Conflict of Self-interest
During the fractious strike at the Calgary Herald, there were two legitimate opposing views. But you wouldn't have known it by reading the National Post
There was a press package waiting for reporters when they walked into the small, well-lit conference room. Dated December 17, 1999, it contained a press release titled: “CLC’s Ken Georgetti Launches Boycott of Conrad Black’s National Post in Support of Calgary Herald Strikers.” The package also included a three-page backgrounder on the strike, which reporters could scan while they waited for speeches by Georgetti, Maude Barlow, union executives and two Herald employees transported from the picket lines. That, or they could wander the mezzanine level of Toronto’s posh Royal York Hotel, where the press conference was being held.
As all the reporters knew, Black owned both the Post and Herald at the time, along with a string of other Canadian dailies. The Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) backgrounder covered the basics of the strike, which had officially begun November 8, 1999, and involved more than 200 newsroom staff and press workers. The newly unionized journalists, represented by the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union (CEP), were trying to negotiate a first contract. Top of the agenda was a “first-in, last-out” seniority clause. As striker Laura Shutiak later explained it, the seniority clause was supposed to protect reporters from being fired for writing stories that contradicted their employer’s business or political interests. Former CBC journalist and Ryerson ethics professor Peter Desbarats wrote in The Globe and Mail that he could not support a clause that elevated seniority over talent and personal drive. And Herald management steadfastly refused to negotiate on the issue.
Now the CLC and the Council of Canadians, represented by Georgetti and Barlow, were announcing a boycott of the Post to take a stab at what they said was the source of the problem. “Black is personally involved in directing the campaign to defeat union organization and to reshape the Southam chain to meet his profit goals,” read the backgrounder. It laid out other reasons for targetting Hollinger’s flagship paper-theHerald‘s profits were “critical to the survival of the Post” and Hollinger had hired “strikebreakers” to run theHerald during the strike.
The Post‘s slim coverage of the dispute had begun to pick up shortly before the press conference. In late November, Financial Post editor-in-chief Terence Corcoran argued in a column that the Herald dispute was being hijacked by a left-wing agenda. A few weeks later, two more columnists argued against the strike, and a feature article spanning two full pages essentially concluded the strike could not-and should not-succeed. The negative tone of the coverage led some people to conclude the paper wanted to send a message to the strikers. “The National Post‘s interest in trying to portray the strike from the beginning as a hopeless cause was obvious, in terms of trying to run down the morale of the strikers,” says Jim Stanford, a Canadian Auto Workers economist and former Post columnist.
In the Royal York conference room, a CBC camera crew was set up to film clips for a documentary about the strike, which would air in January. Post reporter Christie Blatchford sat down in the second row of chairs, slightly right of centre. Sue Craig, the Globe‘s media reporter and a one-time Herald intern, sat nearby. Blatchford wasn’t assigned to cover the story and she wasn’t even sure if she would bring back a column. “I went because I was curious, because it was something that was happening in my business. I know a few people at the Herald , so I wanted to see what was going on,” she says. She also remembers feeling a little offended that people were boycotting the paper she takes considerable pride in, but says her mind was open to whatever they had to say.
CEP executive Gail Lem spoke first, followed by Georgetti, Barlow, a press worker named John Webster and, finally, Herald journalist Susan Scott. Dressed in a grey pantsuit and looking small next to Webster, Scott did her best to explain the strikers’ desire for a seniority clause, which in part she characterized as being about “the very notion of what it is to be a journalist.”
Blatchford had her angle. In her front-page column titled “Newsroom Is No Place for Forced Respect,” which ran the next day, she argued that journalists can’t rely on a union to ensure their ability to produce independent copy. That depends on “the courage and bloody-mindedness” of reporters and editors who stand up to their newspaper’s publisher. She recalled how, at another paper where she had once worked, the protection of union seniority seemed to breed sloppy reporting. And she wrote fondly about her time at the nonunionized Toronto Sun , where a benevolent publisher lavished rewards on hardworking reporters.
Blatchford wrote it the way she saw it. Trouble was, from the strikers’ point of view, what Blatchford thought just reinforced the message that was consistently reflected in the Post . Whether communicated via an opinion column or a news article that gave ample quote coverage to management, but minimized the strikers’ voice, the same ideas came through. The strike was ill-conceived and the journalists were being misled by the union.
Hardly surprisingly, the issue of newspaper bias is strongly refuted by the Post. “What you’re saying is, did Conrad Black tell us to try and direct our coverage against the Calgary Herald? No, of course he did not.”Post deputy editor Martin Newland is downright cheery on a windy morning in early January, more than a year after the CLC press conference. He jokes about being “libelled” in the Globe that same morning by columnist Allan Fotheringham, who referred to “the Brit who runs the Pest newsroom.” Newland groans when he hears this story is about his paper’s coverage of the Herald strike-“Not that again!”-but he is patient with questions. Does the Post have a policy for covering a strike at other Southam newspapers? “No. You treat it like any other story, on its merits as a story.” Newland doesn’t think his paper gave the strike that much attention. “What you’re asking from me, from a neutral journalist, is sort of a political appraisal or defence of our coverage. I don’t think there was much coverage to defend.”
He’s right. An admittedly unscientific database search turned up 19 news articles written by Post reporters that directly addressed or mentioned the strike during its eight-month duration. The Post also ran four stories picked up from the Southam News wire service or Canadian Press, one editorial that mentioned the strike, and nine opinion columns. “If you look really closely at all the coverage, I think we gave more opinion and commentary to this one than actual news coverage,” says Financial Post senior writer David Olive.
But that commentary almost uniformly rejected the strike. After Corcoran’s November piece, there were two columns written by Herald writers who had crossed the picket line. Sydney Sharpe’s column, “Proud to Be aHerald Scab,” described the harassment she endured while passing strikers on her way to work. Sharpe said she could not support a union when it “assault[ed] the very foundation of democracy-free speech.” Her colleague Don Martin explained his decision to return to work after five weeks and expressed his mistrust of a “B.C.-based [union] agenda, whatever it is.”
Other writers who weighed in included media columnist and former Saturday Night editor John Fraser and crusty Alberta Report founder Ted Byfield. Fraser used the strike as a jumping-off point to suggest that most unions’ focus on seniority was outdated. Byfield argued that Herald reporters were just upset because, since a conservative new publisher had taken over their paper, they were no longer able to insert the particular bias they preferred.
One of the last Post columns that mentioned the strike was written by national reporter Luiza Chwialkowska. She’d been shut out of a National Action Committee on the Status of Women meeting because NAC was supporting the Post boycott. She questioned the organization’s support for a union that wanted a seniority clause, which, she wrote, is “a good way to protect the jobs of middle-aged men from competition from, say, young female journalists like me.”
If the majority of columns took issue with the strike-or, as in the case of Fraser’s and Chwialkowska’s, a major tenet of the strikers’ requests-that’s fair enough. They were, after all, opinion columns. “I don’t think one would say there is an obligation to provide balance in the opinion pages, ” Peter Desbarats says. “If the paper wants to have those slanted way over to one side, the publisher can do that. It’s his paper.” Although the Post has sometimes given significant voice to a striker’s perspective (the columns written by a striking technician during the 1999 CBC labour dispute are one example), the paper does not, editorially speaking, often take the side of the labour movement. “What they did in the comment pages is fine,” maintains strike leader Andy Marshall, but, as far as he’s concerned, the Post “instituted anti-union propaganda in the news pages.”
It’s a strong charge, one that was echoed in Jim Stanford’s final column in the Post, a column that carries the distinction of being the only opinion piece that supported the strike. Stanford had been contributing a monthly column to the Financial Post‘s Counterpoint section for six months-“a little spot in there for the left-wing view, if you like.” Knowing the upcoming CLC boycott would force him to stop writing, he took on what he saw as a blatant example of the Post mixing an agenda with news reporting. The object of his ire was a two-page feature called “Picketing the Velvet Coffin,” by Edmonton Journal reporter Ric Dolphin. “The goal [of Dolphin’s article] is to portray the workers’ cause as fundamentally hopeless, hence undercutting the staying power of the strikers and their supporters,” Stanford wrote. “Try to fight us, the article proclaims, and you will end up like this picketer [shown in a photo above the article]: your face in the pavement, blood trickling from your head.”
Dolphin’s article offered an analysis of the strike’s deeper causes, an analysis he admits was somewhat influenced by a lengthy Globe feature that seemed to favour the strikers. The Herald was a liberal paper in a conservative town, he wrote, and its reporters were a coddled bunch, the sort who had earned the nickname “Velvet Coffin” for their newsroom. Trouble arrived when an energetic new publisher decided reporters should be more productive and the Herald should better represent its community. “The [strike] action comes as a result of a radical effort by management to transform what many had seen as a tired, dull and politically irrelevant paper into something else,” he wrote. Nervous reporters turned to the CEP, a union that represents Vancouver newspapers; according to one Dolphin source, union interference at those papers made publishing them as hard as “carrying a dead horse up the stairs.” Despite Southam’s conciliatory efforts, there was a successful union drive and eventually the Herald went on strike.
It was a powerful piece. One former Herald intern agrees with Dolphin’s suggestion that the newsroom was less than aggressive. And, despite being in Canada for only a few years, Newland says he’d already heard the Herald referred to as the “Velvet Coffin” a few times by Post reporters and editors before the strike began. But, like Stanford, there were those who thought Dolphin’s coverage was unfair and, in certain instances, inaccurate. Strike leader Andy Marshall says he did not expect the Post to run overly favourable coverage, but he was “horrified” by the Dolphin piece. Sean Myers, a Herald reporter who returned to work after a month on strike, sees it as “a blatant attempt to provoke the union people. Even people inside theHerald were looking at it and shaking their heads and saying ‘Oh wow.'” Former Herald publisher Kevin Peterson says he received calls from concerned Post reporters shortly after the article was published. One reporter “certainly left the impression that the National Post journalists who were aware of the Herald that Dolphin was describing were very disappointed with the piece and found it to be equally inaccurate.”
“One expects that sort of criticism,” says Dolphin, who once worked for the Alberta Report and was familiar with the Herald during the era he described. “Generally speaking, I think I was pretty well in agreement with the company position.” However, he concedes there were things going on at the Herald that, had they happened at the Journal , “we would have been upset.”
Dolphin’s feature was not the only news coverage that gave more space to the perspective of the Herald‘s owner and managers. On December 18, 1999, an article titled “Boycott of Post Doomed, Black says: Council of Canadians, CLC Behind Move” ran with several paragraphs’ worth of quotations from Conrad Black explaining his response to the strike. The article contained one unattributed quote from “leaders” of the CLC and Council of Canadians, along with a paragraph explaining the purpose of the boycott. On February 8, 2000, an article titled “Hollinger to Sue MP for Defamation” detailed a Hollinger lawsuit alleging that an NDP politician had spread false information about the company in a press release. Close to the end of the story, Black said he thought the press release was prompted by NDP anger over the prolonged Heraldstrike. The statement was followed by five paragraphs of Black critiquing the union’s goals-in effect, tacked onto an article that was about an entirely different topic.
On April 4, a different Post reporter wrote an article that essentially responded to criticisms of Black lobbed by Calgary’s Bishop Frederick Henry in the Catholic Register. In his letter, later reprinted in the Globe, Henry said Black misunderstood the church’s social teachings, which the bishop said encouraged union organization. A few paragraphs into the Post‘s story, the writer launched into information about the benefits of working at the Herald , including “$60,000 a year [salaries]…free fitness centre, subsidized day care and…35-hour week.”
The Post picked up yet another article, which had originally run in the Herald on March 3. It was headed “Herald Improved Since Strike: Black.” The story detailed a heated confrontation between Black and strike leader Marshall in Calgary; in it, Black accused the union of running “a campaign of lies.” Again, Black’s lengthy statements outnumbered the one-word quotes from Marshall.
Newland says the Post cannot be blamed for a shortage of quotes from strikers, since people on the union side often refused to speak with his reporters. “You can’t set up rules where nobody is to talk to the evilNational Post, and then we get bashed on the heads for not talking to them.” But what about the articles with lengthy explanations from the Herald owner’s perspective? “I think it was a complicated issue and it probably takes 24 paragraphs to explain it.”
Newland does admit the story was a bit of a political minefield for the Post, but not in the sense that the paper’s left-leaning critics might suspect. “The Globe sort of ran these amazingly aggressive stories which called into question, either directly or indirectly, Black being the agent of evil,” he says. “They slotted these stories really aggressively on the front or page two. We weren’t irritated with the Calgary Herald, we were irritated with The Globe and Mail for elevating this to the status of the Third World War. I think a lot of our response to it may have been to expose that, rather than to the strike itself.” Ric Dolphin supports that idea, saying his “Velvet Coffin” story was prompted by conversations with Post editors about the Globe ‘s overcoverage. “We thought we should be doing our own version of the story,” says Dolphin with a laugh.
Anyone who followed stories about the strike in both national papers will have noted that the Globe covered the strike more than enthusiastically. “The Globe and Mail gave that strike more coverage and more favourable coverage than any other labour dispute in history,” jokes Jim Stanford. “Their motivations were blatantly obvious.” The Globe ran more than 40 news stories and 12 opinion columns, in contrast to the 23 articles and nine opinion columns in the Post. In the Globe, every aspect of the strike was dissected for readers; topics included the improper business license of the security company brought in by the Herald to monitor the picket line and the suspicion that Black was using the strike to intimidate labour organizers at other papers. Not every article ran with a quote from Southam or Herald management.
Sue Craig, who wrote most of the Globe‘s stories about the strike, says she produced so many pieces simply because she was enthusiastic about her first major assignment on the media beat. “I was kind of keen and I think I maybe did too much. If I did something, they would run it. It’s sort of like a snowball; once it starts rolling, I can’t not cover it.” Craig laughs at the suggestion that the newspaper war influenced her writing. “It’s not like [Globe publisher] Phillip Crawley was sitting there and yelling at me to cover it-he didn’t care. But it was an important story. Every journalist in the country was watching it.”
Though former Globe labour reporter and one-time Southern Ontario Newspaper Guild employee Lorne Slotnick has a hunch the Globe‘s motivations were not as pure as Craig maintains, he says the Postdefinitely exhibited a bias. “This was a strike that the corporate owners of the National Post had a vested interest in. This Post coverage was more or less not out of the ordinary [for] coverage that a paper gives to its own labour relations. The coverage becomes not so much journalism anymore, but propaganda.” He emphasizes, “This is not a new story. There’ve been strikes at lots of papers. Invariably the coverage has been markedly different from what you would expect of independent journalism.”
When Slotnick worked at the Globe, he witnessed a managing editor order a reporter to remove all union quotes from a story during contract negotiations between the paper and its reporters. He concedes it was an extreme example. “That probably doesn’t happen as much as people simply get a message that certain stories will play well or are wanted by the people above them.” Senior Financial Post writer David Olive tends to agree. Speaking generally about the culture of the various newsrooms he has been in, he says editors sometimes create a proxy pressure when reporters cover the paper’s owner. “You know the famous scene inCitizen Kane , where Kane demands that his newspapers give extensive coverage of his wife’s operatic performances? Never. It doesn’t happen. What does happen is editors down the line feel this should be done, that the owner’s will-as they perceive it-should be done.”
The Post‘s Martin Newland says if anyone felt pressure to write a story about the Herald strike in a certain way, it was not because of an enforced party line. “There was no real sense that anyone was under any constraints in reporting it, or that there was any line delivered from above to report it.”
The Herald strike has become, in a sense, old news. The journalists voted to end the strike on June 30, 2000. Only a few reporters returned to the newsroom; many took a buyout package. What became far more newsworthy were reports of Hollinger selling the Herald, along with most of its Canadian dailies and 50 per cent of the Post , to CanWest Global Communications. Lorne Slotnick thinks the Hollinger sale changed the way the history books will present the strike. “Its importance, in retrospect, was kind of fleeting. It seemed Black was sending a message about what was going to happen and what was not going to happen in his papers. Well, it doesn’t really matter anymore.”
But Slotnick says there is an important angle to be considered: the combination of an old issue-newspapers putting a slant on the owner’s business interests- with a new story: the purchase of newspapers by huge media corporations. It is a potentially troublesome situation, he says, in which “we have newspapers that are part of conglomerates with, say, sports teams or television networks or telephone companies. Here is an example,” he says, “of what newspapers do when they have a stake in the story. What does that say in an era of this new buzzword ‘convergence’?”
David Olive agrees convergence could further complicate the issue of a newspaper reporting on its owner. “Now it would be difficult for reporters at The Globe and Mail to take on the task of reporting objectively about BCE and its concerns, or CTV or Sympatico. I think it would be difficult to objectively review the programs offered by the CTV network, just as it would be difficult to review the programs offered by Global TV at the National Post and other newspapers in the Hollinger group acquired by Izzy Asper.”
Olive thinks that in this climate reporters and editors might possibly “bend over backwards to be more than objective,” determined to show that they “are not being biased or being prevented from being honest about siblings.”
Peter Desbarats, on the other hand, doesn’t put much stock in that kind of optimism. “When a paper is writing about itself, its own business activities or its own labour activities, it, in principle, has an obligation to be as fair and accurate as possible. In practice, that almost never happens.”
Emily Claire Afan was the Production Editor for the Spring 2006 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.