The Loyal Stenographer
Murdoch Davis has been criticized for his role in pumping out Izzy's Asper-torials. Let the critics carp, says Davis. A portrait of a company man
Murdoch Davis is a company man. As he’d be the first to tell you, the paycheque buys his loyalty. It buys his opinions, his arguments, and his towering indignation. That dedication has elevated him to the top of the country’s biggest daily newspaper chain. From his office, high in the 33-storey Toronto-Dominion Building, the tallest in Winnipeg, he can see eastward over downtown factory tops to the fork of the Assinaboine and Red rivers. The 31st, 32nd, and 33rd floors of the building hold the company’s luxurious headquarters, the hub of a media conglomerate that, by its own estimation, owns Canada’s leading national television network and the leading newspaper in most of the country’s major cities.
CanWest Global Communications?more specifically, the company’s newspaper operations, of which he’s editor-in-chief?defines Murdoch Davis. He implements the company’s policies and defends its decisions. “If you take the cheque,” he says, “you have to loyally perform the duties.” Even if the decisions involve policies that are anathema to journalists worldwide. Even if they mean being disparaged as the CanWest poster boy or the Aspers’ loyal stenographer.
The Aspers, who own CanWest Global, surround Davis at the top of the TD tower. Izzy, the patriarch and putatively retired chairman, and Leonard, the CEO and president, are one floor up. David, the bumptious brother, is just down the hall. It’s almost impossible not to run into one of them in the hallway. But that’s not unnerving for Davis. “Murdoch,” says Neil Macdonald, the CBC’s Middle East correspondent who has known Davis since 1978, “is part of the system.”
Some system. CanWest Global’s holdings include 13 daily newspapers, the most prominent of which is theNational Post, and 17 weeklies; its Global Television Network, by its own reckoning, reaches 94 percent of English-speaking Canada. Half its dailies are among the country’s 10 biggest, and in most urban markets there’s a CanWest newspaper and a CanWest TV station. In British Columbia alone, the company owns the three biggest dailies and three TV stations. Now that’s reach, but it doesn’t come close to exceeding the Aspers’ grasp: their ambition is to crack the top five media companies in the world, to be right up there with News Corporation’s Rupert Murdoch in power and influence. First Canada, though.
“We have a special opportunity in advancing Canada’s destiny,” Israel Asper told the company’s annual general meeting in January. “We reach millions of Canadians every day of the week, and we must use that reach, that entr?e into the homes and consciousness of our fellow Canadians, to constantly express the restlessness, the challenge, the yearning and the drive to make it better. And we must communicate thoughts, opinions, views and comment on who and what can make it better.”
But just whose thoughts, opinions, views, and comment would CanWest communicate? The Aspers’, of course. This is what troubled?and, in some cases, horrified?so many journalists in December 2001 when CanWest launched its national editorial program. The editorials, which would establish the Aspers’ “core positions” on some of the most important issues of the day, were to be written or assigned from Winnipeg and were to appear in all their major papers. No unsigned local editorials dissenting from these core positions were allowed. The first Aspertorial, written by Murdoch Davis, trumpeted tax breaks for charitable foundations. Since the Aspers operate one of the largest such foundations in the country, the editorial seemed to advance the family’s destiny a bit more than Canada’s. “It’s a blatant and very worrisome effort to pressure the government into furthering a corporate goal,” John Miller, director of the newspaper journalism program at Ryerson University, said. “It’s lamentable that the Aspers are using their papers for this purpose.”
The potted editorials, which still occasionally run in member papers, declaimed on everything from health care to terrorism. “Companion to the mindless chant of non-violence is the idea that we should negotiate our way to safety. This is?nonsense,” Davis wrote, in support of hunting down terrorists post-September 11, 2001. Amid this barrage of rhetoric, three core positions stood out: Prime Minister Jean Chr?tien (from whose government regulators all broadcast blessings flow) was above criticism; business (from which all other blessings flow) was above reproach; and the state of Israel (over which Izzy Asper obsessed) could do no wrong.
Response to the editorials from journalists and media observers was fast and furious. They epitomized the worst abuses of media concentration. They defied the ethics of diversity and dissent. They were intolerant of the regional differences in Canada. They undermined the need for local autonomy on which the integrity and credibility of local papers stand.
“The Aspers’ mandatory editorial policy damages their own reputations, hurts journalism in general, cheats the public of divergent views and undermines Canada. But the Aspers don’t seem to care. And that’s the pity,” protested Peter Worthington in his syndicated column, which was quickly dropped from The Windsor Star, an Asper paper. Canada’s “outstanding reputation for freedom of the press had been badly damaged,” said the Vienna-based International Press Institute. The International Federation of Journalists accused CanWest of censorship: “Journalists within the group are rightly concerned that their newspapers?are being molded into a single voice for the company’s national corporate agenda.”
In the thousands of column inches chewed up by protesting journalists, one insight recurred: the Aspers just didn’t get it. They were TV people who understood dumping American programs onto Canadian airwaves for big profit. They knew nothing of newspaper traditions and the public-service role of the press beyond the bottom line. The Canadian Association of Journalists and the Quebec Federation of Professional Journalists censured the Aspers for their overriding corporate self-interest.
Murdoch Davis’s scorn for the protesting journalists was almost palpable. He kissed off most of the outcry as Central Canadian packthink. “Some of the reaction,” he said, “was precipitated because this was a new company run by western Canadian Jews.” He jumped to his company’s defence with blistering op-ed pieces and letters to the editor, accusing the critics of lazy, incompetent, inaccurate journalism. “I saw the pack in action and the group-think,” he says, his indignation soaring. “I saw several demonstrations of how quickly and easily inaccuracies get picked up and repeated. I saw people who were willing to be disdainful of truth because they felt what mattered was their opinion.”
Peter Worthington’s “disdain for truth,” it turned out, lay in a couple of factual errors, the kind of goofs that newspapers apologize for every day. Worthington was wrong, for example, when he claimed that the Aspers owned 60 percent of Canadian media. A sloppy mistake, but hardly enough, as Davis insisted, to wash out the opinions of a respected reporter, foreign correspondent, editor-in-chief, and award-winning columnist who has spent 40 years in the business.
In 2000, when CanWest purchased the old Southam chain from Conrad Black’s Hollinger International Inc. for $3.2 billion, the Aspers promised the papers would remain relentlessly local and fiercely independent. “CanWest understands the success of our newspapers is due largely to their ability, in their editorial policies, to mirror the interests and values of their local readers,” they declared in a written submission to a House of Commons committee in September. But with the introduction of the national editorials, those interests and values started to give way to the Aspers’ interests and values.
Worry spread through CanWest newsrooms across the country. Those who tried to speak out were quickly silenced. Their stories were modified, their columns altered to suit the Aspers’ views. Pieces were spiked, political cartoons yanked. Reporters were admonished when their copy didn’t comply with the company line. It was clear to the news staffs that the mandatory editorials were the first move in a plan to control editorial content throughout the chain?but there was little they could do about it. When Stephen Kimber, the respected head of the University of King’s College Journalism School, knocked the Aspers in a column for the Halifax Daily News, a CanWest paper at the time, his piece was killed. Murdoch Davis said it was a local decision. But the Daily News‘ managing editor, Bill Turpin, who made the call, said he phoned Davis beforehand for advice: should he let the column run? Not unless you’re looking for a hill to die on, Davis replied. Turpin later quit. So did Kimber.
The loudest dissent came from The Gazette in Montreal, where staffers withheld their bylines for two days in a long-established form of protest. Seventy-seven of them signed an open letter in The Globe and Mail andLa Presse decrying CanWest policies. Head office issued an internal memo reminding employees about the company’s expectations of proper conduct, that “case law supports sanctions, including suspension or termination, against those who persist in disregarding their obligations to the employer after warning.” In effect, a gag order that muzzled and outraged reporters. “We’re not allowed to speak out, we’re not allowed to talk about what’s going on inside the paper,” says Sue Montgomery, a Gazette columnist and one of the signatories. “My fear is that we’re losing credibility because of interference from Winnipeg.”
Indeed, that interference no longer needed to be direct. Nobody had to tell anyone at the Aspers’ Regina Leader-Post how to handle a speech that Haroon Siddiqui, the Toronto Star‘s editorial page editor emeritus, gave to the University of Regina’s journalism school last March. Siddiqui, as usual, slammed CanWest policies, yet the story that ran the next day, which had been rewritten by the desk, made him sound like an Asper apologist.
Though he didn’t order the whitewash, Davis approved of it. “All I will say is that Haroon said several things in his speech that were simply factually incorrect. The lead repeated a few of them and there wasn’t sufficient challenging of what facts he had at hand.”
Here’s the original lead, written by reporter Michelle Lang:
“CanWest Global performed ‘chilling’ acts of censorship when it refused to publish several columns containing viewpoints other than those held by the media empire, a TorontoStar columnist said Monday.”
Here’s the rewritten lead:
“A TorontoStar columnist says it’s OK for CanWest Global to publish its owners’ views as long as the company is prepared to give equal play to opposing opinions.”
Lang pulled her byline and was suspended for a week without pay. Yet where are these incorrect facts that Davis said her lead repeated? There were only two facts in her lead?that CanWest had killed columns that contained viewpoints other than those held by the company and that a Toronto Star columnist made the statement?and both are irrefutable. The rest is Siddiqui’s opinion. It goes without saying that the rewritten lead reflects neither the tone nor the content of Siddiqui’s speech. Yet Davis staunchly maintains that he’s seen no evidence of the Aspers’ viewpoints affecting editorial content. “If they’re still insisting that somehow the editorials went beyond just being editorials on the editorial page and started affecting the rest of the papers,” he says, “I just don’t agree and I don’t accept that.”
Davis doesn’t want to hear about sticky ethical points. Company loyalty comes first. By withholding their bylines, reporters “certainly behaved unlike journalists,” he says. “I know the proprietors were surprised by what seemed to them an act of blatant disloyalty.”
Davis isn’t much given to understatement, but that one’s a classic. “If those people in Montreal are so committed, why don’t they just quit and have the courage of their convictions?” said David Asper in a speech in Oakville, Ontario. “Maybe they should go out and, for the first time in their lives, take a risk, put their money where their mouth is, and start their own newspaper?”
Davis delivered much the same message in December 2001, when he visited the Gazette newsroom in an attempt to justify the national editorials. “He wasn’t threatening; he was just not giving any ground at all, and clearly he wasn’t interested in what anybody had to say,” Bill Marsden, an investigative reporter, says. “This was the way it was, and if you didn’t like it, go.” Like most of CanWest’s rank and file, Marsden is reluctant to talk about what’s going on inside the company. They’ve seen heads roll and they’re now in the compromising position of trying to do their jobs well and, at the same time, hold on to them. “It’s pretty sad that people who dedicate their lives to giving out information and seeking the truth are actually afraid to talk about their own newspapers,” Marsden says. “Now you’ve got all these journalists out there who don’t want to talk about things because they’re afraid for their careers. Isn’t that pathetic?”
The most prominent head to roll was that of Russ Mills, the publisher of the Ottawa Citizen, who was fired by the Aspers for letting his paper run an editorial demanding the resignation of their friend Jean Chr?tien over the Shawinigate scandal. In an interview with the Citizen, Leonard Asper at first said Mills was sacked because he violated “basic principles of journalism.” He later said that Mills should have consulted Winnipeg before allowing such a “major national policy statement” to run. Mills, like Murdoch Davis, was a good company man, but for the wrong company. He’d been in the Southam organization for 30 years before Conrad Black and then the Aspers took over. He was used to the local autonomy the Southams were famous for. Even though Mills was a good executive, he’d crossed a core Asper taboo and now all he had to look forward to was a large settlement. “There must have been a sinking feeling in the pit of every journalist employed by the Aspers,” wrote Peter Worthington in The Toronto Sun. “The message in Mills’s firing is clear: no one in the empire is safe.”
At 49, Murdoch Davis may be looking down from the executive suite in a Winnipeg tower, but for 27 years his home was in the newsrooms of the Southam chain. He is, by all accounts, a first-rate newspaperman. “He’s one of the best I’ve ever worked with,” says his old Citizen colleague, Neil Macdonald. “He’s razor-sharp and you can get absolutely nothing past him.” His company-man philosophy and his indefatigable hard work took Davis quickly to the top: he has spent 20 years in the upper echelons of the Ottawa Citizen,Edmonton Journal and Victoria Times-Colonist. Though he works for the Aspers now, his philosophy hasn’t changed. “As an employee and manager of the company, I support the company’s policies 100 percent,” he says. “That’s my job and I do it to the best of my ability. If there’s ever a policy I feel I can’t support and I can’t change, then I guess I’ll go and get a different job.” After almost three decades in harness, it’s likely, to say the least, that Davis will be staying put.
As a kid, though, he did anything but. He was born, the fourth of eight children, in the mining town of New Waterford, Nova Scotia, and raised as an army brat in British Columbia and Ontario. Davis was the first in his working-class family to go to college, where, driven and brash, he was the prize graduate of Ryerson Polytechnical Institute’s School of Journalism in 1975. His classmate, Valerie Hauch, now a reporter for theTorontoStar, remembers Davis from their days at campus newspaper The Eyeopener, where she was his editor. He was talented and ambitious, she says, and already working on his political smarts. “His interest in politics and the way things work in the political world?in my Eyeopener days I might have said knowing whose ass to kiss?has undoubtedly helped him advance in his career,” she says.
And advance he did. After three years as a reporter at the Star, he joined the Citizen and made city editor by the time he was 26. In 1980, when the morning Ottawa Journal folded, Davis and Neil Macdonald, night city editor at the time, were put in charge of the Citizen‘s new early edition, which was meant to replace it. “Murdoch was a very hot-tempered young man,” says Macdonald, who found himself temperamentally unsuited for management and soon moved on to a medium where his talents thrived, TV reporting.
Davis says now that he was the kind of boss he wouldn’t have liked to work for. “The clich?s of the city editor walking out of his office and bellowing across the room at people about how lousy their story was, well, we did some of that,” he says, shifting to the editorial “we.” Most journalists who were there at the time don’t want to go on record with stories about Davis’s outbursts, but a few offer anonymous recollections of this little guy?maybe five-foot-seven?screaming so loud across the newsroom that his voice cracked and of his swearing at reporters until some of them wept. “We yelled at people too much, and probably humiliated people more than we should have,” Davis says now.
Gordon Fisher, president of news and information for CanWest News Service, was the Citizen’s city editor when he hired Davis from the Star and became his mentor at Southam. “He was quick and bright,” says Fisher, whose advice helped Davis work his way up to senior assistant managing editor in nine years. By 1989, Davis was ready to run his own newsroom and became managing editor of the Edmonton Journal. He was brought in to help overhaul the Journal, part of a management team that infused new spirit into the staff, increased circulation, and generally enlivened the paper. He was promoted to editor-in-chief in 1992. When Duart Farquharson, chair of the Journal‘s editorial board, retired in 1997, Davis didn’t replace him. He chaired the board himself and wrote often. “Murdoch took the view that if he was the editor of the paper he didn’t feel there should be points of view that he didn’t agree with,” says Farquharson, who still writes a column for CanWest. “He either wrote the editorials that were on particularly important issues to him, or he made sure that in the discussion and editing process they did follow his line.” For a newsman who paid no attention to the editorial page until he put himself in charge of it, Davis was a quick study. In 1998 he won a National Newspaper Award for editorial writing.
Davis loved Alberta. He met his wife, Kristal, and moved onto a farm outside the city, where they had three children. “It turned out Edmonton was the perfect place to live,” he says.
Things went smoothly until 1999, when a drive to certify the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers union shook up the Journal‘s easy-going newsroom. After a bitter campaign that lasted several months, the editorial staff voted 78 percent against joining the union. The drive ended in some bruised feelings and damaged careers. The organizers accused management, led by Davis, of borderline unfair labour practices, such as holding one-on-one meetings with employees, and putting out literature on the union. “It was a very difficult time but I came out of that still respecting him in some ways,” says Linda Goyette, a left-leaning columnist who worked at the Journal for 20 years. During the drive, Goyette, who was one of the organizers, ended up in lifestyle writing and copy editing. She eventually quit. Needless to say, Goyette and Davis often fiercely disagreed. “The one characteristic we have in common is a kind of stubbornness and inflexibility,” she said. “It’s a serious shortcoming in journalism and at different times we’ve both suffered the consequences.” Still, she says, the Journal became a better paper after Davis became editor. “This man knows the newspaper business and he was a hard-working editor. He demanded more of his staff than any of his predecessors and when we came through for him we were really proud of the results.”
Davis says he isn’t anti-labour, stressing that he comes from a long line of miners with a strong union background. Maybe, but the company man long ago took over. “When he changes his position, he goes from absolute to absolute,” says Macdonald. “He was a shop steward in the union; within two or three years he was in management and referring to reporters who were involved [with the union] as Wobblies.”
Davis’s next stop was a quiet year as deputy publisher and editor of the Victoria Times-Colonist to gain experience and prepare for the move to Winnipeg. His rise to the top has seemed as certain as his unshakable confidence. But at what price? “My association with Murdoch, even though it was a long time ago, left me with no doubt that when it comes to good journalism versus toeing the company line he would choose the company line at every turn,” says Tim Harper, the Toronto Star‘s Ottawa bureau chief, who worked with Davis at the Citizen. “I don’t deal with Murdoch anymore, probably by mutual choice. However, I can tell from comments I’ve seen attributed to him defending National Post decisions that his view of the bottom line hasn’t seemed to change over the years.” To such comments, Davis has a ready response: “I’m quite comfortable with myself and I will stack my credits and accomplishments up against theirs anytime.”
Last October, Israel Asper took on a new credential: international media critic. In a speech to an Israel Bonds fundraiser in Montreal, he lashed out in a spittle-speckled rage at Western journalists for their coverage of Israel. They were “lazy or sloppy or stupid?plain and simple, biased or anti-Semetic.” The guilty included a grab bag of media, including The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Guardian, CNN and the CBC (especially its Middle East correspondent, Neil Macdonald). Asper’s rant was published in theNational Post.
Robert Fisk of The Independent in the U.K., who has long been a fearless and honest voice on the Israel-Palestine conflict, called Asper’s speech “gutless and repulsive.” “These vile slanders are familiar to any reporter trying to do his [or her] work on the ground in the Middle East,” he said. “They are made even more revolting by inaccuracies.”
Asper accused Western reporters of being ignorant of the history of the conflict they were covering, but Fisk was able to find a number of “lazy, sloppy or stupid” mistakes on Izzy’s part. “That war began in earnest 85 years ago,” Asper held, “when, in 1917, Britain and the League of Nations declared, with world approval, that a Jewish state would be established in Palestine.” But, as Fisk pointed out, the phrase “Jewish state” was never used by the British in the Balfour Declaration of 1917. And the League of Nations did not exist in 1917?it was established in 1919. “Journalists are being attacked for telling the truth, for trying to tell it how it is,” Fisk said. “What is even more outrageous,” he told Ryerson University’s student paper, The Ryersonian, “is that the reporters, for the most part, are silent.”
Silent, or silenced? Sue Montgomery was the only CanWest writer prepared to speak out about her boss after his speech. “There’s not one journalist who’s not going to think twice about writing on these issues and what they are writing about them,” she told McGill Radio. “We’re seeing more overt pressures, in the form of the speech that was made, not to cross the line.” Montgomery said some of the same things in her Gazettecolumn, but they were cut. “We do not run in our newspaper op-ed pieces that express criticism of Israel and what it is doing in the Middle East,” Montgomery’s colleague, Bill Marsden, told the Index on Censorship.
Back at headquarters, Murdoch Davis sits in his tower office and wonders what all the kerfuffle is about. “I don’t see any reason that that speech should have caused a chill to anybody who’s confident and careful in their reporting,” he says. But Montgomery, who often writes about the tension the Middle East conflict has spawned in Montreal, is concerned. “You’re constantly second-guessing,” she says. “It almost comes to the point where you can’t be bothered because you’re just going to end up with grief. That doesn’t mean I’m going to stop, but it does wear you down.” After the Halifax Daily News was sold, columnist David Swick was free to say that his views hadn’t been considered pro-Israel enough for the company. Doug Cuthand, a freelance columnist for the Leader-Post and Saskatoon StarPheonix, submitted a piece comparing the struggle of the Palestinians to the plight of Canada’s aboriginal people; it was killed because, Davis says, the Middle East is not Cuthand’s area of expertise. Neil Macdonald suspects that if he were to write a column on the conflict, it too would be killed.
Still, Davis won’t comment on his boss’s words, the effect of them or the accuracy of them. “What’s the point? Is somebody going to say, well, because a person making a speech might have made a mistake, therefore it’s okay for reporters to make mistakes? Is that the point?”
Some 20 years ago, the Ottawa Citizen sponsored an amateur indoor track meet which wasn’t perhaps as amateur as it should have been?there were rumours that the athletes were being paid. The newsroom got wind of it but was told to lay off the story. An idealistic young editor named Neil Macdonald kicked up a fuss. The editor, one Russ Mills, called Macdonald into his office and chewed him out for his outburst. “If you don’t like it, fire me,” Macdonald lipped back.
That evening, city editor Murdoch Davis went out with his colleague for a beer and some advice. “There are two kinds of problems you have in this business,” Davis told Macdonald. “Problems you’re willing to quit over and problems you aren’t. If you’re not willing to quit, shut up and do it.” Macdonald wasn’t buying, then or ever, and the two went their very separate ways. “Murdoch is a company man,” Macdonald would say many years later. “He always has been.”
by Nicole Cohen
Nicole Cohen was the Editor for the Summer 2003 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.