Magazine article Canadian Dimension

Mills No Martyr for Press Freedom. (Offensive Lines)

Magazine article Canadian Dimension

Mills No Martyr for Press Freedom. (Offensive Lines)

Article excerpt

Over the summer former Ottawa Citizen publisher Russell Mills was being heralded as one of the great defenders of freedom of the press for standing up to the Asper family in a conflict over the paper's editorial policy. It appears the Aspers and Mills came to a parting of the ways over a sustained attack on Prime Minster Jean Chretien that concluded in a call for the prime minister's resignation.

As a result, Russell Mills has emerged as a hero, a holdover from the days when there was supposedly a strict separation of church and state in the newspaper world, when editorialists felt free to speak their minds without looking over their shoulders, wondering if they were not offending the proprietor.

This, of course, is crap. And no one knows it better than Russell Mills.

In his fascinating book, Yesterday's News, John Miller, a journalism professor at Ryerson University, tells a fascinating story about Mills. Shortly after Conrad Black purchased the Southam chain, he announced that the Ottawa Citizen lacked the "air of a newspaper of the capital of a G-7 country." That sort of comment could have many meanings, but Russell Mills, who was the paper's publisher, suspected that from his perspective none of them were positive. In particular, he recognized that past editorials criticizing Mike Harris's Common Sense Revolution amounted to a serious liability.

To save his skin he flew down to meet Black in New York City. There, according to Miller, "Mills presented an ambitious plan to turn the Citizen into a paper, as he put it, that would be respected 'among the people who are significant to [Black], who are people in high levels of government and business.' That meant a new, more conservative editorial policy and beefed up national and business news.

As soon as Mills returned from New York he fired editor Peter Calamai, who was being blamed for the anti-Harris editorials. His replacement was William Watson, a McGill economist who believed Brian Mulroney would go down in history as one of Canada's greatest prime ministers. Mills told Miller, "I'm making sure that the things that are published in the Citizen are things that I personally agree with. I have to be able to defend them because Conrad may be on the phone saying 'Why did you do that?' It hasn't happened yet but that can happen." Black let Mills keep his job, noting that he had undergone a "conversion."

Perhaps Mills was not up to yet one more conversion experience -- although the coming generation of Aspers seem pretty right-wing to me. The man the Aspers brought in to replace Mills, Gordon Fisher, was a high flyer in the Southam organization for years and played a central role in dumbing down the Vancouver Sun and the Kingston Whig-Standard. …

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