Media

Margaret Atwood vs. the National Post

Author claims censorship after newspaper pulls and edits op-ed
Photo: Mark Hill
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UPDATE 4:05 EST Canadaland has some additional details from sources inside the Post, which you can read here.

On Friday the National Post scored something of a coup when they published a satirical op-ed by acclaimed author Margaret Atwood poking fun at the prime minister. This is the story of how they managed to turn that stroke of good fortune into an existential crisis for the newspaper. Call it the ultimate self-inflicted wound.

The piece, which critiqued the Conservative fixation on Justin Trudeau’s hair before turning to a few pointed criticisms of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, made me do a double take at the juxtaposition of author and outlet when I first saw it. Atwood is a get for the Post.

Then a few hours later, Atwood tweeted, “Um, did I just get censored? For my flighty little caper on Hair?”

Internet outrage built swiftly as it became clear that the National Post had deleted the article from their site sometime before 5:30 p.m. EST, hours after it was published. A cached version of the article began to spread and so did questions about why exactly the Post had removed the article.

In an email sent to the Toronto Star, senior vice-president Gerry Nott defended the removal, arguing that “the column was taken down because the necessary fact checking had not been completed. Senior editorial leadership at Postmedia also had not concluded whether the column was aligned with the values of the National Post and its readers.”

Jeet Heer, senior editor at the New Republic, didn’t mince any words in chastising the National Post publicly on Twitter.

“So every Post column must now align with 'the values of the National Post and its readers'? Do these people understand what columns are?”

Late Friday evening, media critic Jesse Brown tweeted, “The decision to pull the Margaret Atwood piece came from National Post's management, not editors.”

Ricochet made requests for comment Friday evening to Nott, Anne Marie Owens, the Post’s editor-in-chief and Andrew Coyne, the paper’s editorials and comments editor. Owens responded that the piece was up again on their website and would be in the paper tomorrow. She had not responded to a series of follow-up questions by publication time.

Sometime around 9:30 p.m. EST, roughly four hours after it was first removed, the piece was reposted to the National Post’s website — with some significant changes.

Among other edits, the following sentences have been cut from the new version: “Why is Harper still coyly hiding the two-million-dollar donors to his party leadership race? Don’t we have a right to know who put him in there? Who’s he working for, them or us?”

The last two sentences of Atwood’s penultimate paragraph were also cut.

“Why is he hiding what he knew about the Duffy cover-up, and when he knew it? He’s given four mutually exclusive answers so far. Is there a hidden real answer?”

Fact check

So were Atwood’s facts wrong, as Nott implied? A CBC article from June of 2006 summarizes the issue of undisclosed donors to Harper’s leadership campaign.

“In October 2002, then Canadian Alliance leader Stephen Harper refused to release information on who donated to his leadership campaign. He later backtracked, and quietly posted a partial list on his party's website. But, he only posted 54 donors who gave more than $1,075 each, leaving out the names of 10 other large donors who refused to go public, and more than 9,000 people who gave less than $1,000 each."

And what about whether he’s hiding what he knew about the Duffy cover-up?

A CBC story from August 17 reports that “Harper — ignoring evidence that indicates a number of PMO staffers were aware of the arrangement — says Duffy and Wright were the two principal players and are the ones being held accountable.”

According to a timeline of the prime minister’s statements published by the Toronto Star, Harper first expressed "full confidence" in Nigel Wright through his spokesperson on May 17, 2013. Two days later, on May 19, Harper expressed “regret” over accepting the resignation of Wright, saying, “I accept that Nigel believed he was acting in the public interest.” On May 28, Harper said that Wright had “made a very serious error. For that, he has accepted sole responsibility and has agreed to resign.”

Then on October 28, 2013, Harper explained that Wright had been “dismissed” for “an inappropriate payment to Mr. Duffy.”

The prime minister’s story has also changed repeatedly on the question of who knew what, and when, regarding the Duffy payment.

Several of the newspaper’s contributors have claimed that the National Post does not normally fact check columns or opinion pieces.

Management calls the shots

Atwood told the Globe and Mail that she received an email late Friday evening from the Post saying that a senior editor posted the piece “before the people upstairs had a chance to review it.”

This raises a number of questions about the independence of the Post’s editorial staff. Does management often review content prior to publication to ensure it is “aligned with the values of the National Post and its readers?”

Are columns and opinion pieces published by the National Post vetted to ensure they don’t interfere with the political or economic interests of the newspaper’s owners? As Heer points out, this is antithetical to the mandate of a media outlet.

In this case, the changes made to the article appear to be intended to spare the prime minister embarrassment. Did the Post’s management decide to overrule their editorial staff on their own, or was pressure applied by either the prime minister’s office or the Conservative party?

For now the Post isn’t talking, but it’s hard to imagine that this episode won’t do serious, and perhaps irreparable, damage to the newspaper’s credibility.

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