CNN firstname.lastname@example.org_county.toronto.globe_and_mail 2003-10-08 published
Observers hail ASPER contribution
But views on Israel and direction of news coverage also provoked controversy
By Richard BLOOM and Paul WALDIE Wednesday, October 8, 2003 - Page B7
In its early days, CanWest Global Communications Corp. may have had the dubious moniker of The Love Boat network, but there is no doubt Izzy ASPER made "very significant" contributions to Canadian media, industry observers said yesterday.
At the same time, his actions as head of the media empire weren't without controversy.
Mr. ASPER died yesterday at 71. A tax lawyer by training, he is more commonly known as the founder of Winnipeg-based CanWest the parent of the Global network of television stations, and which, in 2000, engineered a multibillion-dollar purchase of Southam Newspaper Group, National Post and other assets from Conrad BLACK's Hollinger Inc.
Glenn O'FARRELL, president and chief executive officer of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters, said Mr. ASPER left a huge broadcasting legacy.
"The Canadian broadcasting system has been built over the last number of decades through the efforts of some fairly significant entrepreneurs, and Izzy ASPER was clearly one of those," Mr. O'FARRELL said. "He brought an incredibly astute vision of what could be done and what should be done in the name of strengthening Canada's place both domestically and internationally."
Mr. O'FARRELL worked at CanWest for 12 years and said working for Mr. ASPER was stimulating. "It was absolutely a privilege to work with somebody who possessed the depth and the breadth of his intellectual curiosity and interests."
Mr. ASPER also provoked controversy over the years with his views on Israel and his drive to converge news coverage at CanWest's newspapers.
In 2002, he fired Russell MILLS, publisher of the Ottawa Citizen, after an apparent conflict over editorial independence. At the time, CanWest forced papers across the chain to carry editorials written by officials in the company's head office. The policy sparked a barrage of complaints about a lack of editorial freedom at the papers. The removal of Mr. MILLS prompted a wave of protests against CanWest from Parliament to media organizations around the world. Mr. MILLS sued and reached a settlement with the company a few months later.
Mr. ASPER's staunch defence of Israel also left him open to charges that CanWest's papers do not fairly cover events in the Middle East. In a speech last year, he attacked media coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and accused several media outlets of having an anti-Israel bias. He singled out coverage by CNN, The New York Times, British Broadcasting Corp. and Canadian Broadcasting Corp. and said anti-Israel bias was a "cancer" destroying media credibility.
He has often criticized the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. in particular for what he has called the broadcaster's anti-Israel coverage. Yesterday, a Canadian Broadcasting Corp. official declined to comment on Mr. ASPER's views.
Still, amid the controversy, Christopher DORNAN, director of Carleton University's School of Journalism and Communication, praised Mr. ASPER's role in Canadian journalism.
"We're still, in the entertainment area, overshadowed by the exports of the juggernaut to the south. What's really ours is non-fiction, it's journalism... in as much as Israel ASPER built CanWest into a major, major player in that sector, his contribution is clearly significant."
Added Mr. DORNAN: " There are uncharitable souls that would argue that CanWest's contribution to the Canadian cultural landscape was negligible.
"Because when CanWest built itself as a network, in the early days, it was known as The Love Boat Network -- all they did was buy cheap, populist American programming, got ratings and contributed very little to Canadian cultural production. They made very little programming of their own and what they did make was in grudging compliance with Canadian content regulations," he said.
Mr. DORNAN argued that the Canadian media industry is not about keeping the Americans at bay, but instead about funnelling in highly desired American content in the most advantageous way possible.
Mr. ASPER built a television network that now employs "people from network executives to janitors. Those jobs would not have existed had he not done that. And now, of course, they do actually make some programming," Mr. DORNAN said.
Vince CARLIN, chairman of the School of Journalism at Ryerson University in Toronto, agreed, noting that history books won't likely describe him as a great endorser of Canadian culture.
"That's not what he was about. He was a businessman," said Mr. CARLIN, the former head of Canadian Broadcasting Corp. Newsworld, who had met with Mr. ASPER on numerous occasions.
"He learned how to use those [business] skills to create very dynamic business enterprises, but [CanWest] would never put cultural considerations ahead of business considerations," Mr. CARLIN said.
He explained how in his company's early days, Mr. ASPER insisted to government officials that his chain of television stations was not a "network" but instead a "system," because being dubbed a network was less advantageous from a business perspective. When regulations shifted, Mr. ASPER changed gears, calling the stations a network, Mr. CARLIN said.
Mr. ASPER was also involved in a bitter legal battle with Robert LANTOS, a prominent Toronto-based filmmaker. Mr. ASPER sued Mr. LANTOS for libel over comments he made during a speech in 1998. In the speech, Mr. LANTOS described Mr. ASPER as "the forces of darkness, whose greed is surpassed only by their hypocrisy." Mr. ASPER said the comments left the impression he was dishonest and disloyal.
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