Media Politics: Press Freedom Survives Govt. Attack in BC

by Jonathan Lawson,

On Oct. 9, newspaper headlines across Canada solemnly announced the death of Izzy Asper, the country's biggest media mogul. Most of those headlines appeared in papers owned by Asper's megalithic CanWest Global, which owns something like 60% of all English-language dailies in the country, plus one of the largest TV networks and other holdings. Under Asper's watch, the company's newspaper operation had become a poster child for the ways consolidated ownership can harm journalistic values and editorial independence. Editors and columnists who resisted upper management directives, or disagreed with the "national editorials"imperiously dispatched from headquarters, were shown the door.

In the population centers of British Columbia, CanWest's domination of the media landscape is breathtaking. The company owns both the Vancouver Sun and the Vancouver Province, as well as the Victoria Times-Colonist. Just as Fox and CNN often play cheerleader to the Bush administration in the US, CanWest is cozily supportive of the province's ultra-conservative (despite the name) BC Liberal government.

As in the US media, the voice of editorial dissent in Vancouver is largely left to the alternative press. At the top of the class is the independently owned news-and-entertainment weekly the Georgia Straight. Claiming a regular readership of almost 340,000, the Straight is the largest city weekly in Canada. It's also a more or less continual thorn in the side of the BC Liberals, especially Premier Gordon Campbell.

So when the BC Liberal government announced suddenly last month that they were going to impose a $1 million tax penalty on the Straight, it was hard for anyone to avoid the conclusion that the move was politically motivated. The government's rationale for the fine was a sudden reinterpretation of a tax regulation allowing newspapers to avoid paying tax on newsprint. They decided that the award-winning newspaper was in fact not a newspaper after all

At issue was the designation of "newspaper"--which requires a publication to devote no more than 75% of its space to advertisements. Claiming that the Straight's calendar listings (compiled by editorial staff and not paid for by listees) comprised advertising rather than editorial content, the government stripped the Straight of its tax-exempt status and issued a whopping bill for back taxes. Note: 75% ads may seems like a high threshold, but it's not far from the norm for similar publications in Seattle. The Stranger, for example, typically runs about 73% ads if you don't count the 10 or so pages of calendar listings. Major daily newspapers are generally about 60% ads.

The Straight was the only newspaper to be singled out for such treatment--no Canwest or other corporate papers were threatened, although several of the company's smaller community newspapers are little more than advertising circulars.

Public backlash against the government decision was immediate and vocal. After a week of tremendous public outcry, the Liberal government backed down, promising to review its decision, and issuing a sheepish acknowledgement that "clearly the Georgia Straight is a newspaper."

Ironically, the news of the Georgia Straight fine made the papers on October 9, the same day as Asper's death dominated CanWest headlines, relegating the story of the Straight fine to below the fold or to the inner pages, surrounded by multiple epitaphs and paeans to the corporate captain, whose death was mourned as a dark day for Canadian journalism.

A dark day it certainly was--but not because of the demise of a wealthy mogul. The Straight incident, if anything, demonstrates that press freedom depends not only upon strong legal protections, but also upon the public's ability to monitor and watchdog government abuses of power. It's also a chilling reminder that even democratic governments can and will quash dissenting opinions--when they think they can get away with it.

article originally published at .
The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey