The publication of a column by Rex Murphy that denied the existence of systemic racism in Canada was a “fuck up,” according to the National Post’s opinion editor, who made the remark in an internal town hall.
VICE News has obtained an audio recording of the town hall, which took place June 10, as well as an email exchange between journalists at the newspaper and editor-in-chief Rob Roberts about the opinion piece, titled “Canada is not a racist country, despite what Liberals may say.”
The email, sent to Roberts June 4, described Murphy’s column as “lazy, ignorant,” and dehumanizing to Black and Indigenous peoples. It was signed by around 30 journalists, more than half of the Post’s newsroom.
“For journalists of colour in the National Post newsroom, every time a piece like this is published, we feel more unwelcome at this paper and come closer to giving up on this industry,” the email said.
In a subsequent town hall that lasted nearly two hours, Post reporters grilled newsroom managers on how the column came to be published, why there hasn’t been any public accountability, editorial independence, and the lack of diversity within the company.
Roberts and Matt Gurney, the Post’s opinion editor, explained to staff that Murphy’s column was published as a result of a miscommunication, where each thought the other was going to edit the piece, which had been discussed as a front-page option.
“Rob thought it was being edited in the comment section and I thought it was being edited in the news section. By the time either of us realized that neither he nor I had actually taken ownership of it to give it a proper editorial review, it had been copy edited and proofread and put online,” Gurney said, during the town hall. “It was a fuck up and I know that’s not a satisfying answer to all the people here and it certainly isn’t for me to offer.”
The National Post, a conservative outlet founded by the recently pardoned Conrad Black, is the flagship newspaper of Postmedia, Canada's largest newspaper chain.
In an email, Phyllise Gelfand, vice-president of communications for Postmedia, said the company would not respond to questions about a confidential, internal meeting.
Murphy’s column was published on June 1, following a week of protests in the U.S. over the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. Chauvin was charged with second-degree murder after a video went viral of him kneeling on Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes.
Floyd’s killing has sparked outrage over anti-Black racism, police brutality, and a wider conversation about the pervasiveness of systemic racism, including in the media.
Murphy’s column argued that most Canadians are “horrified by racism.”
“We are in fact not a racist country, though to say so may shock some,” he wrote.
Gurney said Murphy’s column wasn’t “at a level that I would have wanted it to be.” In particular, he said the statement declaring that Canada isn’t racist, which ended up being the headline, was “indefensible.”
“I’m curious, if this was a breach in process, why it’s taken a week to address it,” one journalist asked in the town hall, while another questioned why there’s been no public explanation.
Roberts would not commit to publishing an editor’s note in the town hall, despite stating that the column didn’t meet the Post’s standards.
“Rex was clearly writing from his own personal experience. He was wrong, but he was writing from his own personal experience,” Roberts said. “We brought in other people who disagreed with him and contradicted him quite effectively.”
However, after VICE News contacted Roberts with a list of questions, the Post added a note to the column stating, “It was determined that there was a failure in the normal editing oversight that columns should be subjected to. This issue has been identified and policies changed to prevent a repeat.”
Financial Post journalist Vanmala Subramaniam wrote a rebuttal to Murphy’s piece, called “Before you declare Canada is not a racist country, do your homework,” that appeared in the paper June 2. (Disclosure: Subramaniam and I worked together at VICE and remain friends.)
During the town hall, columnist Terence Corcoran said he didn’t understand the problem with having “a debate within the newspaper.”
In an email obtained by VICE News, Corcoran described the outcry to Murphy’s column as “appalling self-indulgence” that “undermines the fundamental ideas behind press freedom.”
Corcoran said Subramaniam’s rebuttal, which discussed specific examples of systemic racism such as police brutality towards Black people, "contained assorted put-downs based on age, skin colour, and suggested Rex’s views represented some great corporate racist culture. By my reading, her perspective on Canada as a racist country is at minimum as debatable as were Rex’s claims to the contrary.”
Subramaniam’s article factually described Murphy as “a 73-year-old white man.”
Subramaniam said she had no comment about Corcoran’s email.
Roberts said Murphy “encouraged us or certainly didn’t object when we did run pieces and letters that took him to task.”
Roberts did not respond to VICE News’ question about whether or not rebuttals to Murphy’s columns are vetted by him before they are published.
During a discussion about why Murphy was the Post’s “go to” columnist on the subject of anti-Black racism, Roberts said he had also raised the idea of assigning a story about “the conservative case for Black Lives Matter.”
The town hall also addressed the fact that there are only a handful of people of colour employed by the Post.
One journalist noted that the Post has hired at least 11 editors in the last few years, but none of those positions have gone to people of colour.
“Have you thought about the structural issues at play in this company that have led to the fact that, in 2020, we are far whiter at our senior level than any Conservative party would allow itself to be?” the journalist asked.
Julie Traves, the paper’s deputy editor, said in the town hall that the company has reached out to people of colour “who for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with the content of our paper or the staff of our paper were not able to join us.” Traves said the paper needs to do a better job of prioritizing diversity.
Gelfand told VICE News that Postmedia newsrooms do not keep diversity stats, tracking how many people of colour they hire.
“We conduct comprehensive interviews which include content submissions and we hire the best qualified candidates – of any colour, background or affiliation,” she said in an email.
“Postmedia, like many companies, is taking this moment to re-review our hiring practices to ensure we are doing our best to hire from diverse backgrounds. We embrace diversity because we know it makes us stronger as an organization. At Postmedia we do not tolerate any form of discrimination or harassment of or by our people.”
During the town hall, Roberts was asked if reporters could publicly denounce columns such as Murphy’s on Twitter, in the spirit of free speech. He said that goes against company policy.
“We all work for a company, the company has corporate interests and brand protection and all of those kinds of things. They’ve made the decision to have that policy, that’s the policy,” he said.
In the journalists’ email to Roberts, they said, “truthfully, some of us fear for jobs in writing this letter. However, we felt compelled to speak up because we care about this paper.”
Recently, New York Times journalists publicly denounced a column in their newspaper by Republican Senator Tom Cotton that called for the military to shut down anti-racism protests across the country. The paper’s editorial page editor, James Bennett, resigned after admitting he didn’t read the piece before it was published.
During the town hall, a couple of Post reporters also raised concerns about the pressure to skew news stories towards ideological angles that aren’t borne out by the reporting.
Last year, Canadaland published an investigation on editorial interference within Postmedia, the National Post’s parent chain. The story alleged Postmedia CEO Andrew Macleod told editors at the Post that the paper wasn’t conservative enough.
Macleod hired Kevin Libin to oversee federal and provincial political reporting, the story noted. A previous Canadaland story alleged that Libin tried to discourage Post workers from unionizing; the paper’s union drive ultimately failed.
In the town hall, Libin said he was “stunned” that reporters felt their coverage was being influenced.
As of publication time, the Post had published three additional pieces by Murphy.
Editor's note: A previous version of this story attributed a quote by Rob Roberts to Kevin Libin. This has been corrected.