Why Canwest Censors Bite

Rating: NNNNN"happy trails." those two words marked my e-mailed resignation from the Montreal Gazette's op-ed page a few weeks back,.

Rating: NNNNN

“happy trails.” those two words marked my e-mailed resignation from the Montreal Gazette’s op-ed page a few weeks back, days after my weekly column had been spiked for the third time in recent months.The salutation was meant to be lighthearted, even amidst the rancour that has filled the newsroom ever since the Gazette’s parent, CanWest, started dictating editorial policy from its headquarters in Winnipeg.

Except for the two thought police in the CanWest ministry of truth at the Gazette — those being editor-in-chief Peter Stockland and recently appointed editorial page editor Brian Kappler — I bear no animosity toward the people who continue to toil under exceedingly difficult circumstances at the paper.

The irony, if you can call it that, is that none of the columns of mine that ended up getting spiked were on the list of taboo topics that generally get writers, editors and publishers demoted or fired from Asper-owned papers these days.

I issued no pleas to recognize the Palestinians and made no calls for Jean Chretien’s resignation I failed to utter a single criticism of the untouchable Southam editorial party line.

Those silences were born of the foregone conclusion that such pieces would never get published. Call it self-censorship.

No, the third strike came over an interview with internationally recognized activist Vandana Shiva that was hooked to her appearance last month at an anti-GM foods conference in Toronto.

Shiva’s groundbreaking work in her native India consists of travelling the subcontinent to gather and archive naturally developed crop seeds. Indian agriculture is now almost completely under the thumb of Monsanto and its monoculture of patented, genetically modified crops. This was the kind of story I was hired to bring to the Gazette’s overwhelmingly right-wing op-ed page two and a half years ago.

I knew my status at the paper was strictly that of progressive fig leaf (a tiny one at that, being limited to 700 words per week). But I viewed it as a way to bring a little editorial diversity. My editors, however, had never heard of Shiva, nor did they think her credible.

Considering their political biases, that wasn’t a great surprise, but the column was summarily killed before we even had a chance to discuss it. That was that.

As I thought about it, the spiking of the Shiva column provided an apt metaphor for modern-day journalistic diversity in Canada. Ideas are like seeds. If planted in fertile ground, they can grow in wildly diverse and wondrous ways.

Not under the corporate domination of the Aspers, however. A single, patented version of sterile germ plasm occupies an ever greater space in the field of debate. Call it a Terminator seed.

I highly doubt there was any direct instruction from Winnipeg to kill this particular column. But the atmosphere of censorship and intolerance the Aspers have encouraged throughout the chain has emboldened like-minded people.

The first column spiking last September followed the terror attacks on the World Trade Center.

I had suggested then that the tragedy should be the occasion not only for howls of revenge but also for debate on the use and consequences of U.S. realpolitik.

I also, uncontroversially to my mind, predicted that the attacks would be used to trample civil liberties, vastly inflate military budgets and inflict more misery on populations that have already been driven to startling desperation.

But again I got the thumbs-down. The editors’ reasoning was that it was too soon after the tragedy, and the sensitivities of the average American would be offended.

An exaggerated deference to the idealism of American statecraft justified the killing of a subsequent column last April after the short-lived coup in Venezuela.

I had suggested that Washington welcomed the coup. It wasn’t a far-fetched suspicion, given the presence of a military adviser at meetings with the coup’s authors before and during the event.

But my editors were more interested in White House spokesman Ari Fleischer’s denial that the U.S. supported Venezuela’s would-be dictators, and intimated that criticizing the U.S. over the affair was “anti-American.”

By the time the third spike was driven, I was surprised to find that I wasn’t particularly upset. It demonstrated to me that one can get accustomed to this sort of thing. And that’s exactly the sensation that told me it was time to give it up.

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