Tuesday, June 18, 2019

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Losing Conrad Black

The last week of August was filled with strange and not-exactly-what-they-seem sights and sounds coming from Canada’s media. The fun began with a long-winded but completely dry-eyed announcement by Conrad Black that he was selling the rest of his 50 percent stake in the National Post to CanWest Global and the Asper family, who bought the first half of the Post (presumably its accounting department) along with the balance of Black’s newspaper chain from him last year.

The onslaught of tributes and half-baked analyses that followed the announcement was nearly shameful as it was shamelessly self-absorbed. Witness the hilarious and quite uncharacteristic sight of Post columnist Christie Blatchford, a special Black hiree, frantically looking for the appropriate boot to lick, and unconsciously likening Black to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby. Then there was the once-reliable Lawrence Martin deciding that this was somehow a harbinger of the imminent collapse of the Canadian Alliance and the end of the right wing ascendance of which the Canadian Alliance was the most glamourously psychotic episode. Martin paired Black with Stockwell Day as overly enthusiastic ideologues whose moment had just, alas, passed zenith, which was fun because the pairing must have been horrifying to Black, and it earned Martin the Lawrence Hill of Canadian political analysts (emotional nuances uber alles) Award for the 2001 Silly Season. Similar nonsense abounded elsewhere and elsewise, nearly all of it at the expense of one or more of common sense, discretion, perspective and proportion.

One particularly offensive sight was the open-mouthed hand-wringing going on amongst National Post staffers over the possible staff reductions that would follow in the wake of Black’s departure—and the barely-contained glee amongst their equivalents at the Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star.Anyone with a jot of good sense understands what is going to happen now that the famously bottom-lining Aspers have control of the Post. There will be a bloodbath, yes, but it isn’t going happen at the National Post’s editorial offices. There might be some paring of the more irrelevant columnists (the paper has too damned many columnists anyhow); a little reprogramming of the extremists at the paper, like Libertarian Terrence Corcoran and Red Menace specialist Diane Francis; a reduction in the number of calls to the Frum/Crittenden Institute in Washington, D.C., and maybe, in a few months, Ken Whyte’s head rolling gently down a corridor, any possible injury to it forefended by a thick application of gold plating. Where the blood is going to be running is in every other space in CanWest Global’s operations where non-accounting thoughts are occasionally thought: at the various newspapers within the CanWest chain, and at Global television’s various newsrooms, which are already notorious for judging the newsworthiness of local events by their distance from the station, the ideal story being a three alarm blaze two blocks away. (There have been so many of these in Toronto that there’s a serious suspicion that CanWest Global’s junior managers have been setting the fires deliberately).

Most of the analysis of the Post sale has attempted to turn it into an ideological soap opera, with Black’s ridiculous and mutually-demeaning cat fight with Jean Chretien as the primary-plot, and the Asper/Black empire conflict and Stockwell Day/Canadian Alliance fiasco playing seconds, with pro- and anti- Black columnists doing Greek chorus work in the background.

If we’re dumb enough to believe that this is what’s important in the sale of the National Post, maybe we deserve the informational environment we’re about to get in Canada. In case you haven’t noticed, CanWest Global’s corporate structure, with the National Post as its editorial nerve centre, now looks amazingly like Bell GlobeMedia, which has already set up a "convergence" branch to figure out the most profitable way for the Globe and Mail writers to do the heavy thinking for the entire corporation—and to ensure that it stays in water shallow enough to serve as a kiddies pool in Agincourt, Ontario, where CTV is headquartered.

The reality is that Black’s dreams for the National Post died the moment that Bell bought CTV and The Globe and Mail. That’s what the CanWest Global acquisition of the Post/Hollinger empire has been about from the beginning, and it wasn’t until the CRTC made its ruling on shared editorial content within the Bell Globemedia nexus that the last part of the Asper/Black deal became an inevitability.

Black can be credited for recognizing that he wasn’t the one to be creating a media agglomerate able to compete with Bell Globemedia. He’s too much an ideological lightening rod, he’s too hands-on, and he’s too much of a motor-mouth for that. Those qualities (along with his Mathew Arnold vocabulary) would have gotten in the way of the bottom-lining "convergers" who are going to be the masters of the new media system. So he’s gone, but he leaves it a very rich man, which is the other thing he’s all about, remember?

What folks in Canada now need to consider is the informational and media landscape that is rapidly taking shape about us. It only requires CanWest Global to pick up the pieces of Rogers’ dysfunctional high-speed Internet service provider, @home, or to create an equivalent, for the last piece to fall into place.

The puzzlingly-muted response from the CBC over the CanWest Global takeover of Black’s empire, makes sense if viewed through this lens. After 40 years of being the elephant of Canadian media CBC has been reduced, by a decade of starvation rations, to an emaciated caricature of Dumbo, its over-sized ears trembling with ostentatious multicultural objectivity each time a politician raises an arm. Now it has to contend with two genuine 800 pound gorillas that are, in the deepest possible sense, all business. These two gorillas, CanWest Global and Bell Globe Media, are far larger, less constrained by concerns with public education and enhancing human opportunity and understanding, and can rely on a more diversified technological base with which to reap profits and control information flows.

When CanWest Global CEO Leonard Asper said he didn’t foresee any great shift in values at the Post, I think he was making a pragmatic observation about the changed media landscape he’s helped to create, and suggesting that a full takeover by CanWest isn’t in conflict with the direction the Post was going in anyway. If one ignores the Post’s ideological shrieking about the Canadian Alliance and the wonders of capitalism, what you see is a less corporate, more "national" paper than the Globe (which has always defined being a national paper as undertaking to tell the rest of the country what Toronto thinks of it rather than going out, as the Post has done, to hire right-of-centre people from around the country to write about what they know or can see from where they are).

Under the new system, we’ll no longer think in terms of newspapers and television but more in terms of editorial sources and direction. To that end, the next few years will likely see the Globe and Mail evolve, given its naturally more middle-aged outlook infused by CTV’s dedicated suburbanism and with Bell’s multinational corporate profit needs controlling the decision-making—into the culturally reactionary and politically corporate-conservative infosource appropriate to its bloodlines. The Post, with a demographic appeal at least 10 years younger than any sector of the Bell GlobeMedia machine, will, with CanWest Global, become more urban Mall-cosmopolitan than it already is. It will also become more national, tending toward duplicating the values of the ruling federal Liberals, who are as politically reactionary as Conrad Black ever hoped the Canadian Alliance would be, but speak French, eat croissants, and are four-square behind corporate profits without having all those born-again Christians running around imposing their nutty ideas about missionary sex, birth control and women staying on the bottom that David Frum had everyone convinced was a tolerable irritant to political and economic control.

What’ll happen to the rest of us, I am hesitant to speculate about. Maybe we can return to reading books, if any of those are still being published.

1343 w. // September 7, 2001

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Brian Fawcett

Brian Fawcett

Brian Fawcett is a Toronto-based writer.

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