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The world has seen a massive resurgence of the far right in the last few years, both in terms of influence over, or outright control of, right-wing institutions, as well as the emergence of new hate groups. The Overton window has also shifted considerably rightward, and publications eager to tap into that audience — Rebel Media, Quillette, Breitbart, etc. — have been rewarded.
Mainstream, supposedly respectable, publications in Canada are taking advantage of this shift as well.
On Aug. 12, Canadaland published an investigation by Sean Craig exposing Postmedia’s plan to shape their newspapers’ coverage in an “unprecedented, centralized fashion” in the leadup to the federal election.
Craig writes that in October 2018, Postmedia’s then-president and now CEO, Andrew MacLeod, called a meeting and told National Post editors the publication was “insufficiently conservative.”
In June, then-National Post and Financial Post comment editor Kevin Libin, who played an active role in defeating a union drive at the paper earlier that year, was appointed to take charge of all political reporting and analysis in Postmedia newspapers to ensure the newspapers became more “reliably” conservative.
Two days later, the editor-in-chief of the Edmonton Sun and Edmonton Journal, Mark Iype, was removed from his position and reassigned to a new role. Craig reported that this happened after Iype raised objections to Libin's new role, and oversaw the publication of a pro-carbon tax editorial.
Although there are many people to blame for the dangers Postmedia poses, including governments that stood by as it built its monopoly, responsibility now falls on their employees to take a stand and disrupt their far-right plans - @DavideMastracci
Since then, Craig writes, employees have expressed a variety of concerns, including that Libin will interfere with climate change coverage, that they’ll have to consult with him for even the most mundane political stories and that he will severely impinge on their autonomy. One employee mentioned in Craig’s investigation as having been affected by the shakeup, Jordan Timm, announced his resignation from Postmedia on Thursday.
This development at Postmedia should not be a surprise to anyone paying attention over the last decade. It has been practically inevitable since July 2010, when GoldenTree Asset Management and other investors, mostly hedge funds, purchased the CanWest media company.
These groups didn’t purchase CanWest, and eventually Sun Media, because they cared about a well-functioning press, or about the quirks of small-town papers they’d eventually close down. Instead, they saw an investment opportunity, which in Canadian-media terms now means an opportunity to run down publications, enriching debtholders along the way, and ultimately selling them as scrap.
Postmedia is not really a newspaper chain; it’s an interest-extraction scheme that has happened to include some journalists’ being hired — and, more often, fired — along the way.
Cost-cutting measures such as merging newsrooms, slashing staff and centralizing content, which have all taken place since Postmedia was created, keep the interest payments flowing. Meanwhile, the papers themselves, which these diminished newsrooms continue to put out, are used to promote corporate interests.
For example, the federal and provincial Conservative parties in Canada are undoubtedly the preferred choice of corporations, and, as Craig detailed, have numerous direct connections with Postmedia, including recruiting former employees. It’s no coincidence that all of the chain’s major daily newspapers endorsed the Conservatives in 2011 and 2015. In fact, some were ordered to, and many even ran ads from the Conservative Party as their entire front page.
The corporate subservience at Postmedia publications is predictable and longstanding, but it still has troubling implications that are specific to the current climate and that we should pay attention to.
Postmedia’s vice president of communications, Phyllise Gelfand, told Craig the Post fills a gap in Canada’s media landscape. Gefland doesn’t clarify the gap she’s referring to, but there’s little reason to believe it consists only of market conservatism, the promotion of which was the ostensible reason for the National Post’s founding more than 20 years ago.
Instead, in the last few years outlets such as Rebel Media and Quillette have successfully tapped into a new, profitable right-wing market. Some former employees of Postmedia brands, such as Rebel Media cofounder Ezra Levant or Quillette editor Jonathan Kay, made that jump years ago. Meanwhile, current Postmedia employees have appeared on, or written for, these outlets. These alternative sites represent the real growth opportunity for a mainstream outlet that's willing to capitalize.
Craig’s piece speculates about MacLeod’s intentions: Is he a pragmatist, an idealogue, a Conservative opportunist, just a businessman? But that’s irrelevant. The net effect of a further-right turn, regardless of intent, is a news chain that poses a threat to marginalized groups in Canada.
A disturbing incident last year illustrates exactly how this is happening. On Sept. 28, three far-right vloggers headed to a Toronto hotel where asylum-seekers were being temporarily housed, and walked through recording and confronting them until security was informed.
The next day, Toronto Sun columnist Sue-Ann Levy wrote a column citing unverified reviews on TripAdvisor of the same hotel, portraying it as dirty, dangerous and even a “9/11 training camp.” TripAdvisor told Global News these reviews did not come from “first-hand travel experience,” instead noting the listing was “being targeted for one reason or another.” Then, on Oct. 2, far-right mayoral candidate Faith Goldy — who has advocated for a “return” to a national population that is “96 per cent Euro Canadian” — held a press conference outside the hotel, while Levy wrote a viral column that included a TripAdvisor review falsely alleging goats were being slaughtered in the bathrooms.
Later that night, a woman walked into the hotel and started a fire on the third floor with a gas canister, in what police called an alleged arson.
Whether the arsonist was motivated by Goldy, the videographers, Levy or some combination of the three is difficult to say. Regardless, their proximity to each other is disturbing.
Levy didn’t correct her mistake in print until the end of October, and Postmedia did not formally acknowledge the incident until after a December ruling from the National NewsMedia Council that the Toronto Sun had committed a “serious breach of journalistic standards.”
Given Postmedia’s lack of adequate response to this incident, there’s little reason to believe they won’t run a story like this again as they seek to be more reliably conservative and that they won’t, consequently, put marginalized groups at further risk. This is especially disturbing considering that the chain owns nearly 30 per cent of the Canadian newspaper market, the largest share in a highly concentrated media landscape.
Although there are many people to blame for the dangers Postmedia poses, including government agencies that stood by as the company expanded its holdings, responsibility now falls on employees to take a stand and disrupt MacLeod’s plan to shift Postmedia further to the right.
Unfortunately, this does not seem likely en masse: Many of the chain’s most prominent voices are already right-wings. Moreover, those who aren’t enthusiastic right-wingers still accepted, and remain, at their jobs, despite the noxious history of some of the chain’s brands, including the Toronto Sun publishing blatantly homophobic articles and cartoons, defending South African apartheid and calling for society to embrace “the science of eugenics.”
There was, however, some resistance during the last federal election. Before the campaign, columnist Andrew Coyne was barred from publishing an alternate endorsement in the National Post and consequently resigned as comment editor. After the election, the editorial board at the Ottawa Citizen, which had been forced to endorse the Conservatives, also resigned. And, of course, Craig’s story depended on Postmedia employees.
The media landscape, and Canada as a whole, will be better served by more dissenters coming forward at Postmedia.
DISCLOSURE: Davide Mastracci completed a six-week internship at the National Post in the summer of 2015.