“Public trust” side of CanWest sale

Canada’s largest media union has told the bankers auctioning the CanWest chain of newspapers to consider the “public trust.” The company’s newspaper division is under bankruptcy protection and its bankers are expected to choose a winning bid within weeks.

“We understand that banks want their money back, but ownership of major Canadian newspapers carries with it commitments beyond the bottom line,” said Peter Murdoch of the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union in a press release.

Meanwhile Kevin Bent, publisher of CanWest’s two daily newspapers in Vancouver, was appointed interim president of CanWest’s newspaper division Friday.

Bent replaces Dennis Skulsky, who is joining the B.C. Lions football organization as president but will “continue in a consulting role with the publishing unit until the end of August,” said a CanWest story (link is to the Vancouver Sun site). The story quoted a staff memo by Skulsky: “The appointment of an interim president sends the right message to the marketplace — that we have placed a high level of importance on keeping the business on strategy while we continue to manage through the financial restructuring.”

The union is not impressed with how CanWest kept its newspaper “business on strategy.”

“From Vancouver to Montreal this group of papers once had a voice which reflected the cities they served. That voice was damaged by Canwest as it cutback newsrooms. We now need ownership which will revitalize these papers,” said the CEP.

 “The bidders are not buying a screwdriver company, they are purchasing vital messengers which inform Canadians about all aspects of their lives — including the financial and investment community. Somewhere that has to be a critical part of the equation as the banks look to get repaid.”

The union’s description of newspapers as vital messengers is very nice; comforting, almost, to a journalist’s ear. But frankly, as the media in Canada is now structured, and considering the evident apathy of both the public and elected officials (who show no interest in any policies to promote better media — such as effective competition laws), I see no evidence of the “public trust” as a stakeholder in CanWest’s sale.