Editorial freedom

Issue: BCMJ, vol. 44, No. 7, September 2002, Page 336 Editorials

The recent debacle over the firing of Russell Mills, the publisher of the Ottawa Citizen, is a nice macro of the pressures all editors are faced with in their daily struggle to maintain editorial independence. The Asper family added Conrad Black’s Canadian newspaper empire to CanWest Global after prolonged testimonials to regulatory agencies that they would play no role in dictating editorial content. In addition, they declared that CanWest was fiercely dedicated to the freedom of the press from any and all political/economic pressures. However, the ink was hardly dry on the federal regulator’s anointment of CanWest’s ownership bid when it became clear that the Aspers were philosophically aligned with the political future of their good friend, Canada’s prime minister. Eventually, the owners dictated rules surrounding unsigned editorial content to the editorial writers of the Ottawa Citizen, which Mr Mills apparently disregarded. There has been a lot of hand wringing and chest thumping since the famous firing, but in only a few days the furor died down and the level of rancor among the non-CanWest editorialists seems to be almost agonal. The most disturbing thing for me has been how successful the firing has been in muzzling the rest of the editorial writers in the CanWest publishing empire. Obviously, the message was loud and clear.

In our little publication we are occasionally faced with incursions by individuals or organizations (professional and otherwise) who are attempting to influence what we say, what we print, or who we publish. Over the years, this journal has continued to declare its independence from outside influence, but on a number of occasions there have been substantial struggles to preserve the independence of our editors, writers, and submitting authors. 

The BCMA has for the most part, especially in the past few years, publicly endorsed the BCMJ as a completely independent publication and has properly acted as stewards of the journal. However, over the years there have been a few attempts by individuals within the association to influence what is written on our editorial pages, but these attempts have been more insidious than overt, and quickly withdrawn when challenged. 

More recently there has been an overt attempt by a large non-medical professional association to prevent the BCMJ from publishing a series of articles that they claimed was biased—before the articles had even been received for review by our Editorial Board. The obvious response to their submission was sent back in a heartbeat. The articles were subsequently reviewed and, after appropriate revisions, have been published—not out of spite but because the authors did a reasonable job of researching and writing their articles. The articles are informative, instructive, and fulfill our mandate to provide BC’s doctors with useful continuing medical education. Finally, influential members of this non-medical organization attempted to prevent the BCMJ from publishing one particular article, stating it was improperly researched, reached inappropriate conclusions, and was poorly written. None of our reviewers had the same opinion, and an expert external reviewer agreed that it was a properly researched and well-written article. We have since published it on merit.

It seems clear now that the reason for the challenge by this politically powerful group was likely more economic than philosophical. So, why am I surprised? 

All publications must not only claim to be free from editorial influence, they must be clearly independent of their owner’s political inclinations. This must be clear to the editors, staff writers, submitting authors, and, most importantly, to the true owners of the publication—the readers. I don’t know how anyone can trust the editorial content of any CanWest property in the future. I guess I’m going to have to rely on the Georgia Straight and Dan McLeod from now on.


James A. Wilson, MD. Editorial freedom. BCMJ, Vol. 44, No. 7, September, 2002, Page(s) 336 - Editorials.

Above is the information needed to cite this article in your paper or presentation. The International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) recommends the following citation style, which is the now nearly universally accepted citation style for scientific papers:
Halpern SD, Ubel PA, Caplan AL, Marion DW, Palmer AM, Schiding JK, et al. Solid-organ transplantation in HIV-infected patients. N Engl J Med. 2002;347:284-7.

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