It’s strange to watch news editors, public relations personnel and media executives start issuing terse “no comment”s. But that’s exactly what’s been happening in CanWest Global’s media empire, and it raises dire questions about the growing power of corporate advertisers and the withering state of Canadian journalism.

The story began in July, when veteran journalist Vivian Smith penned a seemingly innocuous column for the B.C. capital’s daily newspaper, the Victoria Times-Colonist. (CanWest Global owns the T-C, the Vancouver Sun and Province, Ottawa Citizen, Montreal Gazette and National Post, plus Global TV and other media.) The article humorously criticized the high cost of many of Victoria’s major tourist spots ($53 for tea, anyone?), and then described some of the nice things visitors could see and do in the city for free.

As reported first and blow-by-blow in 24 Hours reporter Sean Holman’s blog “Public Eye”, T-C publisher Bob McKenzie subsequently fielded complaints about Smith’s column at a meeting with irate tourism industry representatives who spend many advertising dollars in the daily. Shortly thereafter, Smith was fired without explanation.

Suspicions raised

In B.C. journalist gossip circles, the firing immediately looked suspicious, especially considering its timing and Smith’s status as a writing coach for interns at the T-C and a former Globe and Mail editor. In addition, it seemed obvious the publisher (a publisher is essentially the owner’s business representative at most newspapers) had uncharacteristically initiated the firing over the heads of the editors. T-C editor-in-chief Lucinda Chodan was publicly falling over herself not giving any explanations at all for the firing while lauding Smith’s journalistic skills.

Then a tourism industry representative admitted to Public Eye that Smith’s firing was discussed with McKenzie at their meeting.

Scandal grows

Features writer Janis Ringuette and University of Victoria writing professor and regular columnist Lynne van Luven quit the Times-Colonist in protest. Then the Canadian Association of Journalists started probing, and issued a formal complaint.

When B.C. newsweekly Monday Magazine and online magazine The Tyee also started asking questions, CanWest Global vice-president David Asper stepped in and reassured everyone the company “vigilantly” protected “unencumbered” journalism in their media empire. CanWest Global president Dennis Skulsky ordered Smith’s re-hiring and issued a statement saying, “We value the editorial independence of each our news outlets and under no circumstances should advertising influence the content of newspapers.”

McKenzie then assured his T-C staff in an email that “we do not allow advertisers to influence the content of this newspaper”, and admitted his “error in judgment” in firing Smith. Both van Luven and Ringuette were also invited back; all of them with promises their writings would only be constrained by whether they were newsworthy and “fair and accurate.”

In the end, it seemed everyone had done the right thing to defend editorial independence at a major Canadian news source.

However, van Luven mentioned she’d be discussing this whole story in her first column for the T-C upon returning.

Cover-up ensues

Notably, so far no CanWest Global media outlets, let alone the T-C itself, have yet covered the events or even included comments about them in opinion-editorials. Meanwhile, front-page T-C stories over the last several weeks have included a gushing welcome to a visiting U.S. battleship’s sailor-tourists, extensive glowing coverage of Victoria’s “Symphony Splash” tourist attraction, and a damning attack on panhandlers for hurting tourism.

But the Smith story was a natural choice for van Luven. Her commentaries for the T-C have regularly explored social and economic issues surrounding Canadian books, media and writers. Van Luven also felt it was crucial that loyal T-C readers, the people for whom the events were most relevant, should hear about them.

“I think it’s important for T-C readers because they need to have a sense that they’re being respected as readers, and that if there is a controversy, if it’s in the paper’s management of news and public affairs, that they know about it,” she explained to rabble.

But editor-in-chief Lucinda Chodan said she would not be allowed to discuss the story in her column. And much like in the Smith firing, Chodan uncharacteristically did not provide any reasonable editorial reasons.

“The editor-in-chief at the T-C said the T-C has decided the issue is closed… it’s behind them,” said van Luven.

To van Luven, though, rather than “behind them,” it looked more like the T-C was very much still mired in the problem, and that a publisher’s business agenda was still unduly interfering with news content. As a person who lectures students regularly on journalism ethics, van Luven couldn’t accept that.

“I would feel somewhat hypocritical,” she said. “I feel that, as a community newspaper, [the T-C’s] job is to air the news, and this is a piece of important background to the news.”

Ultimately, van Luven resigned in protest — again.

The curtain falls

So why is the T-C resolutely refusing to let its journalists cover or discuss the story?

Chodan notably did not take the opportunity to suggest to rabble that there were any legitimate concerns about newsworthiness, reader interest, editorial space or fairness and accuracy involved in the decision. “I have no comment,” she said. “It’s an internal matter.”

Are they worried about offending those advertisers again, and shame-facedly hiding the fact that they’ve instituted no policy or plan to prevent the same mistakes from happening in future?

T-C Publisher Bob McKenzie did not reply to repeated calls nor did he issue any statement through his secretary.

Considering the events leading up to this, don’t these moves so soon afterwards exhibit a stunning, utterly disconcerting brashness?

CanWest Mediaworks public relations manager Tammy Bender also told rabble that the reasons for the T-C’s refusal to cover the story are simply a local “internal matter” that wouldn’t be commented on “at the corporate level.”

Then what does all this say about how much corporate advertisers might be influencing the coverage of industrial pollution, business tax breaks, or auto companies and climate change in CanWest Global’s media outlets reaching 94 per cent of Canadians? How many other Smiths have been fired because they ran afoul of advertisers, and how many van Luven’s have resigned because they weren’t allowed to tell the story? Don’t such massive media conglomerates holding virtually monopoly powers in many regions of the country have any public responsibility whatsoever to ensure their reporters are reasonably free to honestly report important news to the communities they serve?

Van Luven, for one, doesn’t buy the “internal matter” argument. “Newspapers are not just selling widgets or shoes, they’re selling something much more important. There’s a community responsibility that newspapers have.”

CanWest Global president Dennis Skulsky would seem to agree. He wrote in his original statement about the Smith situation that all CanWest Global journalists “are free to cover any organization or subject” and that “rigorous adherence to these principles is a public trust”.

But that was four weeks ago — apparently a long time in the news business — and the current massive black hole of chilling silence surrounding this cover-up at CanWest Global makes a bald mockery of those assurances.

Bender advised that Skulsky would likely not wish to comment. Skulsky did not respond to repeated requests for an interview left with his Vancouver and Toronto offices.

Evidently, CanWest Global’s strategy for improvement is to try to cover their tracks even more effectively from now on.