyjamas.

The sacking of Russell Mills as publisher of Ottawa Citizen last week by the Asper family fell within this time-honoured tradition of media owner omnipotence. The difference was that, because the object of discipline was a top-level official who refused to be muzzled, the guy pulling the strings behind the curtain was more obvious than usual. As a result, the fig leaf of a “free” press was dangerously close to falling off.

Many media columnists fulminated against the firing. “Freedom of the press has just suffered a terrible blow in Canada,” wrote The Globe and Mail columnist, Jeffrey Simpson. The Globe’s Margaret Wente added revealingly that “there are many smooth and quiet ways to move unwanted managers along.”

So, was that the sin — not to do things smoothly and quietly? If Russell Mills had been smoothly shuffled over to vice-president of corporate relations in the Asper empire, could we all have relaxed, confident that it didn’t look like we were living in a Third World country?

Of course, the Aspers are singularly bush league; they not only fail to keep their iron fist discreetly inside a velvet glove, they thrust the fist around so clumsily that the public gets a glimpse of it. What we seem to be dealing with here are the Clampetts of the Canadian media. Their practices are so out of whack with accepted conduct for media moguls that the Globe felt compelled to call them into line.

In an editorial, the Globe beseeched the Aspers to stop “fiddling with the catch on this Pandora’s box” because they risked “hurting more than their readers.” (Defenceless media moguls could get hurt too! After all, the New Democratic Party (NDP) was calling for a public inquiry, the Globe noted. What if the public were to properly grasp how limited freedom of the press actually is?)

In fact, editorials, feature articles and news stories are often killed or rewritten — or never written in the first place — because they don’t fit with what the newspaper’s owner wants to see in the paper, or what some underling anticipates the owner wants to see in the paper.

Most reporters have experienced this in some form. For instance, as a Globe reporter in 1988, I stumbled upon an interesting story while covering a tax conference. In a presentation to the conference, Conservative Member of Parliament, Don Blenkarn, who headed the Parliamentary finance committee, mentioned that a tax soon to be implemented was expected to raise huge extra revenues from the public. (The new tax was to replace an existing tax, and there had been little interest in the change outside business circles — where the change was supported.) But when my story about Blenkarn’s comments appeared on the front page of the Globe the next day, suddenly the broader public got an inkling that the new tax might cost them more money.

This revelation was all the more politically explosive because it happened to come in the midst of Canada’s hotly-contested 1988 federal election campaign.

Over the next few days, I did some follow-up stories — the issue of the potential tax grab seemed to be building. Then my editor approached me in the newsroom, told me I was being reassigned, and that I was to stop writing about the new tax — which, after the election, became known as the General Sales Tax (GST).

It seems likely that I was deliberately reassigned because someone in the Globe chain of command suspected that the GST story — in the middle of that volatile election campaign — had the potential to hurt the re-election bid of Brian Mulroney, whom the Globe was vigorously backing.

If I’d been working for the Aspers, I suppose I might have been fired. But just because more sophisticated media outlets operate more subtly doesn’t mean we should be too confident that, until the Aspers came along, everything was just fine on the free press front.

Linda McQuaig

Journalist and best-selling author Linda McQuaig has developed a reputation for challenging the establishment. As a reporter for The Globe and Mail, she won a National Newspaper Award in 1989...