Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Canada's media bully

It's not enough that CanWest Global Communications dominates the news media in Canada, especially on the West Coast, where I come from. There it owns the largest TV station, BCTV, all three of the province's major metropolitan daily newspapers, and most of the community newspapers in the Vancouver area. Now it seems the owning Asper family of Winnipeg also wants to stifle what few voices of dissent remain. The thin-skinned Aspers, all of whom were trained as lawyers, have shown they sure can't take a joke by suing an advocate for Palestinian rights over a four-page parody of CanWest's Vancouver Sun newspaper that he helped circulate. The lawsuit against Mordecai Briemberg -- a member of the infamous PSA 7 faculty members who were suspended in the 1960s for political activism at my alma mater, Simon Fraser University -- alleges trademark infrigement and conspiracy "to embarrass and to injure" CanWest. As the Globe and Mail pointed out, however, the lawsuit may be more about criticism of Israel, which it seems the Aspers can't tolerate in their media outlets or elsewhere.
At another level, the dispute revolves around tension over opinions on the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. . . . The publication's content focused on the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories and was critical of Israel and media coverage of the issue.

While I haven't seen the parody in question, I have seen many such "goon"issues that have historically been a staple of local student journalism and, more recently, media activism by groups such as Guerrilla Media. It sounds hilarious, however, judging from such items as its weather report: "Operation Summer Rains with occasional missile showers and chance of tank shelling in the afternoon." The late CanWest patriarch, Izzy Asper, was notoriously sensitive about media coverage of Israel, which he regularly denounced as biased in favor of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. His youngest son Leonard, who succeeded him as CanWest CEO, has also taken up the torch against media criticism of Israel, as I detail in my recent book, Asper Nation.

For his part, Briemberg has claimed no knowledge of who produced the parody issue, claiming only to have helped distribute it. In a statement published online, however, he raises some serious issues, including "the democratic right to use satire and other forms of humour to critique those in positions of power and wealth." As the largest owner of the press in Canada, you would think that freedom of speech is something the Aspers would choose to defend, not deny. This is further evidence, a litany of which can be found in my book, that they are not so much interested in a free flow of ideas as in dominating the discussion.

The lawsuit is the second in short order against West Coast media dissidents, coming hard on the heels of one against Rafe Mair and the online publication we both write for, The Tyee. That spat relates to a Xmas Eve column Mair wrote lambasting CanWest and the Aspers for axing both political cartoonists at the Sun's sister publication, the tabloid Province, for which I wrote for nigh on two decades. There has been some considerable misunderstanding about that lawsuit, because it is not just over a mistake of fact, as reports have suggested. Yes, Mair wrote that CanWest laid off Bob Krieger and Dan Murphy when that wasn't exactly accurate. (They were apparently offered the choice between taking a buyout package and being retrained for computer graphics work.) But that is the least of what CanWest could claim Mair wrote that "injured . . . its character, credit and reputation." More injurious in a financial way might be the boycott of CanWest that Mair renewed his call for, having originated it in 2002 as a CKNW radio talk show host. But most insulting was the nasty name he called the Aspers. Of course, I can't repeat it here, but let's just say it relates to that part of the male anatomy that Jews (as well as most Western males these days) have surgically altered shortly after birth.

Are the Aspers so thin-skinned that they can't take the kind of ribbing provided by a parody issue, or drop a lawswuit over an insulting online rant? Or does this have more to do with "libel chill," in which giant corporations drop lawsuits to silence opposition, SLAPPing critics with Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation? MEthink it is strategic and qualifies as the latter, in which case the lawsuits should be thrown out of court. The interesting thing, from a media perspective, will be to see how the cases are covered in the CanWest media compared to coverage in the few outlets that are not owned by the Aspers.

No comments: