Corporate media

Postmedia, Paul Godfrey and the demise of journalism

The newspaper chain’s mideast coverage has been a case study in bias
Photo: Ross G. Strachan

In early 2016, Toronto Star columnist David Olive authored a scathing critique of Postmedia, Canada’s largest newspaper publisher. He called Postmedia a “cancer on Canadian journalism,” denounced “savage, non-stop cost-cutting” by its management, and described CEO Paul Godfrey as a “kindred spirit” of Stephen Harper — arguably the most right-wing prime minister Canadians have had to endure in the post-WWII period.

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As Olive noted, Godfrey took the unprecedented step in Canada’s 2015 federal election of ordering all 16 major Postmedia newspapers across Canada to endorse Harper. Mercifully, voters were so appalled by Harper that they turfed him out of office anyway.

The managerial equivalent of the bubonic plague

Godfrey became CEO of Postmedia in 2009. Since that time, he has laid waste to its business while earning millions in compensation. According to the corporation’s most recent proxy circular, $100 of its shares purchased in June 2011 (when Postmedia became a TSX-listed company) had a market value on Aug. 31, 2016, of less than one dollar. During that same period, Postmedia paid Godfrey over $8 million.

In mid-2016, Godfrey led the company through a debt restructuring, which appears to have conferred control of Postmedia to New Jersey-based Chatham Asset Management.

Chatham’s top priority should be to jettison the wildly over-compensated Godfrey, yet there is no indication that the company is anxious to liberate Postmedia from his disastrous reign. That’s bad news not only for Postmedia’s employees and shareholders, but also, and more importantly, for the 21 million Canadians who rely on Postmedia for their news. Godfrey not only is the managerial equivalent of the bubonic plague, but also seems determined to have his media empire act as Canada’s leading propaganda organ of the hard right.

A case in point is Postmedia’s reporting on the Green Party of Canada’s recent adoption of policies calling for sanctions on Israel.

Postmedia smears the Green Party

The first of these policies expressed support for the use of boycott, divestment and sanctions as a means of bringing an end to Israel’s illegal, decades-long occupation of Palestinian territories. In August 2016, it was adopted by a large majority of participants at the party’s biannual convention in Ottawa.

Green Party leader Elizabeth May opposed the policy and publicly contemplated resigning after the party’s convention in Ottawa, but resolved to remain as leader when the party’s federal council called a special general meeting in order, among other things, to revisit the policy. May assigned two members of the party’s shadow cabinet to supervise negotiations over a new sanctions policy that did not endorse the BDS movement, but that nonetheless expressed support for the three goals of the BDS movement and called for targeted sanctions and divestment as a means of pressuring the government of Israel to respect Palestinian rights. On Dec. 3, 2016, at the special general meeting in Calgary, Green Party members voted overwhelmingly to replace the BDS policy with the new sanctions policy.

Since June 2016, Postmedia newspapers have published 15 articles relating to the Green Party’s debate on Palestinian rights. The first appeared in the National Post on June 27, 2016, shortly after Green Party members expressed strong support for the BDS policy in a preliminary online vote. Entitled “Greens draw outrage, ‘anti-Israel’ accusations, over proposal to add BDS to party policies,” the article established the highly belligerent tone of all Postmedia reporting on the party’s Palestinian rights debate. It quoted only those who vehemently denounced the proposed BDS policy, using such language as “outrageous,” “just bizarre,” “tremendously hypocritical” and “anti-Jewish-Canadian.”

Virtually all of Postmedia’s 15 articles bore headlines that suggested extremism, anti-Israel bias or infighting within the party. For example, a Toronto Sun article of Aug. 14, 2016, was headlined “Greens self-destruct with Israel bashing.” A mere seven days later, the Toronto Sun published another article, “Greens attacking Israel? Hardly a surprise.” (The headlines and dates of all 15 Postmedia articles are listed at the end of this article.)

Even worse than the strident tone of Postmedia’s articles was the absence of pro-BDS and Palestinian perspectives. The 15 articles quoted opponents of BDS on 17 occasions, anti-BDS organizations on eight occasions, and Israel’s ambassador to Canada on one occasion. By contrast, only once did any of the 15 articles quote a supporter of BDS (Jill Stein, leader of the U.S. Green Party). In none of the articles was a single Palestinian or Palestinian solidarity organization quoted.

At Postmedia, the voices of Palestinians and those who support their rights simply do not matter.

Worst of all, Postmedia’s reporters completely ignored the issue at the heart of the debate over BDS: Israel’s egregious human rights abuses. Not one of the 15 articles disclosed that the governments of Canada, the United States, and the EU, as well as the UN Security Council and the International Court of Justice, all acknowledge that Israel’s settlements in the West Bank violate the Fourth Geneva Convention and are a serious obstacle to peace. Not one article disclosed that Israel makes extensive use of collective punishment, which is also a severe violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention. Not one article disclosed that multiple human rights bodies, including Amnesty International, U.S.-based Human Rights Watch, and the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem, have documented the Israeli forces’ physical and psychological abuse of Palestinian children — in some cases amounting to torture. And not one article disclosed that Gaza, home to nearly 2 million trapped Palestinians, is on the verge of becoming “uninhabitable” due to Israel’s unrelenting and cruel siege.

Unethical journalism

In September 2011, the Canadian Association of Journalists issued a set of principles for ethical journalism, which include the following:

We avoid allowing our biases to influence our reporting; We give people, companies or organizations that are criticized in our reporting the opportunity to present their points of view prior to publication; and We seek to capture in our stories the diverse values, viewpoints and lives of the people in our communities.

During the past six months, dozens of Palestinian solidarity organizations have issued statements praising the Green Party’s defence of Palestinian rights. Those organizations include Palestine House, Independent Jewish Voices, and Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East. Yet in its 15 articles on the Green Party’s Palestinian rights debate, Postmedia quoted no supportive statements from any such organization. At Postmedia, capturing diverse Canadian viewpoints and the voices of Palestinians and those who support their rights simply does not matter.

Postmedia’s anti-Palestinian bias is so extreme that, shortly after the Green Party adopted the BDS policy, the Vancouver Sun published a shameless editorial in which it defamed Independent Jewish Voices and three members of the Green Party (including this author). Within days of the publication of its smear job, the Vancouver Sun received a letter from IJV’s counsel alleging defamation. The Sun promptly erased the editorial from its website and later published a retraction and apology.

At the end of the day, Paul Godfrey’s worst offence is not that he has enriched himself while helping wipe out stunning amounts of shareholder value. No, his worst offence is that the media empire he helped construct cares less about objectivity, fairness and human rights than the promotion of his right-wing agenda. Thus, the best service that Chatham Asset Management can render to Postmedia’s vast audience is to replace Godfrey with a CEO who will ensure scrupulous respect for journalistic ethics.

But don’t hold your breath.

Postmedia’s 15 articles on the Green Party of Canada’s Debate Over Palestinian Rights: "Greens draw outrage, ‘anti-Israel’ accusations, over proposal to add BDS to party policies" (National Post, June 27); "The Green party’s anti-Israel agitators" (National Post, July 26); "Holocaust deniers threaten Green Party credibility" (Toronto Sun, Aug. 2); "Elizabeth May: Greens stand firmly against anti-Semitism" (National Post, Aug. 2); "Greens remove reference to Jewish group in new policy to revoke status of charities that violate human rights" (National Post, Aug. 6); "Green Party’s boycott Israel policy ‘totally unhelpful’ to peace, ambassador to Canada says" (National Post, Aug. 8); "Green Party losing members, riding associations as BDS controversy highlights infighting" (National Post, Aug. 10); "Greens self-destruct with Israel Bashing" (Toronto Sun, Aug. 14); "Elizabeth May chooses to stay after Green Party’s pro-BDS stance tempted her to step down as leader" (National Post, Aug. 22); "Greens attacking Israel? Hardly a surprise" (Toronto Sun, Aug. 23); "Elizabeth May’s leadership versus the card shark" (Toronto Sun, Aug. 23); "Green Party Lost its Way" (Vancouver Sun, Aug. 25); "B.C. Green Party considering name change, as federal leader May fires shadow cabinet trio" (Vancouver Sun, Sept. 13); "Calgary Jewish Federation say Green Party resolution places blame on Israel" (Calgary Herald, Dec. 4); "Green Party rejects BDS movement, but still supports economic pressure on Israel" (National Post, Dec. 5, 2016).
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