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Clash of the titans

Peter C. Newman on how the Aspers came to blows with press baron Conrad Black


 

Clash of the titans

On Aug. 11, 2002, two years after his $3.5-billion purchase of 129 newspapers and magazines from Conrad Black made him the paramount media baron in Canada, Israel Harold Asper—known as Izzy to one and all—was piped aboard a ship on the Lake of the Woods. After a string of formalities, Asper became Lord of the Manor of Polington in the parish of Charminster in the County of Dorset. In Asper’s sardonic mind, according to Peter C. Newman’s biography Izzy (HarperCollins), the title—a real one, bought in Britain as a gift by his son Leonard—put him on an equal footing with Black, more formally Baron Black of Crossharbour. The newspaper deal was a high point in the careers of both men: three years later Asper was dead, and by 2007 Black was a convicted felon. Izzy’s initial euphoria over his purchase soon gave way to bitter fighting, with Black—still his equal partner in owning the National Post—and with his new employees. At one point the soon-to-be Lord Polington even challenged Lord Black to a duel. Excerpts from Izzy:

When Israel Harold Asper, armed with an agenda cast in Canadian Shield granite, stormed the smug ramparts of Southam-nurtured editorial departments, he set off a revolution. The journalists thought of themselves as crusading reformers, taunting a Winnipeg Rottweiler who was rehearsing to be Canada’s Rush Limbaugh. None of the comparisons rang true. The newshounds were no Noam Chomsky revolutionaries, threatening the established order. Rush had nothing to do with it, and Asper was no Rottweiler. On the contrary, he was the only Canadian investor willing to risk his fortune in an industry that sought to turn profits from the Dickensian technique of selling impressions made on processed wood pulp.

Izzy’s purchase of Black’s newspapers set off a confrontation of rare intensity, made so hurtful because everyone involved had good reasons to assume they were doing the right thing—that they were merely being true to themselves, and what could be wrong with that? The journalists were defending their mandate as front-line gladiators, guarding the freedom of expression that defines their profession; the Aspers were exercising proprietary rights over papers that had cost them half their company’s market value. The mix was explosive, like a cargo of nitroglycerine under a tropical sun, and left a bitter aftertaste between employers and employees.

It soon became clear that there was no percentage in trying to make Izzy feel guilty about breaking some holy journalistic covenant of which he was blissfully unaware. His position was simple: he owned the printing press and therefore had first call on what it produced. “I’m not sure that you could make Izzy feel guilty about anything,” reasoned Jim Sward, who spent a decade as the head of Global TV and was well aware of his boss’s foibles. “He isn’t plagued with feeling guilty. If he said the most horrible thing to you in a fit of anger or frustration, 10 minutes later he could laugh at it with you. He would never come back and say, ‘Oh gee, what I said about you, that was awful and I’m sorry.’ ”

That didn’t alter the fact that seldom had a Canadian media group so vehemently condemned its proprietor. Conrad Black, who preceded Izzy in the chain’s catbird seat, had championed causes far to the right of Asper’s, making promiscuous use of his papers to promote personal priorities and champion his neo-con convictions. There was muted concern about a publisher’s claiming his sense of entitlement in print, but criticism of Conrad remained an undertow. As soon as Izzy took over, the undertow burst into a riptide.

This was partly due to the difference in personalities between the two men. Black’s passage through life was marked by his need to presume worship as he bestowed his inflated presence on the anointed—even in jail he managed to scrounge a butler of sorts. He was catered to with such deference in the National Post’s opinion pages that they read like extracts from his own self-congratulatory diary. And that was even after his name change—from Conrad Black to 18330–424.

In contrast, Asper was the Wyatt Earp of the Canadian Plains, a sharpshooting loner with no pretensions but with determination and energy that few could match, or would want to. Self-made to the point of caricature, Asper believed that this was the moment for him to exert the national influence that had always eluded him. It was crunch time for the great agent provocateur of the Second Red River Rebellion.

Next to Izzy and the Fourth Estate, the third defining presence in the rapidly escalating confrontation was David Asper. He had taken issue with his newspaper’s investigative coverage of the Shawinigan affair, which involved allegations that Jean Chrétien had improperly helped a business colleague to obtain loans from a federal banking agency. This came at a time when Black was sparring with Canada’s Prime Minister, who had tried to squash his dream of a seat in the British House of Lords. In the end it turned out that Black could acquire his baronetcy only if he surrendered his Canadian citizenship. This he did with aplomb, since he dismissed those who stayed behind as a bunch of subarctic losers, and good riddance. For many Canadians, the feeling was mutual.

The initial run-in between the Aspers and journalists was the firing of Lawrence Martin, the Post’s distinguished national affairs columnist, who was and continues to be Ottawa’s most lucid commentator, ostensibly over his coverage of what became known as Shawinigate, the scandals involving Prime Minister Jean Chrétien. When Black was running the Post, Martin’s Chrétien columns were front-paged; when the Aspers took over, they turned toxic. In July of 2001, just months after receiving a laudatory assessment, Martin was dismissed, without cause or explanation.

Earlier, on Jan. 5, 2001, Black, then comfortably ensconced in London, complained to Asper about his son David’s concerted efforts to exert pressure on the National Post editorial department in defence of Chrétien and his problems. His letter was one in a vintage exchange between the two titans. He was angry but not unreasonable. He warned that pressure by David Asper over the paper’s treatment of Chrétien was at odds with their agreement, and that he would make sure that any further requests for “material alteration of the editorial content of the newspaper” would come to him—and with limited chance of success. Rounding on the Prime Minister for his “malicious, cowardly, ignorant, dishonest and illegal assault” upon him, Black had “shown great forbearance in encouraging as tolerant a tone in our coverage of him as I have. I have undertaken to make it difficult for reasonable third parties to criticize the fairness of the National Post’s coverage. I will do that, but not more than that.”

Then, on March 7, 2001, David Asper issued his own declaration of war. The day before, all Southam papers, including the Post, had been instructed to publish his signed op-ed piece, headed, TO CHRÉTIEN’S ACCUSERS: PUT UP OR SHUT UP. “The media’s coverage of the accusations against the Prime Minister has crossed a line that delineates solid investigative reporting from adjective-driven innuendo,” Asper wrote in his brief essay. “The time is now long overdue for Mr. Chrétien’s accusers to ‘put up or shut up’ with facts and hard evidence. In Canadian law, there is a crime known as public mischief, which exists to deter and punish people from making false accusations of criminal conduct. A free press is essential to democracy provided that it acts responsibly, and in this case, the repetitive and largely unsubstantiated attacks on the Prime Minister are irresponsible. The Prime Minister is as deserving of fairness as anyone else in Canada, and it’s a sad comment that our national political affairs have been hijacked by mischievous, unfair scandalmongering.”

The response was fast and furious. Ken Whyte, the Post’s editor-in-chief, wrote a lengthy editorial in which he essentially challenged David, “We’ve put up—now why don’t you shut up?” He chronicled how Chrétien had stonewalled MPs and journalists at every turn, how it appeared that he had misled the Commons, how the PMO had threatened the jobs of employees in the information commissioner’s office who sought to release material unflattering to the government. “The only observers who do not see this as serious are partisans or people unaware of the basic facts that have been on the public record for some time,” Whyte wrote. “In such circumstances, it would be a dereliction of duty and a national embarrassment if media were to ignore the story.”

In his son’s defence, Izzy assumed his whirling dervish incantation. He even challenged Black to a duel. This was his burning reply:

March 13, 2001

Dear Conrad,

I have waited several days since the National Post’s outrageous handling of, and savage attack on, David Asper’s opinion piece on the Chrétien/Shawinigan Hotel harangue. I had hoped that the passage of time might soften my instinctive reaction. In fact, it hasn’t. The firestorm the Post’s staff helped unleash across all media was caused by your personal orchestration or done with your acquiescence and approval. Given that we view this as a blatant and defiant breach of the letter of our agreement, and more saddening and provocative, the spirit of our arrangement, I consider the situation as in crisis.

Regrettably, you have chosen to publicly throw down a gauntlet, administer a public slap in the face, which has embarrassed, humiliated and held up to ridicule and dishonour my family and my company. You will readily understand why I won’t remain silent.

Therefore, because there is only a short time before we must publicly react and risk the matter escalating beyond redemption, I suggest we meet, with or without seconds, at the earliest possible opportunity, to explore whether or not a mutually satisfactory resolution can be found.

Sincerely,

I.H. Asper,

O.C., O.M., Q.C., Executive Chairman of the Board

In reply, Conrad emerged as the defender of the National Post’s editorial independence. On March 14 he wrote to Asper. In carefully measured tones, he flatly rejected as “absolutely untrue” Izzy’s accusation that he had worked any sort of “personal orchestration” or “firestorm” against David. The facts, he said, were quite different. Black, as well as Barbara Amiel, Ken Whyte and others, “all warned David that writing in these newspapers accusing them of injustice to Chrétien would produce great resentment amongst the journalists and would appear to anyone in the country still interested in an independent press to be servile, toadying to a rather corrupt regime in what is now more or less a one party state.” The proper course to objectionable coverage would be to carefully set out exactly what was wrong or unfair. Instead, David’s piece was “unrigorous and hostile to your own employees with consequences that were foreseeable and predicted.” Beyond being shown the editorial to be published by Ken Whyte and asking for the removal of one sentence that he felt might unintentionally offend the Aspers, Black assured Izzy that he had had no hand in the inevitable reaction to David’s clumsy intervention.

Moreover, Black continued sternly, this wasn’t the first time he had tried to help the Aspers: “I have told you, David and Leonard many times that there is a way to alter the general tone of a serious newspaper, and I have offered advice, without being asked, on how to do that. I believe it is, in fact, contrary to the spirit of our arrangement and to Canwest’s corporate interests for you people to tinker so recklessly with these interferences with the credibility and therefore the value of these franchises, which my associates and I so swiftly built up.”

In response the following day, Izzy re-entered the fray by firing a heat-seeking missile at Conrad, with what may well be the most incendiary communication since Marie Antoinette’s legendary invitation to starving French peasants, deprived of their daily bread, to “let them eat cake.”

Dear Conrad,

In no order of priority, let me deal with your assertions on the facts of our difference:

1. You say that Barbara [Amiel], Peter [Viner] et al. warned David [Asper] about the consequence of his Intervention. Wrong. Your observations were made after the fact and not as a caution in advance.

2. You resolutely deny having “orchestrated” or “acquiesced” in the Post’s scurrilous rebuttal, but, in conclusive repudiation of that assertion, you acknowledge that you read Whyte’s vitriolic response, in advance of publication, and even edited it, for whatever reason. That’s hardly consistent with your claim of “not being party to or involved.” I will not comment on the information we have that Post people “encouraged” the other media (non-Southam) to focus on this issue. I believe our sources. Where I allege breach of our arrangement is as follows:

1. The Nat’l Post harangue on Chrétien/Shawinigan was excessive, unbalanced and an embarrassment to Canwest as being improper journalism—you published something like 50 accusatory opinions with not one exculpatory opinion.

2. We exercised our contractual right to publish a contrary piece.

3. You deliberately delayed publication of our piece to gain the time to concurrently publish a condemnation of our piece.

4. When you did publish our piece, it was relegated to the bottom of the page, while your condemnation of it, in double its length, was put on top of it. In further violation of fairness, you ran a streamer headline across the top of page one of the paper, drawing attention to your condemnation of our piece, which received about one-third the size and prominence of your denunciation.

Conrad, read our agreement. I assure you we never expected that when, on the rare occasion, we exercised our right to differ with the Post’s editorial or opinion position, that we would be subjected to a vilification torrent as a rebuttal! That’s just not a plausible interpretation of our deal.

So, bottom line, I don’t withdraw any of the complaints I proffered in my letter, and if that forecloses a meeting between us, to explore modus vivendi options, so be it.

Given your own experience in dealing with contemptible charges, you will appreciate that I cannot remain silent. If you want the Post to continue this practice of withholding publication of our views until they can prepare a refutation, then we will insist that the Post deliver to us in advance all of their opinion pieces, so that we can concurrently publish our opposing views.

There are other options. The Globe and Mail has offered its unlimited space to immediately comment on National Post opinions. Therefore, perhaps it is best that we resolve this by ignoring the Post’s positions, and our rights to differ, expressing ourselves through them and other media.

Of course, other options abound, including our selling out to you, or vice versa, or dividing the opinion pages equally between Post and Canwest commentators etc., etc.

However, be assured that we will not tolerate a torrent of refutation by Post writers, either personally inspired, or encouraged by you, every time we exercise our contracted right to differ.

I believe these are the options we should explore when we talk or meet. Presumably, you don’t want a five-year running argument any more than I. As for the Southam papers ground rules, I expect to deal with the people there precisely as you would.

At this time, although still under reflective consideration, I intend to proclaim, nationally, Canwest’s refutation of the charges and accusations levelled at us in this sorry affair. Obviously, I may reach a different strategic plan after further consideration.

Sincerely,

Israel Harold Asper

The tension between the two men was dissolved in August of 2001, when Black sold the remaining half of the National Post to Asper. The first 50 per cent, part of the original deal, cost Izzy $100 million; the second 50 per cent went for $1. He paid too much both times. As for his war with the journalists, it was just getting started.

Excerpts from Izzy. Copyright 2008 by Dragonmaster Productions Inc. All rights reserved. Photographs courtesy of Canwest and the Asper family.


 

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