Interview: Kenneth Whyte

Maclean’s Editor-in-Chief Kenneth Whyte, who was recently named The Canadian Journalism Project’s Newsperson of the Year, talks about the award, Human Rights Commissions and the future of print journalism

Kenneth Whyte

Q. Your nomination for this award cited your revitalization of Maclean’s, your new book on Hearst, and your battle with Human Rights Commissions–it must be gratifying to win?
A. It’s gratifying that some of my colleagues have recognized that Maclean’s is doing well and I want to congratulate everyone at the magazine on a great year but, really, we won this thing because of the Human Rights Commissions. We spent a good part of 2008 defending ourselves against a campaign by a handful of Muslim activists to have our journalism branded hateful and racist. We stood up to their complaints and defended ourselves—and, in particular, an excerpt from Mark Steyn’s bestselling book America Alone—and in doing so we attracted the support of a lot of smart and energetic bloggers. These bloggers, long before the mainstream media, recognized the complaints as a politically-motivated threat to free expression and open journalistic inquiry. They threw their weight behind me in this poll and put me over the top and I want to return the favor by dedicating this honor to them.

Q. To the blogosphere?
A. To that particular part of the blogosphere that got engaged in these human rights complaints. I can’t name them all but individuals like Ezra Levant, Jay Currie, Kathy Shaidle, among others, discovered and disseminated a lot of alarming information about the operations of human rights commissions and the decisions of their tribunals. The debate got pretty messy on both sides as it went along, but these people prodded the newspapers and the public to question the advisability of allowing unaccountable, politicized, and rather slipshod commissions to interfere with one of our most precious liberties. Along with Mark Steyn, who wrote a lot about the case, they did a great service to Canadian journalism in 2008. I’m deeply grateful for their support—it was shaping up as a lonely fight until the bloggers got involved. They’re the ones who really deserve this award so I consider myself to be accepting it on their behalf.

Q. In your interview with the Prime Minister in this week’s Maclean’s, he says that his government will not be moving to rewrite the section of the Canadian Human Right’s Act that interferes with free speech. Were you disappointed by that?
A. Disappointed but not surprised. I’ve never expected a political solution to this, and even if Harper were to act, the real problems are the provincial commissions which are a lot more activist on speech issues than the federal commission, and the chances of getting them all to change their ways–especially when some, like Ontario, are looking to expand their influence–are remote. I think our only hope is a legal solution.

Q. What would that look like?
A. That would require someone who loses before a human rights commission appealing the matter to a real court and ultimately the Supreme Court. I’m told by our lawyers that, despite our vindication by the BC commission, we could still mount a constitutional challenge in that province that would have a high likelihood of success. The problem is that it would cost us several hundred thousand dollars, at a minimum, and we’ve already spent that much defending ourselves against three complaints in separate jurisdictions–all brought by the same complainant–and it’s difficult to make a case for spending that kind of money in this economic environment. But the matter is not dead yet.

Q. What’s your level of confidence in the future of print journalism in this economy?
A. It’s going to be a tough couple of years for everybody, and there will probably be some consolidation in the industry–we’ve already seen a little of it here with the unfortunate demise of Time Canada–but I don’t think it’s the end of the world. Most of us will come out the other side of this in reasonably good shape.

Q. How do you plan to keep Maclean’s successful in these tough times?
A. This will come down, in large part, to a continued focus on news and current affairs. Our newsstand sales, which in recent months have been the best in the magazine’s history, are proof that now, more then ever, there is an appetite for thoughtful, relevant analysis on the major issues of the day. In the last several months, our traffic to, which was redesigned in the fall, has increased substantially. The backbone of the site remains news and politics and the terrific analysis from our team of political bloggers. During the fall election and subsequent upheaval in Ottawa the site was one of Canada’s liveliest forums for online debate. New daily features will soon be launched, involving contributions from the entire magazine staff, that will further bolster our web-only content and give readers a lot more of what they want. In the end, readers crave information and analysis from the magazine, and the website, and Maclean’s ability to deliver will stand us in good stead.