Global Journalist

Fired Canadian publisher superhero of free press

The firing of a Canadian publisher for what he called political reasons has left international press-freedom organizations furious about the marriage of politics and the newspaper business.

Russell Mills, longtime publisher of the Ottawa Citizen, refused to resign and was fired on June 16 after publishing an article critical of Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien on June 1. In an accompanying editorial, the newspaper called for Chretien’s resignation, citing the article’s claims of alleged misconduct that led to a conflict of interest.

Mills joined the Citizen in 1971 as a reporter and became editor in 1977. He was named publisher in 1986. From 1989 to 1992, he was president of the Southam Newspaper Group, a CanWest Global subsidary, which is responsible for the company’s 17 daily newspapers and its many weekly newspapers in Canada. He returned as publisher of the Citizen in 1992.

CanWest Global also operates Global Television, a national network that reaches 94 percent of the country’s English-speaking audience.

As a broadcasting company, it is in CanWest’s best interests to maintain good relations with the Canadian government, which grants broadcast licenses.

CanWest Global Chairman Izzy Asper, said to be a friend of the prime minister, met with Chretien at the Parliamentary Press Gallery Dinner the day the story ran. Mills said Asper’s embarrassment at that dinner was one reason for his firing.

“We didn’t know he was in Ottawa,” Mills said. “Had we known, we would have held the stories for a day or two as a courtesy to him. I would have done that with any owner.”

Asper fired Mills after meeting with CanWest executives during the following two weeks.

“They felt the article and editorial should have been submitted to the head office in Winnipeg,” Mills said. “There’s no policy telling us to do that.”

Mills said he is considering suing CanWest for wrongful dismissal and libel but will meet with a mediator in Ottawa on Sept. 17 to try to stay out of court. Mills said he wants to ensure that publishers and company owners will not blackball him as a result of what he called an unfair firing by CanWest.

“Their conduct in this case is indefensible,” Mills said.
“Things the CanWest people were saying were absolutely
false. Whatever we agree to would have to reflect that.

“One of the things they have to do is clear my name.”

Two days after the firing, the International Press Institute
issued a statement critical of the move.

“It’s an attack on press freedom by an unholy coalition between politics and big business,” Johann P. Fritz, director
of IPI, said. “Many believe that it is only in autocratic countries of the Third World or in countries in transition
that democracy and a free press are in danger. But the Mills affair will have a chilling effect on critical reporting in Canada and will bring an increase in self-censorship.”

CanWest has a history of alleged press freedom abuse. For the past year, journalists have been critical of the newspaper chain’s unusual editorial policy. Once a week, every Southam paper was required to run the same editorial from the front office.

Mills said the newspapers also aren’t allowed to disagree with CanWest’s “core positions.” After the editorial that lead to Mills’ firing, Southam required the Citizen to write editorials backing the prime minister.

Probably taken aback by the public’s reaction to Mills’ firing, CanWest has not run a front-office editorial since.
Maybe the most puzzling part of the firing is that other CanWest newspapers, particularly The National Post, The Vancouver Sun and The Calgary Herald, have run editorials
critical of Chretien and the government without
facing retribution.

Ironically, Mills will study the function of media in a democratic society for the next year as a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University. The fellowship will allow him to continue to plan a Canadian journalism institute based on a university structure.

Mills said there is a need in Canada for something similar to the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard. Mills said McGill University in Montreal is “very interested” in an institute that would study the effect of the press on public policy. Carleton University in Ottawa has also been mentioned as a suitor.

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