lightly more than a year ago, Conrad Black accepted an invitation to speak to a group in Toronto about the newspaper he planned to publish, which (rumour had it) was going to be called the National Post.
Among other things, Mr. Black revealed himself to be a strong federalist – and one who believed Canada was made a better place by its desire to accommodate what he called "the French fact." Along with his well-documented love of the English language, he also demonstrated that he possesses an intimidating knowledge of history – and Canadian history, in particular.
When he turned his attention to the subject of newspapers, Mr. Black was blunt. Too much of what Canadian journalists and editors offer up to their readers reflected an inappropriate bias, he said: namely, a "mushy" leftist bias. An antidote to this would be provided by his then-unnamed National Post, he suggested, which would be unashamedly conservative. And, presumably, not mushy.
There is nothing wrong with publishing in a conservative newspaper, of course, just as there is nothing inappropriate in publishing a liberal newspaper. For the entirety of its existence, Canada has been home to publications which possessed a discernible bias in editorials and opinion columns. George Brown, the acclaimed editor of the Globe, even put off a political career because he said he was "better employed here, firing away in the Globe."
So, if Mr. Black is content with hiring columnists who are, almost without exception, hardcore conservatives, that is entirely his business. If, for example, he wishes to provide employment to a witty young man who was once a senior advisor to the leader of the Reform Party – to pen editorials about politics, no less – that is also perfectly fine. As long as they do not libel anyone, or promote genocide against identifiable groups, newspaper columnists and editorialists enjoy constitutional protection to say pretty much whatever they want. The more outrageous, the better (it sells papers, bien sur).
But what happens when a journalist or an editor – understandably eager to hold onto a regular pay cheque, as meagre as it may be – sniffs the prevailing newsroom winds, and decides to quietly boost the fortunes of his employer's political pony of the moment? Should straight news coverage reflect such a bias? Is that cricket?
These questions are not posed in the abstract. In Ottawa's corridors of power, these days, the prevailing consensus – among Liberals, among Progressive Conservatives, among New Democrats -– is that the news pages of the National Post are brimming with bias. In fact, one or two cabinet ministers have privately remarked that the Post has apparently assigned itself the role of Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition – having decided for itself that Preston Manning et al. are unfit for that designation (which is certainly true, but is a discussion best kept for another day).
It is not merely Grits, Tories and New Democrats who feel this way. Even excited Reformers, in unguarded moments, admit to it. On the occasion of Mr. Black assuming control of the Southam news chain, one-time Reform MP Stephen Harper, and the party's ex-research director, Tom Flanagan, co-authored an essay in The Next City. In it, the pair opined that Southam newspapers were "monolithically liberal and feminist under previous management," but would soon change their mushy ways, owing to an expected "strong representation of conservative voices."
Were the prognostications of Messrs. Harper and Flanagan correct? Let us glance at few recent examples taken from the news pages of the National Post:
The economy: The Post favours tax cuts. Lots of them. And so, having happened upon a wish list prepared by a minor functionary, the newspaper's October 30 headline screamed that "Liberals plan $47 billion spending spree" – thereby placing "substantial tax cuts at risk." The fact that the central premise of the story was false – and the fact that the phrase "spending spree" is not exactly judgment-neutral – did not apparently matter. On November 3, another story about taxes saw the Prime Minister being described as "silly," "stupid" and "ridiculous" – all in the opening paragraph! – for having the temerity to suggest that quality of life is not entirely measured in marginal tax rates. The Post's scrupulously neutral sources? The Canadian Taxpayers Federation, and the Fraser Institute, of course. More of the same is found, on November 23, in another front page headline, wherein we are informed that Mr. Chretien is the "obstacle to [a] new economy," whatever that is. "The foundations of the economy are crumbling,' and we will "suffer serious long-term damage," the story states. The source of these claims? Well, er, we don't know. The reader is not given a name. Not one.
Politics: The Prime Minister, and the party he leads, are popular. Very popular. The latest opinion poll, published a few weeks ago, gives the Liberal leader a 56 per cent approval rating. Among Liberal voters - and there have been enough of those, in 1993 and 1997, to hand Mr. Chretien healthy Parliamentary majorities - 79 per cent approved of the Prime Minister's performance. In three out of four recent by-elections, the Prime Minister's candidates won handily (in one case with 92 per cent of the vote, a historically-high level). In the Post's resulting November 16 headline, however, we are warned: "All is not as it appears for Liberals." Quoth the reporter: "The picture that emerges from the by-elections, especially when the traditional low voter turnout is factored in, is not one of a perpetually satisfied Canadian electorate despite what the Liberals will say." No source. No facts. Just a prediction that some deranged Grit, sometime, somewhere, will proclaim that the electorate is "perpetually satisfied." Tsk tsk.
Shawinigan: The Post, as pretty much everyone should know by now, is determined to transform this inoffensive Quebec town into something synonymous with the Watergate apartment complex. For weeks – nay, months – Post reporter Andrew McIntosh (whose employer Mr. Black, by the way, is suing the Prime Minister for denying him a lifetime barony) has been a veritable journalistic St. George, charging out to slay the twin-headed dragon of prime ministerial perfidy and misdeeds. To Mr. McIntosh's frustration, no doubt, neither the Canadian public (see poll numbers, above) nor competing newspapers (who generally decline to notice his stories) give a sweet damn. But the Post is undeterred. In one noteworthy October 15 dispatch, Mr. McIntosh informs us that the Prime Minister sold off his shares in a golf course "in a bid to quell months of controversy" – because, in the absence of actual words, Mr. McIntosh apparently can read the Prime Minister's thoughts. The Prime Minister has been "rebuked" by "conflict-of-interest scholars" for all of this – although we are not told about who, precisely, did the rebuking, or what are the Post's criteria for conflict-of-interest scholarship. No matter. In a story that gave over a dozen paragraphs to assorted partisan critics, the Prime Minister was permitted a single quote to offer his side of the story.
And so on and so on – with the APEC "scandal," with the Nisga'a agreement, with immigration, with virtually any other subject within federal jurisdiction – there is, arguably, the faintest whiff of partisanship emanating from the news pages of the National Post.
Down at the offices of Mr. Black's Hollinger Inc., however, I rather suspect no one much cares about any of this. It was Hollinger, after all, that gave the Reform Party a $11,000 donation in 1995 – and it was Hollinger that provided nary a red cent to any other political party.
As Mr. McIntosh might say, in another context: follow the money.