Blog by John Miller

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Not fit to lead

Leonard Asper, who is now being protected from his creditors, once complained to my boss that I was hurting his business.

Answering a fund-raising letter sent on behalf of Ryerson's School of Journalism, Leonard wrote back with a question: "Why should I give money to a school that allows one of its professors, John Miller, to criticize my company?"

My dean showed me the letter, along with a more tactful one from Leonard's father, the legendary Izzy, who said CanWest Global Communications had already made its charitable decisions for the year and we should try again.

Leonard, who lacks Izzy's class, not to mention his business acumen, has made sure that Ryerson remains the only major journalism school in Canada that his company does not directly support.

CanWest's obituary as a family-run business is being writ large these days, after it entered bankruptcy protection in early October under pressure of a crushing $4 billion debt that it could no longer make payments on.

The judgment has been harsh. Here's David Olive, writing in the Toronto Star, commenting on "how uniquely unsuited Leonard has been to the CEO post to which his father elevated him at 35, and to which he has clung, with the forebearance of his siblings, by virtue of blood lines alone."

Leonard obstinantly drank the Kool-Aid of convergence, hoping to create synergies between the family's Global television network and the raft of big-city daily newspapers it paid Conrad Black top dollar for. When that didn't work, he bought more, paying $2.3 billion for specialty cable operator Alliance Atlantis. When he should have been dumping assets, Leonard "chipped away at the debt mountain with a toothpick," Olive writes.

Now CanWest, which the stock market once valued at $2.2 billion, is effectively worthless and about to be auctioned off in pieces to the highest bidders.

Nepotism, it seems, is a poor model for a media business.

"Leonard Asper," Olive wrote, "untutored in newspapers or corporate finance, was woefully unequipped to cope with the adversity his father set him up for back in 2000."

Unfortunately, hundreds of good journalists paid for his mistakes with their jobs, victims of short-sighted cost-cutting that ultimately did no good for the business and much harm to the quality of what those papers were able to offer readers.

I was happy to organize a petition against the national editorials that the Aspers once ordered all their papers to run -- a certain sign that they didn't understand newspapers and had little regard for their traditions. The petition was signed by a who's who of media personalities, including Pierre Berton, Patrick Watson and Tom Kent, and undoubtedly played a role in persuading the Aspers to back off.

No petition, however, could have saved CanWest from the self-inflicted harm Leonard Asper did to it.