Peter Mansbridge: Mr. Asper, has this been a difficult week for CanWest? Has it suffered from the stories sur- rounding this affair?
Leonard Asper: Well, I think it’s been a week where certainly we’ve had to respond to some allegations that were made against us. And in fact one of the reasons I’ve decided to publicly appear to discuss these is because the allegations are false and they’re very serious. And where- as we originally thought, quite reason- ably, I think, that the relationship between employer and employee in the case of Russ Mills was a private matter. And we attempted to make it a private matter for the benefit of Russ Mills. He sought to go public and again thereafter serious allegations were made about…about the prime minister’s involvement in that and I think the most important thing for me to say to the pub- lic, to the readers of the Ottawa Citizen, is that the prime minister had nothing to do, categorically nothing to do, with the termination of Russ Mills. The termina- tion of Russ Mills had everything to do with the violation over a period of time of a number of principles and policies that had been set out for the editors and pub- lishers and developed collaboratively with those editors and publishers of the newspapers. So I did feel, yes, it was time to speak out and not let the torrent of abuse continue.
Peter Mansbridge: Well let’s deal with the Mills affair first of all. Russell Mills okays an editorial in the Ottawa Citizen that calls for the prime minister to step down. This goes against the national editorial policy of your paper. Now, the Calgary Herald prints a simi- lar editorial.
Leonard Asper: Right.
Peter Mansbridge: Neither paper gets clearance from the head office to write that.
Leonard Asper: That’s true.
Peter Mansbridge: Yet Russell Mills is let go and it appears nothing hap- pens at the Calgary Herald. Is that a double standard?
Leonard Asper: No. I think that the very point that I’m making is being made by that act. The point is that Russell Mills was not fired for the edi- torial, specifically, not fired for the content of the editorial. What he was terminated for was a repeated series of breaches of, and violations and non- compliance with, certain journalistic principles that we think are eminently fair and reasonable and were devel- oped, as I say, amongst the editors and publishers of CanWest…
Peter Mansbridge: But what was the journalistic principle…
Leonard Asper: …over a period of time. So the point, I think the point is that the Calgary Herald, I think, made an error in judgment, but the termination of an employee is a very serious matter, in my view. It’s not one I take lightly. And so if an employee does make an error in judg- ment, I’m quite willing to forgive, and warnings that suggest that maybe the error in judgment shouldn’t be made, but in the case of Russ Mills, it was not the first time. In fact, it was really the final straw.
Peter Mansbridge: But…is that the basic or core journalistic principle that he violated, that there were other times or…was it a sense that there was…?
Leonard Asper: Yes, there were other times. In general, the Ottawa Citizen in our view, and it’s a subjective view, but in our view, the Ottawa Citizen was not presenting a variety of voices and sources of news and a full spectrum of opinion on political matters in particu- lar, and not just related to the prime minister but overall. And we felt the paper was homogenous under Mr. Mills’ leadership and we had suggested that to Mr. Mills, on several occasions, both in groups with other editors and publishers present, addressing the group, and privately to Mr. Mills, that the paper should contain a broader variety of opinion and a broader spec- trum. And I think if you look at the Ottawa Citizen today, it is very homoge- nous and I think readers of the Ottawa Citizen will find that over time, in the future, the immediate future, that this paper will be more open to different viewpoints across the spectrum.
Peter Mansbridge: Let me…back you up a bit and we’ll move off the Mills issue and talk in a more general way about what you suggested here. Because it seems to me…I’m a little confused or there’s a contradiction…because you seem to be suggesting that while your paper’s stated policy is that local editori- als should not conflict with national editorials, you’re saying that in this case it could’ve been okay. It could’ve been okay to write that if the head office had been warned and if there were other opinions in other parts of the paper. Is that what you’re saying now?
Leonard Asper: I think what I’m saying is what should’ve happened is this: Given that this is a matter of very serious and grave national importance, the calling for the resignation of a prime minister and the changing of a policy of the company, that the editor, or publisher in this case, would have had the courtesy, if he is going to use the proprietor’s space, which is the unsigned editorial space in a newspa- per"which I think is an acknowledged fact that that is the proprietor’s space"that he would have the cour- tesy to call the proprietor and in so speaking for the proprietor, consult with him about what he is saying in that proprietor’s name. And by the way, if Mr. Mills had called, we would’ve said one of two things: Mr. Mills, we agree with you, go ahead. Number two, Mr. Mills, we don’t agree with you, but you can print that very piece, word for word, in the op-ed page to ensure that there is no stifling of that view and that you aren’t muzzled and that readers of the Ottawa Citizen have a chance to view that piece.
Peter Mansbridge: All right.
Leonard Asper: We simply say that the, the proprietor’s space, when peo- ple are writing in the name of the pro- prietor, that they consult with the pro- prietor. I think that’s a fair, I think that’s a fair position to take…
Peter Mansbridge: Let me ask you…
Leonard Asper: …and one that certain- ly is rooted in many years of journalism.
Peter Mansbridge: All right, let me ask you a couple of questions about this issue about the prime minister. As you know there’s been a great deal of discussion about whether or not, I believe it was, your father had dinner with the prime minister the night that the editorial appeared in the Ottawa Citizen. Is that the case?
Leonard Asper: No it isn’t.
Peter Mansbridge: So he didn’t have dinner with him.
Leonard Asper: It’s not true. It’s not true.
Peter Mansbridge: Has there been any discussion…
Leonard Asper: I think it’s impor- tant to say though that if they had had dinner or breakfast or whatever they’re alleged to have had, and the prime minister had complained in any way about anything in the Ottawa Citizen or the National Post or any other news- paper of ours, we would have said to him and we would always say to him, ”˜Sorry, you’ve crossed a line.’ We don’t…listen to or we’re not influ- enced by any interests outside of this newspaper and our own editorial poli- cy in terms of what we put in our newspaper, and that goes to other politicians, advertisers and others who continually, as you probably well know, seek to influence the media.
Peter Mansbridge: What is the rela- tionship between the Aspers and the prime minister?
Leonard Asper: Well I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to discuss the rela- tionship. All I can say is that my aunt is a sitting member of the New Democratic Party in Manitoba. My brother and I have at other times belonged to other political parties. This apparent relationship between the Aspers and Mr. Chrétien, I think, is extremely overblown, and if it was so strong, Peter, I think you know, you would see some evidence of that some- where, and in fact the opposite appears. Two weeks ago we had an appeal to the Cabinet turned down, as did The Toronto Star and other so-called Liberal-friendly newspapers, and that happened in 1996 too. So we know the prime minister. We run into him at public events. And that’s all I’m willing to say. I think the rest of it is speculation and conjecture.
Peter Mansbridge: All right. Let me ask you this. I’ve talked to a number of my friends in Western Canada over the past couple of weeks on this subject, and they’re not necessarily in agree- ment with your editorial policy, but do suggest this: They say that this is a lot of Eastern media making a fuss because of editorials written in Winnipeg, say- ing it almost in a patronizing way. Is there anything to that?
Leonard Asper: Well let’s say this. I remember years ago I worked for Angus Reid as a summer job and I always found it interesting that in the Eastern media, Angus Reid was always written up as the ”˜Winnipeg-based Angus Reid.’ Shaw Communications is the ”˜Calgary-based Shaw Communications.’ We’re the ”˜Winnipeg-based CanWest,’ but Angus Reid’s counterpart, Allan Gregg, was never the ”˜Toronto-based Decima Research.’ It’s never the ”˜Toronto-based Alliance Atlantis Communications’ or the ”˜Toronto-based’ other broadcasters, or The Toronto Star, for example.
Peter Mansbridge: So you think there’s something to this?
Leonard Asper: So I believe there is in the media a subtle portrayal of non- Toronto-based entities as something other than normal so they have to be therefore identified or qualified in some way, but I do acknowledge that this is not just an Eastern issue. But I think there is a large part of this that is the apparent transfer of the centre of the media universe from Toronto to places like Montreal or Quebec, the province of Quebec or Quebecor. The owners of the Sun chain live in Calgary, where the Shaws live, and Alberta is where the Craigs live and Winnipeg is where the Aspers live.
Peter Mansbridge: I’ve only got 30 seconds left. What have you learned from this week? Because I assume your company has been hurt, both the cred- ibility of the papers and to some degree financially with the loss of sub- scribers, the stock’s taking a bit of a hit, what have you learned from this?
Leonard Asper: I think that is tem- porary, and I do think, number one…the readers of the Ottawa Citizen will find that it is a better paper and we’ll get those subscribers back. Number two, I’ve learned to stick by your principles because that’s what we’re doing and it’s made me feel a lot better to not back down in the face of public pressure and I think you have to realize that you have to stick by your decisions and we’ve done that and we’ll move on from here.
Peter Mansbridge: All right. Leonard Asper, we appreciate your time today from Winnipeg. Thank you.
Leonard Asper: Thank you for having me.