By guest blogger Brian Brennan
Now that the merry pranksters at Frank magazine have been outed as the satirists behind the http://www.supportlordblack.com hoax, it behooves us to ask who does support Conrad Black, and why? The March 12th issue of Maclean’s magazine offers an answer: Mark Steyn, a right-wing columnist described by Peter Preston of the London Observer as an “American-based neo-con ranter.”
Steyn, whose by-line also appears regularly in such conservative publications as the Western Standard and the National Review, writes in Maclean’s that Lord Black and his wife, the columnist Barbara Amiel, have been “good for readers and good for newspapers.” He doesn’t elaborate, but we presume he is referring to the fact that Black gave Canada The National Post — a national daily to compete with The Globe and Mail — and that he ran a media company, Hollinger Inc., which owned most of the country’s other major dailies. Were these papers good for readers when Black was at the helm? Sometimes. Black believed in spending money on journalism, and newspapers often put out a better product when the editorial budget is increased.
But was Black good for the newspapers? More specifically, did he provide good leadership for the people who worked at the newspapers? Let me speak from experience here. I worked as a staff writer at the Calgary Herald for 25 years. For more than 20 of those years, I couldn’t have asked for a better job. We had salaries and benefits comparable to those in big newsrooms across the country. We had bosses who encouraged us to do quality writing and photography and respect the intelligence of our readers. My job as a features writer and columnist took me across Canada and beyond in search of good stories. It was one of the best gigs I ever had.
Our winter of discontent began in 1996, a few months before Hollinger assumed a controlling interest in Southam, the company that owned the Herald. With a workaholic publisher in charge, the newsroom turned into a white-collar sweatshop. Reporters were ordered to produce more and more copy, which was then arbitrarily rewritten by newsroom managers to conform to the publisher’s expectations. Dignity went out the window along with respect. We often opened our newspapers in the morning to find our stories altered beyond recognition. “Drive-by editing,” we called it. Many of these editorial changes, done without consultation with the reporters, resulted in errors, and readers demanding printed corrections, apologies, and retractions.
In October 1998, editorial staffers voted to join the Communications, Energy, and Paperworkers Union (CEP). For the first time in 115 years, the Herald newsroom was certified. But two years of Hollinger ownership had failed to fix the problems caused by the previous management. In fact, things had gotten worse. Aside from the drive-by editing, there had been indiscriminate firings. Senior writers were dismissed for the flimsiest of reasons. We needed protection from the madness. We became CEP Local 115A. We spent a year trying unsuccessfully to negotiate a first contract. Then the company locked us out. We were on the picket line for eight months.
In March 2000, Black came to Calgary to attend a Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce shareholders’ meeting. Some of the locked-out workers confronted him in the lobby of the Westin Hotel. He told us the Herald had improved as a paper since the start of the lock-out. The paper’s dwindling circulation said otherwise. Union leader Andy Marshall asked Black why he was insulting his once-valued employees. “We’re not,” responded Black. “We’re amputating gangrenous limbs.”
The lock-out ended on June 30th, 2000 with the union being decertified and most of the 93 workers still on the picket line taking buyouts. I was one of those who took the money. My job as a columnist had been eliminated and many of my friends were looking for employment elsewhere, including a number of national-award winners who had once combined to make the Herald one of the best dailies in Western Canada. With them gone, I could see no reason for going back into the building.
So, was Conrad Black good for the Calgary Herald? When union leader Marshall said in March, 2000 that the Herald needed us back in the building to restore its status as a quality paper, Black replied: “We’ve got one. And it’s getting better all the time.” Seven years later, I still beg to differ.
Brian Brennan is a Calgary author and journalist. His latest title is How the West Was Written: The Life & Times of James H. Gray.