Blog by John Miller

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Call 'em outlaws

It's a bad decision, and even worse timing: During a month in which tabloid journalism is under the microscope as never before, the company that owns the Toronto Sun has closed itself off from public scrutiny by pulling out of the Ontario Press Council.

This is a regrettable move that can only undermine public confidence in the press, and lead to further erosion of the Sun's own standards of covering the news. The parent company, Sun Media, is controlled by Pierre Karl Peladeau, who earlier pulled his newspapers out of the Quebec press council too.

The only good news is that the Ontario Press Council will survive, despite the immediate loss of Sun Media's 27 daily newspapers, which include the tabloid Ottawa and Toronto Suns and community dailies in such cities as London, Kingston and Peterborough. That leaves only 10 dailies as members, although many more community non-daily newspapers still belong.

The Ontario council, which was formed by the newspapers themselves in 1972, receives unresolved public complaints about news and opinion stories. Cases are heard by a committee chosen from 20 members, evenly split between representatives from member papers and the public. Dr. Robert Elgie, a former Ontario cabinet minister, serves as chairman.

The council's only power is to compel a newspaper to publish any adjudications that affect it, using the power of publicity to deliver quasi-independent verdicts to readers about whether their paper acted responsibly. But its real value is that it forces editors and reporters to look over their shoulders before they jump off a cliff and do something to discredit journalism.

(Full disclosure: I was a member of the press council representing the Toronto Star when the Toronto Sun, then an independent tabloid, joined in the early 1980s. I remain a supporter of the council's work, although I think it can be more transparent and proactive.)

Unfortunately, Sun Media's stated reasons for pulling out are as misleading and full of holes as some of its breezy tabloid news stories. I'm told the breaking point came earlier this month when Sun executives showed up bristling with anger at a press council hearing into a complaint from the Canadian Labour Congress about this story written by Brian Lilley, its chief parliamentary correspondent.

The press council has yet to reach a decision about the story, but a letter to the council signed by Glenn Garnett, publisher of the Toronto Sun and Sun Media's vice-president of editorial, said:"It has become painfully evident that the editorial direction of our newspapers, especially our urban tabloids, is incompatible with a politically correct mentality that informs OPC thinking, in the selection of cases it hears, and the rulings it renders.

"We cannot be bound by the interpretations of our competitors on our obligations and objectives as journalists. We no longer believe there is common cause here and have no reasonable expectation this is going to change."

In fact, most of Sun Media's newspapers in Ontario are not "urban tabloids" but long-standing community papers like the London Free Press and Kingston Whig Standard, which were once owned by publishers who cared about accountability and community standards. Secondly, the Ontario Press Council has never received very many complaints from readers about what appears in the Toronto Sun. Part of that is due to the type of readers the paper has. Part of it is due to the cheeky tone of the paper. You expect to take The Globe and Mail seriously, but not always the Sun. Nor is there any record of Sun Media papers losing any more than their fair share of council adjudications. More often, the council dismisses complaints from the public, defending the industry that created it.

Instead, we must conclude that Sun Media has a thin skin, or else something to hide.

What's missing from Sun Media's announcement is any mention of a substitute for the press council complaints process. None of its papers has an ombudsman, meaning any complaints are handled by the editors who made the decisions in the first place, and while anyone can write a letter to the editor pointing out an error, the Toronto Sun has never given its readers the last word. The paper always adds a snarky tag line to published letters.

This makes me listen to the views of Jeffrey Dvorkin, the Toronto-based executive director of the Organization of News Ombudsmen. He says of Sun Media: "Unfortunately, I see them heading down a path that conveys more shock value — which is clearly something that is marketable — but a more important value of transparency and accountability is lost."

Since taken over by Peladeau, Sun Media has isolated itself from the rest of the Canadian newspaper industry. It pulled out of the chief industry association, the Canadian Newspaper Association, and dropped out of the National Newspaper Awards, which honour the best in print journalism. The chain also stopped contributing to the Canadian Press, a co-operative exchange whereby Canadian newspapers share their stories.

Although there is no reason to suspect the Sun tabloids use any of the illegal tactics recently uncovered at Britain's News of the World, Sun Media is no stranger to public controversy.

The Canadian Broadcast Standards Council, a sort of national press council for Canadian broadcasters, last month made a public plea for viewers to stop filing complaints about a Sun News interview conducted by afternoon host Krista Erickson with a well-known Canadian dancer, Margie Gillis. It was deluged with more than 4,000 complaints about the June 1 broadcast, in which Erickson grilled Gillis about living off government cultural grants for years. Normally, the council receives a total of between 1,800 and 2,200 complaints on all subjects a year.

I have written expert witness reports for at least two readers who successfully sued the Toronto Sun for libel, and I can tell you that it's not hard to find egregious examples of the paper's editors and writers shortcutting accepted journalistic standards.

What's even more worrisome is that Sun Media's top executives think they should be accountable to no one. Perhaps, with a majority Conservative government in Ottawa, they think they have nothing to fear in the way of scrutiny from government. Perhaps they think saving the $80,000 they pay for their papers' membership in the OPC can be better spent on journalism (although I doubt it will be spent that way). Perhaps they think that crippling the council, which got by on a yearly budget of only $200,000, is good for Canadian newspaper readers.

Let's hope the ultimate umpires -- readers like you and me -- convince them they're wrong. If you have a complaint about any Sun Media newspaper, send it to me. I'll investigate, for free.