New biography shows Izzy Asper sought influence

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      The author of a new book about media tycoon Izzy Asper says Asper bought more than a dozen daily papers from Conrad Black’s company in 2000 because he wanted to influence national affairs. “He paid half the company’s worth for those Conrad papers, and left his son with the debt,” Peter C. Newman, author of Izzy: The Passionate Life and Turbulent Times of Izzy Asper, Canada’s Media Mogul (HarperCollins, $34.95), told the Georgia Straight in a recent phone interview.

      Up until his death in 2003, Asper—the founder of Canwest Global Communications Corporation—maintained that he bought Hollinger’s 14 daily papers and half-interest in the National Post because it was a good investment for shareholders. When the deal closed, Canwest shares were trading at $18.55, but they’ve since sunk almost 97 percent in value, closing at 59 cents on December 9.

      In the book, Asper’s youngest son and current Canwest Global CEO, Leonard Asper, tells a wry joke about how the company’s debt load has inhibited its flexibility: “Obviously, Dad didn’t think we were very good deal makers. Because what he did was saddle us with so much debt [$4 billion] so we wouldn’t make another deal in our lifetimes—an incredible estate plan.”

      Newman told the Straight that Izzy Asper bought the Hollinger assets, which included Web portals and weekly papers, at the top of the market just as the dot-com bubble was bursting. “As soon as he got those papers, he tried to dictate what they should say,” Newman alleged.

      He added that most publishers don’t do this, but claimed that Asper didn’t understand this, and told Newman, “Shit, I own the press. Why won’t they do what I say?”

      Newman said that Asper had a point because newspapers should have “some institutional voice”, and publishers should control the editorial page. That became a heated issue within the Canwest empire in 2002 when Asper fired Russell Mills, then-publisher of the Ottawa Citizen, for printing an editorial that called for the resignation of then–prime minister Jean Chrétien.

      During that period, Canwest bounced several columnists, including Lawrence Martin, who raised questions about Chrétien’s political work on behalf of a hotel owner in Chrétien’s hometown of Shawinigan, Quebec. Newman includes comments from all of Asper’s children defending their father’s involvement in editorial issues.

      “What bothered Izzy about the Shawinigan file was that most of the coverage smacked of Conrad Black’s hatred for Chrétien because of the citizenship quarrel involving his title,” daughter Gail Asper says in Izzy. “So he viewed that as a personal vendetta against the prime minister for no justifiable newsworthy reason.”

      Leonard Asper defends his father’s steely response to a controversy over company-written national editorials that alienated staff at the Montreal Gazette. “I come from a more crude environment,” Leonard says in the book. “I don’t see that a journalist is any different than an employee at Wal-Mart. That’s why there’s this flap with the Montreal Gazette. If a bunch of employees at Wal-Mart are running up and down the isles [sic] at Wal-Mart declaring, ”˜We hate Wal-Mart, this is a terrible company and we hate its owners,’ as they were doing at the Gazette—we just didn’t see why a group of employees should be allowed to run around trashing the company and its owners. Our view of the world is that it’s a family business, and we’re family and you solve your problems internally. But we respected the fact, and always did, that columnists can write what they want, and if you didn’t like it, you just get new columnists.”

      The eldest son, David Asper, who is chair of the National Post, was more bombastic: “We own the papers. We have the right to have the papers print whatever the hell we want them to say. And if people don’t like it, they can go to hell. They can leave, get another job. People knew that Conrad had a much more hands-off policy.”

      Newman told the Straight that Izzy Asper was a Liberal supporter, but that his son David has changed allegiances in recent years. “David was once a very loyal Liberal, as you know,” Newman said, noting that the eldest son once wrote a column defending Chrétien against attacks from the media. (In the book, former National Post editor Matthew Fraser tells Newman that he wrote the piece and put it under David Asper’s byline.) “He’s now a rabid conservative and supports Harper.”