Another Victoria newspaper scandal, being ignored by …newspapers

by Yule Heibel on August 21, 2007

(Updated Aug.28/07, see below…)

Some readers might remember the Vivian Smith scandal from early July last summer: I blogged about it here, on July 20/06 after reading about it on Sean Holman’s Public Eye Online. (Note: re. my July 20/06 entry: pardon the opening two paragraphs — I was coming out of a period of blog hibernation, which, as any reluctant blogger will attest, can discombobulate one’s train of thought. Just skip that bit and go straight to the paragraph that starts, “On July 7, Sean Holman…”)

Well, history might not repeat itself exactly, but aside from the details, we have a repeat performance at another Victoria newspaper. Last year, we witnessed the Times-Colonist firing Vivian Smith, who dared to write an article that suggested that tourists need not get fleeced by established tourist industry ventures and that they can find plenty of things to do for free in Victoria. It seems that these established tourist ventures (The Empress Hotel, Butchart Gardens, etc.), which spend many dollars advertising in the Times-Colonist, felt aggrieved, and so Smith was fired. (See my blog entry, toward the end, for a list of all the relevant Public Eye Online posts on this saga. Smith was sort-of/ kind-of reinstated eventually, although one hardly sees her well-written, informative articles anymore.)

This year we see the Victoria News (a thrice-weekly publication owned by local press baron David Black) revealed as fully in bondage to car dealers. The paper’s editor (Keith Norbury) was fired and one of its senior reporters (Brennan Clarke) resigned in the wake of an article Clarke wrote, detailing the savings Canadians can expect if they go to the US to buy a car.

Sean Holman broke the story in his August 17/07 entry, Car trouble:

Victoria News editor Keith Norbury was fired today, Public Eye has exclusively learned, two days after one of his senior reporters – Brennan Clarke – resigned. The firing follows an advertiser complaint about an article published earlier this month by the newspaper. In an interview, Vancouver Island News Group president Mark Warner confirmed Mr. Norbury’s forced departure was, in part, connected to the complaint. “There were a number of issues,” he said. “But that was certainly one of them.” Mr. Warner declined to say what those other issues may have been. Nor would he elaborate on how the complaint was connected to the firing.

The article, authored by Mr. Clarke, discussed the case of a Broadmead resident who saved $13,000 by purchasing a Mercedes ML350 in Portland rather than from a local dealer. The woman, Rebecca Schevenius, and her friend are “planning to publish an 18-page how-to pamphlet entitled ‘How to Import a Car into Canada’ for others interested in testing the cross-border used car market.”

In a interview with Public Eye earlier this afternoon, Dave Wheaton Pontiac Buick GMC Ltd. dealer principal Dave Wheaton said, “I was upset with the paper for doing it because it was one person’s opinion” – referring to Ms. Schevenius. “And they are by no stretch of the imagination an expert at it. And why that was news I don’t know.”

Note that this is Dave Wheaton’s opinion, but it seems opinions are weighed differently, depending on how big your advertising budget is. For since the firing and resignation, writers on Public Eye Online’s comments board have revealed more information on the Wheatons:

According to the Wheaton website, Wheaton owns 17 dealerships in the Western Provinces. Obviously any sort of criticism from Dave Wheaton would carry a lot more weight than a single dealership in a single Black Press market. (from this Aug.20/07 entry)


I see that the Wheatons now own a bank and insurance company as well. General Bank of Canada, located in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, is owned by the Wheaton Group of Companies, the largest General Motors franchised dealer network in Canada. The incorporation of a bank further expands the financial services of the Group which currently owns a regulated life company, First Canadian Insurance Corporation, and a property and casualty company, Millennium Insurance Corporation. General Bank of Canada is the first privately held chartered bank in Canada. (from another Aug.20 entry)

It’s worth reading all related entries, plus comments, by date:
Aug. 17: Car trouble (which includes a full reprint of the alleged offending article by Brennan Clarke)
Four entries on Aug. 20, in order:
So long and thanks for all the fish (8:27 AM)
A question of credibility (9:10 AM)
Klausphiles (4:00 PM)
Another brick in the wall (4:33 PM)
Aug. 21: Meanwhile, among the ranks of the fallen

Lots of good comments on the boards, too. I especially agree with the most recent one in the Aug.21 post, which points out what a good job Keith Norbury had done as editor. The VicNews shot itself in the head by firing him. As the story unfolds further, Sean Holman will no doubt keep up the reports, so check back on Public Eye Online in the coming days.

Even though Victoria’s economy seems to be maturing in some areas, what I wrote at the end of my blog entry of July 20/06 on the Vivian Smith firing still rings true: there is an entrenched paternalism and a petty immaturity at work here that should just be canned. Full stop. The paternalistic mindset is particularly offensive to me. It represents not modern capitalism at all, but a weird sort of colonial capitalism: a throwback to an economy where men “expect to be sheltered from criticism, whether the kind emanating from a free press or the kind coming from the market,” as I wrote last year. It’s an economy where the “natives” better not get uppity, where women and punky reporters toe the line and know their place, where a man’s silo is his castle, and you better know where the service entry is, ’cause the front door of the keep is not for you.

And we wonder why Canada ranks at the bottom for innovation (14th place out of 17 among the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries). That will never change as long as newspapers like the Times-Colonist or the Victoria News act as enablers to uninnovative businesses with bloated advertising budgets. They certainly don’t want anybody rocking their status quo by forcing them to innovate in a free market, and our “free press,” it seems, guards their interests.

Update, Aug.28/07: Sean Holman reports today that Dave Wheaton emailed him over the weekend to say that his comments were not the reason for Brennan Clarke’s resignation or Keith Norbury’s firing. The newspaper (whose publisher Mark Warner had earlier explicitly stated that the resignation & firing were connected to Dave Wheaton’s complaint) now backs the car dealer up:

Asked for comment, news group vice-president Kirk Freeman said Mr. Norbury’s firing “is an internal personnel issue. And what has transpired had nothing to do with Dave Wheaton.”

Somehow, I find that rather incredible. It sounds more like the rearguard trying to douse a fire.


skip August 22, 2007 at 1:39 pm

Having worked for years in the bowels of Black Press as a copy breeder, the Norbury episode comes as no surprise.
Editorial staff have always been considered expensive clutter. Insightful, informative and occasionally contentious stories can be pulled on a whim by sales staff and management. The reporter or editor who speaks up is fired or harangued into submission.
The social compact that requires the publisher be honest and forthright and report the news in an ethical transparent fashion does not exist at Black Press.
Black Press secures market share not by providing a good read, but by predatory ad pricing, to drive out competition.
However, the joke is on the advertiser: Black Press will be unable to produce the requisite readers due to shoddy editorial standards and their ads will not be viewed.
The bullies that patrol Black Press newsrooms cannot see beyond the tips of their noses. This could have been dealt with much more professionally.
What kind of company drags a 20+ year, award winning, honest, unflinchingly ethical staff member onto the carpet in a very public manner, and then proceeds to shred their character, accomplishments and ability? A mean spirited one.
I hope advertisers and readers realize the type of people they are dealing with. This episode has certainly turned many readers off Black Press publications. This should result in a rate adjustment. Advertisers should demand it.

yulelog August 22, 2007 at 3:39 pm

Thanks for stopping by & leaving a comment, skip.

I’m quite often amazed by the disconnect between what Canadians believe about themselves (“best place on earth,” “kinder, gentler [than the US],” “naifs,” and so on), and how they actually behave. At the corporate level, Canadians play hardball and they play dirty, very dirty. Yet they continue to believe that they are somehow the underdog to the big bad American wolf. (I have dual citizenship, and I love America for its good qualities, even when I look at it critically; I could say the same about Canada — I know both countries have many stellar qualities, along with huge flaws.)

No doubt there are media conglomerates in the US who’ll play as dirty a hardball game as Black Press — or any of the other tough corporate entities around here. But somehow, there’s a tougher, law-based push-back from citizens in the US when injustice occurs, which I don’t see here. That bothers me a lot.

Canadians sometimes shake their heads at American ways, and say that Canadians are “lucky” because they’re not “as litigious” as Americans who “like to sue” at the slightest provocation. But you know what? Americans use lawyers to assert their rights, and the lawyers ensure that rule of law continues to be the ideal to which civil society should adhere. (When that breaks down at the very top levels, with civil rights stripped for the sake of “homeland security,” then a country really can get into trouble. Let’s hope that trend will be reversed after the next election.)

Too often — IMO — Canadians instead take it up the backside where an American would call a lawyer and sue for millions. Money talks — as you note in regard to advertisers, for example. If Black Press had a bit of well-placed fear of a lawsuit that could drain its purse, maybe they wouldn’t behave like thugs. But there’s no tradition of that sort of reliance on the law here, it seems to me, so that if either Keith Norbury or Brennan Clarke hired a lawyer to represent his interests, it could still be a public relations failure for the plaintiff (since the public wouldn’t side with the “litigious”), while the defendant might walk away untouched.

Meanwhile, the other media outlets close ranks with Black Press — where has this been covered? CBC, A-Channel? Brief snippets only? Bah!

Lucky Americans. The lawyers would be all over this, as would other media, and neither Black Press nor the Imperium that runs the Times-Colonist as well as practically every other daily newspaper in Canada would be able to hush it up.

Terry T September 3, 2007 at 10:10 pm

I see that the BC Market now has a true undertanding of how much a low life manager that Kirk Freeman is – if you follow his shoddy newspaper career you will see he has either been fired from or quit or forced out of at least 10 newspaper management jobs in the last 12 years – it is sad that Kirk is now managing again and is doing it without any care for staff – is advertisers wanted advertorials then they should buy the newspaper and print all they want, the comptition in these BC markets are no better off – they have Ed Galeonozki doing the same type moves , Ed had the same shaddy background – sad day for newspapers when this type of stuff happens

yulelog September 3, 2007 at 10:46 pm

Thanks for commenting, Terry. I’m not familiar with either individual, and would not want to assume anything about tactics or practices by same, but I agree that it’s a sad day for newspapers — lasting much longer than just a day, alas.

It’s typical for individuals to excuse whatever they do by taking cover behind (or identifying with) the corporate mission. “It’s for the good of the organization” or “I was just following orders” are standard lines we’ve all heard. Often.

But it seems that opposition is also hackneyed and lame. I can’t identify with any radical group that would post some kind of “call to action” on utility poles, or march with protest signs to CanWest or Black Press corporate offices (not that such a creature has materialized at any rate). What good would they do, when most citizens wouldn’t want to identify with whatever the opposition identifies as its mission?

So we have a vacuum, it seems to me. A real competitor on the media front could step into that vacuum, perhaps. But what are the chances of that happening? Who is going to come up with a compelling, honest, viable and robust alternative? Bloggers? Not likely. Homemade presses and newsletters? Ditto: too diffuse, not robust. The “Indymedia” forums? Last time I checked the Victoria one (some years ago — I think it’s defunct now) it was full of lunatics raving about conspiracies and Americans, with a vile comments board. Talk about crazies… Vancouver at least has The Tyee, which is very good (although the comments degenerate there pretty quickly into predictable and often flaming slamming). Maybe strengthening laws against media concentration is one part of the solution…?

In the meantime, the vacuum gets filled by more of the same-old, same-old, to the point where even the occasional good article gets obscured by all the drivel that surrounds it.

What seems to work are aggregators — human aggregators — who pick out the best or relevant articles, posting these to a “feed” to which users can subscribe. Sort of what Marianne Lepa does with ArtsNews Canada or Denis Dutton with Arts & Letters Daily.

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