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Chilling the news media

Add "PMO chill" and "owner chill" to the barriers reporters face in trying to cover the news.

Dateline: Tuesday, April 04, 2006

by Don Johnson

All Canadians are affected by the fact that the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) is trying to keep Cabinet meetings secret in order to limit Parliamentary Press Gallery reporters' access to Ministers. Journalists assigned to cover the House of Commons are just information messengers between Canadians and the politicians we elect.

Information is the oxygen of democracy. Those of us who take our duties as citizens seriously who try to follow issues and what politicians are doing about them are slowly suffocating from lack of information.

Canadian governments have always permitted the news media much freer access to legislators than those of some other countries say, the United States. The PMO's move is a serious threat to our open form of government. That threat is compounded nowadays by increasing restrictions within the news media themselves.


The way to trigger owner chill is to pitch a story that the editor perceives will upset the owner.

Call it "PMO Chill." Then add it to the other chills newsrooms have faced, over the last decade, such as budget-cut chill, staff-cut chill and perhaps the greatest worry "owner chill."

For about two years, the Senate Transport and Communications Committee held hearings to investigate all facets of the Canadian news media. House sessions were set to begin Monday. The Committee report may be tabled after its members are selected, and they authorize that the document be issued. Here is part of the transcript of the Committee hearing in Regina, the portion that dealt with "owner chill."

Appearance on Feb. 3, 2005, before the Senate Transport and Communications Committee, which was sitting in Regina SK, as part of its investigation of "the current state of Canadian media industries:"

Mr. Donald Johnson, as an individual: Senators, I will quickly brief you on who I am. I have worked as a journalist and copy editor and segment producer at Thames Television, London; Canadian Press Bureau, Montreal; the Montreal Star, the Montreal Gazette; The Vancouver Sun; the Leader-Post; and a few radio stations here and there in Ontario.

Essentially, I take the position that when you get into journalism you are not in a business, per se; you are in a public service, and anyone who gets into journalism to run a newspaper, for example, assumes a fiduciary responsibility. Senator, you were talking this morning about responsibility.

The Vancouver Sun and The Province did not cover your session in Vancouver. I take that as negligence of their fiduciary responsibility of keeping the public informed. The news media, by and large, do not cover the news media very well.

One of the reasons is what I call "owner chill." I presume you are all familiar with "libel chill;" that is, the chilling effect of libel suits, and newspaper editors tending to pull back from being too aggressive for fear of being sued for libel. I think it costs about $3000 just to answer a libel suit, not to defend it.

Owner chill is only known, by and large, within newsrooms. People who are retired journalists, like I am, can talk about it. What it means is that I will not be published ever again in the Leader-Post or probably The Globe and Mail.

I used to write for the op-ed page of The Globe and Mail, and the op-ed page of the Leader-Post when they had a budget for it, which they do not have any more. The Globe and Mail guy does not answer the phone any more.

The way to trigger owner chill is to pitch a story that the editor perceives will upset the owner. I will give you an example. We are in the midst of a telemarketing plague in Canada: the invasion of the supper hour. Like most Canadians I can get two or three calls a week. If you are working at The Globe and Mail and you want to get known as a troublemaker, you go and pitch the following story: "I want to do a story about how the telephone companies are ignoring or misrepresenting the telemarketing plague."

Of course, The Globe and Mail is owned by Bell Telephone, so the news editor says, "Johnson, go away."

When I worked at The Gazette in Montreal I had a police source who said that the department stores Eaton's, Simpson's, Ogilvies, Morgan's who were big advertisers, were ignoring shoplifting and just passing the cost on to the consumers.

Being very naive this was in the 1960s and I was a very young fellow I pitched it to the city desk as a consumer piece. Immediately, Al Palmer, who was the senior police reporter, was instructed to take me across the street to the tavern to explain the facts of life to me. One of the things you do not do is upset the advertisers. So I very quickly dropped that.

I was looking at how I might give you an illustration of owner chill. I urge you to pursue this. This is from the Royal Bank's website. It is in the mutual fund section and in the very, very small print, where I have the arrow, it talks about a thing called "trailing commissions."

Now the banks these days provide, free to most newspapers, financial advice columns written by their financial advisers. They give those columns to the newspapers. It is my belief that they ought to label this information as provided free. It is not journalism; it is advice from an outfit that has a vested interest.

I refer you to a story in The Toronto Star of February 15, 2004, "Why the ETF message isn't getting out." It talks about trailing commissions. It turns out that these financial advisers are paid trailing commissions to give bad advice to their clients. It seems to me that when the Leader-Post or some other paper runs a column where the company, or the guy who is writing the column, is getting paid a trailing commission to give you advice, which is against your best interests, they at least ought to put that as a rider at the bottom of the column.

I urge you to pursue that. I have given copies of this information to your clerk.

This morning I believe Senator Fraser asked what to do. Phone the op-ed page editor of The Globe and Mail and say you want to talk about your report or you want to write about your report, and see how far you get. Also, contact other media. They will not cover you nor rock the boat.

Senator Merchant: When we were out in British Columbia we were given the results of the Canadian Media Research Consortium, which was a report card on the press, and it was a failing report card. It talked about reporter bias and it talked about many, many things that I cannot remember now, of whether the public were interested in reading the newspaper; and they were not. It was really a very bad report on the media.

The interesting thing we were told in British Columbia was that there was never any mention of this study, which was done I think by York University, the University of BC and Laval University. Ipsos-Reid, I think, had done the polling, so it was a very well-done report. There was no mention of it anywhere in the media.

If anybody else or any other enterprise had been investigated and had received a failing report card, you can be sure that that would have been in every newspaper. However, something that may be a little bit critical of the media was never reported.

Mr. Johnson: That is correct. In the media the people who are promoted up to editor and managing editor, et cetera, understand the game and understand the tension between news, the news media and the owners. You do not get promoted if you rock that boat.

The problem is that there is no consequence to not running the story because nobody knows about it. You know about it, I know about it, but the public does not know about it.

Therefore, what I have proposed is either a press council or, as in Britain, a press commission. The press commission could take the report and buy a half page or something and run it. This is one of the things that I think you ought to consider. You have access to the news media and, for example, in the Leader-Post you could buy a quarter page and get the J-school to write a story about why this is not being covered. However, the J-school would probably lose some of their internships.

I used to talk to Jim Mackenzie all the time and he said that he was threatened with losing some of his internships if he rocked the boat too much.

Senator Carney: I apologize. I was talking to the other witnesses when you first sat down. Did you explain what Briar Patch, the magazine with which you are affiliated, is? Is it online or in print?

Mr. Johnson: I just gave them the story. You can get access to it online. It is a magazine here that runs political stuff and tends to be quite left of centre.

Senator Carney: It is not your journal?

Mr. Johnson: No.

Senator Carney: When you talk about a national press council, why would you suggest a national one, rather than press councils for all the provinces? We have been told, I think, that three provinces, including Saskatchewan, do not have provincial press councils. Would you be just as happy with provincial press councils rather than a national one?

Mr. Johnson: I spoke to the head of the Ontario Press Council and the defect there is that it is paid for by the media owners; therefore, there is a bit of tension there.

I believe that a national media body of some sort or other, funded by some funding mechanism that divorces the money from the media owners, could be effective.

Senator Carney: Like the government?

Mr. Johnson: Maybe. Or maybe some arm's-length body of some sort, but divorce the money from the owners. What this body could do, for example, is preach the value to society of good journalism. I believe that the people in the Prime Minister's office and the people in Lorne Calvert's office here believe that they can live with a poorly funded newsroom because that does not hurt them too much. They can manage the public message much more easily.

Nixon found out about a well-equipped, well-staffed, experienced, intelligent newsroom in Washington after Watergate. In my opinion, if Watergate had happened in Regina, you would have had two inches of copy about a police probe break-in, and that would be the end of it.

Senator Carney: My question is that at the end of the day it is not as important whether it is a provincial media council or a national one, as long as its funding is arm's length from the owners?

Mr. Johnson: I would prefer a national body but I will take a provincial body.

Also, I want to point out to you that Roy Romanow offered the journalists in Saskatchewan a college, much like the College of Physicians and Surgeons, and the Law Society for the lawyers, and they turned it down. I would have taken it so that journalists would have been in control of the newsrooms in this province. I do not think you are ever in danger of a Mensa meeting breaking out in the average newsroom.

Senator Carney: I will not comment on that.

Senator Trenholme Counsell: My question had to do with the national press council, so it has just about been answered, except for this: Do you see that council as some kind of an ombudsman?

Mr. Johnson: Yes. Complaints about news coverage now are usually from the public. Politicians do not ever complain, and journalists do not ever complain unless they want to lose their job.

For example, a national press council, in my opinion, ought to have the ability to take in camera complaints from working journalists. They ought to be able to request testimony about, for example, profit margins.

I bully the manager at CK Television here every so often about his newsroom budget. He actually has the nerve to tell me that his budget has been increased. You will have noticed the fellows out here this morning with television cameras. They are doing the reporting, the editing, the sound everything. When I started in journalism there would have been a crew of three or four people. And this fellow has the nerve to say that he has increased the budget.

It seems to me that this body ought to have the ability to ask what the budget is and there ought to be some penalties for lying.

Senator Munson: The chill, as you call it is it right across the board? All across the country? Local?

Mr. Johnson: It varies with the newsroom and the standing of the news editor. In London, when I worked on a show called the Today Show at the Aldwych, the executive producer had very high connections in the government, so he would take less guff from the owners than somebody who was relatively new and in a smaller market.

For example, Janice Dockham here has, I think, only ever worked at the Leader-Post, and she will take a lot more guff from the Aspers in Winnipeg than somebody who is a big-shot editor with some name.

Senator Munson: We have an Ethics Commissioner in the House of Commons and we may have someone in the Senate one day. Perhaps your idea of an ombudsman being someone who has teeth and clout would be a good one.

Mr. Johnson: You will notice as you travel across the country that this will not be covered. But if you ask the taxi driver, as I do, for example, "Do you know what is happening with your tax money?"

He says, "Oh, I dunno... "

I say, "Do you ever read the Leader-Post?"

He says, "Well, I... "

The strength of our democracy depends on a well-informed public, it seems to me.

Don Johnson, retired, made his living as a journalist, copy editor and segment producer at Thames Television, London; Canadian Press Bureau, Montreal; the Montreal Star; the Montreal Gazette; the Vancouver Sun; the Leader-Post and a few radio stations here and there in Ontario. He takes the position that when you get into journalism, you are not in a business, per se; you are working in public service.