corporate and think-tank researcher

Donald Gutstein

20 Dec '04

What the Sun Calls an ‘Exclusive':

And other concerns as B.C.’s paper of record ‘converges’ its news.

CanWest Global, the Asper corporate vehicle, is the largest owner of newspapers in B.C. In the Lower Mainland it owns the Sun and Province, twelve community papers, plus papers in Nanaimo and other centres.

It’s safe to say that in B.C., news is what CanWest says it is. That’s why a recent story in the Sun should concern us all. In its haste to market itself as a fearless crusader for the truth (and hopefully sell more papers), the Sun stretched the truth.

On Tuesday November 16, the Sun fronted a story about two Delta women, Tara Roberts and Kelly Carter, who developed life-threatening infections in Surrey Memorial Hospital after childbirth.

The story was presented as a Sun exclusive – with “exclusive” in bold letters – meaning that the Sun and nobody else broke the story and we should say “bravo” for such enterprising reporting.

The problem is, the story wasn’t an exclusive.

Tara Roberts told her tale of woe three days earlier in a front-page story in the Surrey Now under the by-line of Marisa Babic.

Stories with similar wording

While the Sun and Now stories read somewhat differently, in one instance they use exactly the same quote in referring to a pathologist’s report: “multiple fragments of grossly necrotic, foul-smelling skin and underlying subcutaneous/soft tissue.”

There are other instances of similar wording.

Babic (Now): “Hospital officials say there have been no cases of necrotizing fasciitis, commonly known as flesh-eating disease, at the hospital.”

O’Brian (Sun): “Fraser health Authority spokesman David Plug said there have been no cases of the so-called flesh-eating disease at Surrey Memorial Hospital in the past six months.”

Babic: “Roberts believes she contracted the infection in the operating room during her caesarean section.”

O’Brian: “She is sure she got the infection in the operating room during her c-section.”

True, the Sun reporter used an additional interview and did extra research but even if the similarities are coincidental, it is just plain wrong to label the story an exclusive.

Crunched and converged

Careful Sun readers might have noticed something was amiss if they read the paper the previous Saturday, the day the Surrey Now story appeared.

Every day pages B2 and B3 in the Westcoast News section contain a feature written by a Sun reporter. The feature is usually surrounded on three sides by short news items by staffers and from papers like the North Shore News, Delta Optimist, Surrey Now and Richmond News.

These papers are all owned by the Aspers. The pieces appear first in the community newspapers and then in the Sun, meaning that the Sun pays little for them but CanWest receives advertising revenue from both.

The Saturday paper contained a short piece titled “New mother questions Surrey hospital’s handling of life-threatening infection.” The item contains quotes from Babic’s Now story but without her by-line.

Great Canadian news mall

Smaller B.C. papers like Surrey Now are hardly the only CanWest Global feeds to the Sun these days. In the Sun’s A-section pages devoted to national news are many stories from the Victoria Times Colonist, Edmonton Journal, Calgary Herald, Ottawa Citizen and Montreal Gazette along with many from CanWest News Services.

A reader of the Ottawa Citizen would find the same narrow range of stories, all provided by CanWest Global. It’s sort of like going to a mall anywhere in Canada – same stores, same products, and now the same stories.

Much of the paper not devoted to ads is filled instead with stories already paid for by another newspaper.

That means less money for reporters to dig up important stories and more for the shareholders. And since the Asper family owns 89 per cent of the shares, it’s more money for them. No wonder the Aspers are the 31st richest Canadians, with a net worth this year of $1.09 billion, according to the recent Canadian Business survey.

The statistics tell the story. CanWest Global revenues rose 12.7 per cent in 2003. At the same time, the company cut its employees by 11.5 per cent, or 1160 people.

Blanket coverage

It’s the same with television, where CanWest owns CHEK TV in Victoria and BCTV in Vancouver. On a Friday and Saturday, Sun reporter Chad Skelton wrote a series of articles about gambling in B.C.

The following week, BCTV ran a series of items about gambling in B.C.

Same editorial costs for the information, but different audience of readers and viewers and different advertisers. Once again, CanWest boosts its advertising revenues for each dollar of editorial expenditure.

It’s called convergence and it wasn’t supposed to work like this.

Ten years ago when the Internet was becoming a popular new medium, visionaries waxed enthusiastically about the dawn of a new information age in which we would be inundated with a torrent of high-quality news and information.

Instead, the Aspers have Vancouver news locked up tighter than a drum. You can’t even read most Sun stories on the Internet any more without a six-day-a-week subscription to the paper.

The CBC is the most important exception to CanWest’s monopoly control and the Aspers have been lobbying government for years to get rid of the public broadcaster. They argue the CBC’s advertising revenues deprive them of a wider ad market.

Missing links

If the Aspers were in the U.S., they wouldn’t get away with it. Last year the Republican-controlled Federal Communication Commission tried to weaken ownership rules that had limited media monopolies for 70 years. Lawmakers and citizens of all political persuasions rose up in protest and beat back the changes.

They were concerned that eliminating opposing views and narrowing the range of opinions available to the public would debase the quality of public discussion and harm democracy.

But even if the changes had gone through, CanWest’s degree of monopoly control in B.C. would not be permitted.

And while the Sun and BCTV, CanWest’s flagship properties, carpet-bombed Vancouver audiences with stories about gambling addiction and increased revenues to the provincial treasury, they neglected one important dimension to the story: the connections between gambling interests and the provincial Liberals.

It’s a blindspot of major proportions.

The essence of the story is that gambling increased sharply in the past few years and gaming companies are reaping record-breaking revenues and profits. That was the goal of Jacee Schaefer, when she headed government lobbying for industry leader Great Canadian Gaming Corp. More recently, Schaefer was Liberal Party election-day manager in the Surrey-Panorama Ridge by-election. She works closely with Pat Kinsella, who is the Liberal 2005 re-election campaign co-chair and a Great Canadian investor and consultant.

Forgot to converge?

It’s not that the Sun and BCTV couldn’t have known these facts. The story has been told in the pages of another CanWest property, the Victoria Times Colonist, by columnist Sean Holman who broke that paper’s Webster Award-winning Doug Walls investigation and runs the Public Eye Online web site.

It’s just that the so-called provincial newspaper of record and the station that brands itself “TV for BC” decided not to mention the connections.

To be fair, Sun reporter Chad Skelton told The Tyee he “wasn’t aware” of these stories in the sister newspaper.  But given the Aspers’ determination to make convergence a centerpiece of their profit-making strategy, surely it’s the job of some senior editor to know what other Canwest papers have published on topics worthy of big series? Or is convergence a selective process that depends on the political fallout from a story?

And the people of B.C. who do not read the Victoria paper and who have to make up their minds about the future of gambling in the province, are kept in the dark.

Donald Gutstein, a senior lecturer in the School of Communication at Simon Fraser University, now writes a regular media column for The Tyee.

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