The closest Torstar, the media behemoth that owns the Toronto Star, usually gets to porn is the steamy, softcore prose of its line of Harlequin romance novels.
But now Torstar, which prizes its squeaky-clean public image, finds itself in bed with a company with ties to pornography and illegal gambling, and caught up in a racism scandal to boot, thanks to its partnership in Toronto's daily commuter rag Metro.
Though usually protective of its family-friendly brand - two years ago it pulled commercials for phone sex and porn sites from its Toronto Star TV - Torstar doesn't seem moved to pull the plug on its partnership with Swedish-based Metro International SA because of the revelations. A phone call and letter expressing "concerns" from Torstar president Robert Prichard to Metro honchos will have to do. There is a newspaper war going on, after all.
In fact, there has been barely a mention in the Star of the controversy, first made public by www.mediachannel.orglast month, that not one, but two top execs of Metro International used the N-word to refer to blacks at separate company functions.
First it was Metro USA president Steve Nylund. He told top-level staff from Metro papers around the world a joke about blacks and the size of their penises at a Metro International sales conference in Rome in 2003. Nylund used the N-word.
As did Metro International board member Hans-Holger Albrecht a few months later when he opened his remarks at a company dinner in Stockholm with, "Good evening ladies, gentlemen and n_______."
Nylund, who was in Toronto around the time the story broke, resigned as president of Metro USA, and Albrecht stepped down from the Metro International board. Both apologized in formal statements.
The resignations don't mean much for both their futures in the company, though, since Nylund remains executive vice-president of Metro International and Albrecht is still president and CEO of Modern Times Group (MTG), which owns a 28 per cent share of Metro International.
The furor that followed resulted in advertiser boycotts south of the border. It also caused the parent company of the New York Times (Times Co.) to put the brakes on its offer of $16.5 million U.S. for a 49 per cent share of Boston's Metro, where former employees have alleged there is a "racist atmosphere" and at least two have won a damage suit against the paper.
Torstar, which is getting set to launch a Vancouver edition of Metro, can't be certain no one from Toronto's Metro was present when Nylund told his "joke," or whether formal objections were raised at the time. Torstar president and CEO Robert Prichard does say that no one currently employed at Toronto's Metro and no one from Torstar was there.
Prichard says he let Nylund know personally that the comments were unacceptable and "completely inconsistent with all that Torstar stands for."
"[He] acknowledged his mistake and the severity of it, and was very contrite," Prichard recalls. "We judged his contrition to be genuine and deep."
Prichard says he and a senior manager at Metro discussed the situation by telephone with Metro International president and chief executive Pelle Tornberg and were assured the board was taking steps to deal with the wider issues.
"I then wrote to [him] to restate our concerns and to indicate that the steps they were taking were very important to us, and that we would not stand for any repetition of this sort of incident. "
Tornberg cannot be reached for comment, but he responded to the use of the N-word in a press release. The company, he says, has brought in consultants to supervise the implementation of strict policies on diversity. The statement says, "We publish in 16 languages in 63 major cities in 17 countries. We strive to be the most diverse newspaper company in the world."
Dan Smith, chief steward for the union representing the Star's editorial staff, says he's not particularly surprised at the paper's low-key response. "I don't look for Torstar to behave in a moral way, [but] I think the Star does have an obligation to fess up to its business relationship with Metro."
Certainly, others would agree, given the paper's commitment to the principles of social justice espoused by founder Joe Atkinson. The Urban Alliance on Race Relations gave former publisher John Honderich an award for the paper's work on race relations last year.
But the Star only ran a short Associated Press story about the Metro resignations in the business section of its January 13 edition. The report didn't specify the nature of the "racial slurs," and there was no mention that Torstar is in business with the company.
In her February 15 column about the growth of free dailies, the Star's media columnist, Antonia Zerbisias, mentioned the Times Co. deal to acquire a share of Boston's Metro without a word about the scandal that caused the company to back off. In parentheses, Zerbisias added, "Metro International is a partner with the Star on our own subway paper in Toronto."
Zerbisias believes the charges of racism at Metro were irrelevant to that particular column. "Plus," she says, "I did not have the space to get into it." She would have covered the fracas earlier had she not learned of it the day before her cliff-climbing holiday in Utah. "My thought at the time was that this can wait, that [the story] was still developing."
Torstar, meanwhile, continues to do business with some other not-so-good-for-its-rep businesses through its connections to Metro. Kinnevik, the Swedish conglomerate behind Metro International and Modern Times Group, is also the largest shareholder in Cherry Group, which operates an Internet gambling service based in Costa Rica. Placing bets online in Canada and the U.S. is illegal.
MTG is also an aggressive broadcaster of porn in Scandinavia and the Baltics.
Prichard plays down Torstar's connection to Kinnevik and MTG. "Our partner is Metro International, and as far as I know, Metro International's only business is free commuter daily newspapers," he says.