OCTOBER 12, 1972
Newspapers and You
AN ADDRESS BY A, Davidson Dunton, C.C., D.SC., LL.D.,
CHAIRMAN, ONTARIO PRESS COUNCIL
CHAIRMAN The President,
Joseph H. Potts
"Upon the reserve, dignity and independence of the secular press rests the unity of the country in large measure. Quebec and Ontario would be warmer national colleagues but for feelings of hostility arising from a too serious consideration of occasional vagaries of party journalismbaseless as an evidence of public feeling. A few heated expressions are remembered and a thousand just and friendly articles forgotten. In no particular can our enterprise, our enlightenment and our capacity be more conspicuous than in an improving and a helpful press, yielding to no estate in chivalry, patriotism or endeavour, and braving the ingratitude, seemingly inevitable, from those it serves most generously, and attracting still brighter intellects that it may become more worthy of an exalted service. "
Ladies and gentlemen-With those words, Mr. E. J. B. Pense, M.P.P., Editor of the Kingston Whig, concluded an address to The Empire Club entitled Canadian Journalism on March 8, 1906.
You may be surprised, as I was, to be reminded that television was introduced into Canada just twenty years ago. Our guest today, as Chairman of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, was responsible for doing so.
Three and one-half weeks afterwards, Mr. Dunton favoured our Club with an address on the subject "Canada and Television" at which time he stated:
"I think we can take it for granted that television is going to be a very strong social force. It is going to have a strong effect one way or the other on the development of our national life. I suggest. to you the way television develops -what is on that screen-what is available to see-is going to make a considerable difference on what Canada is like twenty or thirty or forty years from now. I don't mean what it is like physically, but what young Canadians are thinking about, what their concepts of life are, and what their standards of value are. It will make a considerable difference in those things that go to make up a nation."
Twelve years later, the Club was again privileged to hear an address by Dr. Dunton, as Co-Chairman, along with the late Andre Laurendeau of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism. On that occasion he stated:
"The Commission, I believe, has an important and enormously difficult task. But the real problems are not just questions for the Commission; they are problems first for you, for all Canadians. The Commission hopes that it will be able to come forward with some useful recommendations. But the great questions before Canada can be solved only by Canadians. Those who can help, I believe, are especially those who can look without prejudice, drop constricting ideas they may have grown up with, and face the facts squarely; those who will make an effort to appreciate the feelings and aspirations of Canadians other than those close to them."
Sir, we are delighted to welcome you back to the Club as Chairman of the Ontario Press Council.
It is really quite incredible that one man should have been called upon to assume so many varied and significant roles. But that is not allhe was the Associate Editor of the Montreal Star at the age of 25, Editor of the Montreal Standard at the age of 26 and General Manager of the Wartime Information Board at the age of 32.
He was President of Carleton University from 1958 until June of this year and, in 1970, was elected as the President of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada. Sir, you do the Empire Club great honour and it is my privilege to ask you to address this meeting on the subject 'Newspapers and You'.
DR. DAVIDSON DUNTON:
It is dangerous to have a President who does such good research. Ladies and gentlemen, I am quite sure that practically everyone in this room grumbles at times about the press. Over your coffee, you may have been doing it right now, over your beer or your scotch, but I am equally certain that practically all of you spend a certain amount of time each day reading one or more newspapers.
But all of you, I am pretty sure, have muttered complaints about newspapers at times. Something you really know about has been badly reported; something you think should have been in the paper and wasn't there; something that has been published you think would have been better left out; or you think that there has been something unfair said or done about some person or body.
Probably when you pique about the press you have ejaculated sometimes, "something should be done about newspapers".
That view, of course, is not new. All governments used to have extremely drastic opinions about the press and how to handle it. Now only some and totalitarian countries do. In seventeenth century England the Star Chamber had tyrannical power over books and the very embyronic newspapers of the day. And the Star Chamber was a real traditional tribunal, it wasn't just a figment and an editorial writer's ammunition box. It could impose fines of 25,000 pounds, a fortune for that day, on an offending editor or impose life imprisonment or the loss of ears. I hope some of the editors present have been finding their consciences twinge.
The Star Chamber disappeared with Charles I, along with some other things, but new controls on the press came along after that. It was against those controls that John Milton wrote his great pamphlet Areopagitica, that great plea for unlicensed printing, that did so much for the development of the concept of the freedom of the press. And the idea of this freedom did gain wide acceptance within the common law of England during the later seventeenth and during the eighteenth century, although, in typical British way, by sort of fits and starts; during much of that eighteenth century the authorities were still ready to take after editors whose writings they thought would "debauch the manners of the people" or "enervate the authority of the government". Curiously, governments think that things that don't agree with them probably debauch people or enervate the public good.
But toward the end of the eighteenth century the whole idea of the freedom of the press was bound up with the development of the idea of true democracy. Actually, the freedom of the press was first and very explicitly formally established by law in the Virginia Bill of Rights in 1775. That was followed by the famous first amendment to the United States constitution guaranteeing the freedom of the press.
In general it can be said that in the last century, the nineteenth, the principle of this freedom became very widely recognized throughout the whole English speaking world, and at varying intervals in most countries with developing forms, democratic forms of democratic government.
And the newspapers became more effective and bolder. In Britain The Times introduced advertising to gain revenues and became a real power in the land. I think here it is worth quoting a passage by Delane, the famous editor of The Times in 1852. He was replying to an accusation of irresponsibility by the government: He said, "The statesman collects his information secretly and by secret means; he keeps even the current intelligence of the day with ludicrous precautions until diplomacy is beaten in the race with publicity. The press lives by disclosures; whatever passes into its keeping becomes part of the knowledge and history of our times; it is daily and for ever appealing to the enlightened force of public opinion-anticipating, if possible, the march of events-standing upon the breach between the present and the future . . . ." It sounds as though there had been some leaks of government papers. I think there had been.
In the mid part of the nineteenth century newspapers were very important in opinion forming and often in having an effect on government policies-indeed, to a considerable extent, they were journals of opinion-but they were little like the great enterprises of today. For example, in its heyday The Times of London had a circulation of 70,000-but that 70,000 was greater than all the total circulation of all the other papers in England put together. In those days it was not really difficult to start a paper; and in fact a considerable number were founded-some lasting only a short time, some right to the present day. In Canada, history records the births, and often the deaths of quite a remarkable number of weeklies and dailies, some operating just for a short time to promote the opinions and interests of a particular part or faction.
In political matters at least the newspapers of those days were decidedly not namby-pamby. In Canada editors and reporters wrote of public men they disapproved of in terms that would make a modern reader jump. Political writing in this country of 100 years ago makes our present election campaign seem rather like a sensitivity session in comparison with the verbal battles of 100 or so years ago.
But during the nineteenth century the conditions underlying the theory of the freedom of the press were pretty clear. Most papers had a very definite political view and that view strongly coloured their editorials and very often coloured their reporting. Readers could get the opinions they wanted by choosing among a considerable number of papers of different stripes. And an individual or a group that had a bit of money could get a means of expressing their particular views by starting a paper without an enormous investment.
But towards the end of the century major changes began to occur. The development of near-universal primary education meant a greatly expanded potential readership for papers. Before that, remember, the majority of people couldn't read. No longer did the papers have to aim chiefly at an educated minority in society. The rotary press and the linotype machine greatly increased production possibilities. Circulation targets could be in the hundreds of thousands instead of the earlier tens of thousands or even thousands.
So in the twentieth century we get the development of the modern daily newspaper with its large circulation-probably a high proportion of all the families in a given area-its expensive presses, and typesetting and reproducing facilities, its photo and news services and so on.
In the development of technology, the growth of circulations, the increased costs, both capital and operating, we have a combination of economic factors that has made inevitably for fewer and larger newspaper concerns. In fact in all western countries in the last fifty years there has been a substantial decrease in the number of papers and an increase in the size of the enterprises that have survived.
This situation began to cause concern in Britain back in the 1930's. There was worry in a number of quarters that control over a few papers selling millions of copies a day was being concentrated in the hands of a very few proprietors. And it was also argued that intense competition for readers among the giant popular papers was leading them to some rather unsound reporting and editorial practices all in that desperate effort to outdo each other in providing interest-titillating material. And, of course, many of you who are familiar with the British press will know that in that country there are some of the best high quality papers in the world. There are also some of the hardest hitting popular papers that outdo anything that's ever been seen in Canada in terms of sensationalizing or providing material to, as the English phrase is, to titillate the readers.
The war put a damper on the whole subject, but in 1947 there was so much concern that the British Government appointed a Royal Commission on the Press. In its report, after two years of intensive study, the Commission said that it did not find great dangers in the degree of concentration that had occurred so far, although it hoped that there would be no further drop in the number of newspaper proprietors. Its major recommendation was that there be established a press council "to maintain those standards of professional responsibility and integrity which, we are happy to learn, are acknowledged by proprietors and journalists alike". The Commission also said "The body we have in mind . . . would depend for its effectiveness on its moral authority rather than on any statutory sanctions. It would derive its authority from the Press itself, and not from statute."
Some newspaper executives didn't like the idea. There was disagreement about whether such a Council should be set up at all; and if it were to be what form it should take. I might say that in my experience newspaper people tend to be very independent-minded and agreements among them don't come very easily. Finally, after four years of discussions in 1953 a Press Council was established in Britain by an accord among various associations of newspapers and journalists. It was composed entirely of press people, ten from the management side and fifteen from the editorial side. Everybody, including the staff, served on a part time and on largely voluntary basis. A typical British arrangement.
But in 1961 another Royal Commission was appointed, following yet another spate of disappearances of newspapers and mergers. This Commission was concerned largely with the economics of the industry under pressure from television, etc., but in its report it emphatically recommended that the Press Council be reconstituted to have a lay chairman from outside the newspaper community and a substantial lay or public membership. The Commission was very firm about this, and said that if the reforms were not carried out voluntarily there should be legislation.
The changes were instituted and in 1964 Lord Devlin, a very distinguished former High Court Judge, was appointed chairman of the Council. And now of the lower number of twenty members only fifteen were from the various ranks of the press and five from the general public.
The British Press Council has had its critics, both from inside and outside the industry, but, I think it is widely agreed that it has performed valuable service for both the public and the press in Britain. It has carefully investigated and given adjudications on a large number of complaints about newspapers. It has issued bulletins that have been generally respected and followed with regard to certain editorial practices. In instances, for example, where the behaviour of reporters has been criticized it has inquired, sometimes finding the accusations justified, sometimes not. It has made representations to government bodies about press matters and information matters that have carried a great deal of weight.
If copying is the sincerest form of praise the British Press Council has undoubtedly been successful. During the last fifteen years national press councils have been set up in a dozen countries, all more or less following the British model. Regional and local councils have been established in a number of other countries. In fact there has developed a sort of world wide press council movement.
Canada, like Britain has had a lot of Royal Commissions of different kinds but unlike Britain it hasn't had one on the press. It did have the Special Senate Committee on the Mass Media under the Chairmanship of Senator Keith Davey. In its lively report issued just over a year and a half ago the Committee laid out the extent of concentration of ownership of newspapers in Canada and the diminished choice of newspaper reading members of the public had. It was pretty generally rather critical of the performance of the press and said that there was a great deal of room for improvement, and called for better standards in newspaper work. And it strongly recommended the establishment of a national press council in Canada on the model of the British Council.
I am not privy to what went on in newspaper circles after that. I believe there were discussions about the possibility of setting up a nationwide press council, but without result. I do know that in the Province of Quebec there has been agreement for some time on the constitution of a Quebec council to include broadcasting, and that it is expected that this body will go into operation shortly, probably this fall. A council was established in Alberta last spring.
In Ontario, there was a group of newspapers that had talked about the formation of a council even before the report of the Davey Committee and those eight newspapers decided last spring to go ahead with and participate in the establishment and support of a council within the Province of Ontario. The eight form only a minority of the number of papers in the province but have over half the total circulation of the Province.
The Ontario Council follows the British model but with some differences in its constitution. There is an outside chairman-myself. But of the other twenty members half (ten) represent the general public, and ten are working newspaper people. The "professional" members are drawn from different sectors: reporters, editors, publishers and advertising men. The "public" half is composed of very able people from different parts of the provinces, different backgrounds, both sexes and varying ages. The executive secretary-a very important man-is Fraser MacDougall just retired as Chief of the Ottawa bureau of The Canadian Press.
On the basis of the first meeting of the Council I can say with some pride that we have a body of knowledgeable, fairminded, independently-thinking individuals who are very keen about their job of inquiring into and forming conclusions about questions of newspaper performance. Incidentally, "professional" members serve very much in their individual capacities and not at all as representatives of the papers they work for. The public members were chosen not by the newspapers themselves but by the professional members coming from papers in different parts of the province and different ranks, as I say, meeting with the Chairman and deciding to issue invitations to various people to become the public members and all accepted our first invitation.
A key function of the Council is to consider complaints from the public about the conduct of the press in the gathering and publication of news, opinion, advertising; and to report publicly on the action taken. The purposes and functions are very close to that of the British Press Council.
The objectives include considering complaints from members of the press about the conduct of individuals or organizations toward the press; reviewing and reporting on attempts to restrict access to information of public interest that can help the press and the public through the press; preserving the established freedom of the press; and encouraging the highest ethical, professional and commercial standards of journalism.
Like the British Press Council the Ontario Council has no power to punish papers by imposing fines or jail sentences or the cutting off of ears. Its power lies only in publicity and in moral suasion. Participating papers undertake as part of their participation to publish an adjudication of the Council in the matter of a complaint concerning them-and a paper is unlikely to be very happy if that conclusion goes against it. It is hoped that other more general reports of the Council about industry practices, if and when they are made, will carry weight.
It is assumed that complaints should go first to the newspaper concerned, and indeed, the Council will deal with the matter only if it has evidence that the complainant has written the newspaper and has not been satisfied with the response or the redress offered. For obvious reasons the Council has to ask assurance that a complaint is not going to be the subject of legal proceedings because you could get into an awful mess if there was a court case following discussion before the Council on the question of evidence and what was said before the Council which of course, is not a legal body and what was said there would not be privileged.
The Council of course has no right to deal with complaints about non-participating papers, but would do so if any such paper wishes.
Why this world-wide interest in press councils? I think there are some very fundamental reasons. Newspapers have an extremely important function as major purveyors of information, and of interpretation and of opinion in modern society. Under present day conditions daily papers tend to be few in number and to be under the control of a limited number of corporations. The responsibilities of these papers are inherently immense. In a democratic society there is a strong aversion to any form of government or statutory control of the press-in spite of this enormous importance to all society. The dangers of government influence are too obvious and too serious.
Over a century ago that very wise man, De Tocqueville, said: "There is no medium between servitude and extreme licence; in order to enjoy the inestimable benefits which the liberty of the Press ensures, it is necessary to submit to the inevitable evil it engenders."
And De Tocqueville also said though: "If anyone could point out an intermediate and yet tenable position between the complete independence and the entire subjection of the expression of public opinion, I should be perhaps inclined to adopt it; but the difficulty is to discover this position."
A press council in a way represents an attempt to find such a position, far short of course, of any statutory regulation, but providing for some check on the performance of papers. It's a move by newspapers themselves to set up an independent body that can review and report on what they do and do not publish.
In my view a great deal of credit should go to newspaper publishers who give their covenant and their financial support to setting up a body that may well criticize what their organizations do. We are all familiar with various trade associations, but I myself cannot think of another industry that has set up a group of tough-minded employees and members of the public to watch over the service that industry provides.
In quite a significant way, I think the press council movement is a sort of sign of our times. Newspapers are extremely important institutions in our society; and, like other institutions they have been coming under increasing criticism. As in many other instances there has been a feeling of a certain gap between the institution and those whom it serves. A press council should provide a new medium of understanding between individual readers and large publishing concerns. It gives real influence to representative members of the public and to thoughtful employees working together.
As an individual each one of you should be able to expect pretty good service from the newspaper or newspapers you read. Of course, by no means everything printed will or should interest you--others too, have their particular tastes and their concerns are different from yours. A newspaper cannot possibly publish all the information available, even about one given topic. It has to select and to condense. But you have the right to expect that the selection and condensation be competently and fairly done. A good newspaper and its special writers should have and should express their own opinions on many subjects. But you have the right to expect as a reader that other views too will be covered and available to you.
It is probably true that in the long run the public gets the press it deserves. Publishers and editors are very sensitive to different tastes and interests and concerns and reactions, and will very often try to meet expressions of those concerns and opinions. Actually, a letter to a paper may have more effect than you realize.
I said at the beginning that you probably all grumble at times about the press. I do plead with you that when you have a complaint you do communicate it to the paper. That will be good for the paper, it will probably help your point of view too, it will be in the public interest.
If you don't get satisfaction from the newspaper, if it is a participant in the Ontario Press Council, send it on to us. We will be glad to go to work on the problem. But remember, newspapers and their owners and editors have a great responsibility that you as readers have also responsibility for a good press.
Dr. Dunton was thanked on behalf of The Empire Club by Sir Arthur Chetwynd, a Director of the Club.
SIR ARTHUR CHETWYND:
Thank you, Mr. Chairman-Reverend Sir, Your Worship, and I realize I pause here, inspite of my age I am somewhat sensitive to what occurs in the newspapers these days and I am not too sure whether I say Women and Men or Ladies and Gentlemen. I hope you accept the Ladies and Gentlemen.
I find myself in the parallel position of one trying to find a gift for an executive, and you all know this statement, who has everything. How does one thank someone who has, indeed, done just about everything in his lifetime and done it so well. If The Empire Club offered a challenge trophy for their speakers, as this is the third time that Dr. Dunton has addressed The Empire Club, we would make it very simple and present him with a trophy in perpetuity.
Seriously, some several years ago I had the opportunity of meeting with Dr. Dunton several times as a representative of our particular industry and he at that time was the Chief Executive of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, a vital Canadian public corporation which he served so well for many years. In passing, sir, whilst I don't wish to make any unfair comparisons, I think it's safe to say that since you left, our discussions with the C.B.C., I think, have been somewhat less fruitful and satisfying. That's an inside joke and we will leave it at that.
Our speaker has had a long and remarkable career providing outstanding talent and leadership as the head of some of our most important organizations and institutions. Young people in Canada today are constantly reminded that in this fast-moving, technological age, they must be prepared to train for and to change their careers several times in their lifetime. Our speaker is an outstanding example to Canadians in all walks of life and is perhaps a prophet before his time. His continuing dynamism and contributions in many fields mark him as one of Canada's most illustrious sons where it really counts, being involved in the important happenings of everyday Canadian life.
Davidson Dunton has made many headlines in the press over the years. In his new capacity as Chairman of the Ontario Press Council, he is taking on what might well be one of his most challenging and sensitive chores of his career. I am sure all of us at The Empire Club want to wish you the best of luck, sir. We can expect exciting happenings. I am honoured, sir, to be asked to pass on to you the sincere thanks of The Empire Club for taking time out of your very busy schedule to speak to us today. We look forward to hearing from you again in the future and to start a new hat trick performance. Thank you, sir.