On a bright summer afternoon last June, Mordecai Briemberg picked up 50 copies of a fake Vancouver Sun that were lying on a table in Vancouver's downtown library. Inside the four-page newspaper, the 69-year-old Palestinian activist found satirical articles about how Israel's military occupation had brought "civilization" to the West Bank, and how an academic study proved that "the truth" is inherently biased against Israel. With writers named "Cyn Sorsheep" (Censorship) and sources like Dr. Ig Norance, an article featured a bogus quote from Canwest CEO Leonard Asper, whose family company owns the Sun.
"This confirms my suspicion that the Truth is fanatically anti-Israel, and vindicates our vigilance in managing the Truth about Israel's activities in all our converged media assets," it jokingly quoted Asper as saying.
The fake Vancouver Sun was a rather innocuous jab at the blatantly pro-Israeli reporting in Vancouver's major daily and the rest of the newspapers, magazines and television stations owned by Canwest, Canada's largest media company. Articles in Canwest newspapers, especially the National Post, routinely blame Palestinian militants for Israeli air strikes or paint heroic portraits of Israeli civilians fending off Palestinian rocket attacks.
Amused by the parody, Briemberg took the copies back to his Vancouver suburb and passed them out so that others could share in the laugh. Canwest, however, didn't find it as funny. The next day the real Vancouver Sun ran a story about how 12,000 fake editions had taken advantage of the paper's brand and, even though Sun publisher Kevin Bent admitted there had been few reader complaints, promised legal action.
Few actually expected anything would happen. Campus newspapers, the alternative press and activists have been putting together mock versions of their daily papers for decades. Most famously, when Allan Fotheringham published a Vancouver Son for his student paper in 1954, the Sun offered him a job. (Fotheringham would go on to become one of the country's most famed columnists.) That a large multinational company like Canwest, which has more than 10,000 employees and $2.87 billion in annual revenue, would attack some small-scale activists over a prank seemed absurd.
But when Canwest launched its lawsuit in December, Briemberg was shocked to discover that not only was Goliath hunting down David, but that he was being sued for creating and publishing the paper. In fact, aside from the printers, he was the only person named in the suit. For Briemberg, who runs a Canadian-Palestinian support website and hosts a radio show on a local cooperative radio show, this was a clear attempt by Canwest to chill its critics.
"It's an effort to silence and intimidate people from exposing the Israeli state policies that snatch lives, lands and homes from Palestinians," says Briemberg. "Not only won't Canwest allow any other commentary in their papers, they'll actively try to shut down anyone that doesn't agree with them."
As the heads of Canwest, Leonard Asper and his brother David have developed a reputation for being thin-skinned, litigious bullies who interfere with their newspaper's editorial content, openly mock their journalists and routinely threaten critics with lawsuits. What makes the Aspers so perilous is that Canwest has so much power in shaping the country's public discourse.
"I think they're Canada's most dangerous media company," says Marc Edge, author of Asper Nation. "It's dangerous to allow any company so much control over the public mind, especially when the proprietors of the company have shown no compunction in wielding that power in favor of their political agenda. I think it's very unwise of Canadians to allow this situation to continue."
Started as a single television station in 1974 by Izzy Asper, a tax lawyer and politician from Winnipeg who died in 2003, Canwest now owns one of Canada's two national papers, 10 major market dailies, 23 smaller market daily, weekly and community papers and one of the country's biggest television stations, as well as 13 specialty channels in partnership with Goldman Sachs. In Vancouver, Canwest owns both daily newspapers, the biggest television station and the majority of the community papers, making the city the most media concentrated city in North America. Outside of Canada, it owns The New Republic magazine, Australia's TEN Television Network and radio stations in England and Turkey.
As the patriarch of the Asper clan, Izzy carefully built his company by taking advantage of government opportunities while breaking Canadian content rules. With his sons Leonard and David in tow, the Aspers swallowed a competing company, Western International Communications (WIC), through a lengthy and acrimonious lawsuit and turned their Global television network into a national broadcaster. But it wasn't until they bought Conrad Black's newspaper empire in 2000 that the Aspers became a dominant force in the country.
With most of the country's papers in their hands, the Aspers ordered their newspapers to run "national editorials" written from the Canwest head office in Winnipeg. Already upset that their paper was forced to run an editorial that appeared to condone the assassination of Yasser Arafat, reporters at the Montreal Gazette protested with a byline strike. David Asper, now Canwest's executive vice-president, denounced the protest as "childish." Journalists who continued with the strike were told they would be suspended or fired.
The following year, the Aspers continued to roll by firing Ottawa Citizen publisher Russell Mills for running a story exposing Prime Minister Jean Chrétien's shady business deals. Izzy Asper was a strong Chrétien supporter and David Asper had publicly criticized the Canadian media for being too hard on the Liberal prime minister. Other Canwest columnists who wrote anti-Chrétien articles were let go. While the Aspers insisted they were exercising their right as proprietors, journalists at their papers quickly got the message that dissent would be met with dismissal.
"The Aspers have put a chill on debate," says Steve Anderson, national coordinator for the Campaign For Democratic Media. "And because they control so much of the media industry, it limits what information we have available to us. Canwest has pushed Canada's media system to the edge."
As columnists and reporters got dropped, Canwest journalists now self-censor in order to survive. A number of reporters at the Vancouver Sun have privately admitted that the newsroom has become an abusive environment and are too scared to speak out. An unprecedented number have become so despondent they have gone on stress leave. And because the Aspers have such a tight grip on Vancouver's mediascape, journalists have little option but to keep quiet and wait for retirement.
By the time Izzy Asper died in 2003, Leonard Asper had not only inherited his father's leadership, but also his bellicosity. Although Canwest papers would get caught switching mention of Middle East "militants" in Reuters newswire to "terrorists," Leonard accused most of the Canadian media of being biased against Israel. While National Post journalists would defended their right to alter Reuters articles, Asper ripped into Neil Macdonald, a foreign correspondent for the Canadian Broadcast Corporation who regularly reports on the misery caused by Israeli military strikes, by implying the reporter was anti-Semitic.
"I expect more bullying, more bombast, more ideological, anti-journalistic nonsense," responded Macdonald in a 2003 Globe and Mail article. "I used to work for the newspapers they now own. Several of my ex-colleagues, still there, tell me they find the Aspers' approach to journalism an embarrassment. But they cannot speak publicly. Thank heavens I can."
Last January, Canwest continued its combative war when it launched a lawsuit against the The Tyee, an online magazine, for running an article lamenting the loss of two political cartoonists from Canwest's other Vancouver daily paper, the Province. Canwest is now suing the magazine and the writer for libel. However, the lawsuit appears to have less to do with setting the record straight than it does about quashing rivals. The article was written by longtime Asper foe Rafe Mair and The Tyee is run by a former Vancouver Sun editor-turned-critic, David Beers.
But after eight years of torment, it appears as though the Aspers' domineering days may be in trouble. Having already sold off a number of its holdings, Canwest is still saddled with $2.6 billion in debt and is hemorrhaging profits as television and print advertising revenue rapidly migrates to the internet. After purchasing specialty network Alliance Atlantis for $2.3 billion, Canwest cut 200 television jobs last year and offered buyouts to dozens of print reporters, while threatening further layoffs. The axe wielding has not only crippled current journalists, but demoralized an entire generation of young reporters. John Miller, a professor of journalism at Ryerson University, says students who interned at the Edmonton Journal last year came back disillusioned with the profession because of the amount of bitterness in the newsroom.
For young reporters, there isn't much reprieve in journalism schools either, with many students complaining that the schools have become factories for the mainstream media. With government funding drying up, universities and colleges have had to turn to corporations for financial support, giving companies like Canwest – which donated $500,000 to the University of British Columbia's school of journalism – direct influence over the country's education system. Now students must come to terms with Canwest's questionable ethics in the classroom before they even get to the newsroom.
If they ever do make it to a Canwest newsroom, young journalists will find empty desks and depressed reporters. They will work for thinned newspapers and sparse television stations that endorse right-wing policies and do little community coverage. In short, they will work for a corporation that cares more about profits than the public interest.
For the past decade, the Aspers have pursued an aggressive neo-conservative agenda and silenced, purged and intimidated their critics into submission. Canwest has put a black mark on journalism and has been a destructive force to Canadian democracy. Until this bully is cut down to size, it will continue to run roughshod over the country's media. It's time for the Canadian public to stand up and reclaim the integrity of its public discourse.