Author Tags: Journalism

Dan McLeod, longtime owner/publisher of the Georgia Straight, has been a major cultural force in British Columbia since that periodical was co-founded in 1967. [Also see Pierre Coupey entry]

Born and raised in Vancouver, McLeod received his Honours B.Sc degree in Mathematics from the University of British Columbia where he was influenced by English professor Warren Tallman. Following readings by American poet Charles Duncan in the summer of 1961, a coterie of writers created a private circulation newsletter, Tish, which McLeod edited from approximately 1964 until he and others began the Georgia Straight. Legend has it the joint decision to start a so-called underground newspaper like the Village Voice was made at a party following a poetry reading by Leonard Cohen. McLeod emerged as the prime leader behind the idealistic, naive, frequently irresponsible, consistently cheeky, often insightful, collectively-run initiative because he was most willing to take the brunt of police persecution and unmitigated legal harrassment that ensued.

Continually in the courts, McLeod defied then Mayor Tom Campbell with outrageous cartoons, nudity and radical leftist editorial content (Black Panthers, FLQ, etc.). The newspaper was banned from the streets for several months. Its chief writer in those days was Bob Cummings; superb cartoons were provided by Rand Holmes. A distribution system evolved through 'head shops' all over Western Canada. Many writers used pseudoynms because they were on the dole. The newspaper gained the ire of police by 'outing' some narcotics agents that were sent to infiltrate the thriving hippie community that was centre on Fourth Avenue. The clash between McLeod and Campbell came to a climax when Georgia Straight affiliate Ken Lester orchestrated a Smoke-In in Gastown to protest the illegality of marijuana. A riot occurred when the Vancouver police viciously attacked with their newly acquired riot sticks and riot helmets, injuring many 'hippies' and observers, arresting anyone in their path. The indescriminate attack was officially condemned by a B.C. Supreme Court Justice--much later--when an investigation was held. In the 1970s, the Georgia Straight endured on a shoestring basis, as a giveway, focusing mainly on the Lower Mainland music scene. Its excellent music coverage was chiefly provided by UBC Creative Writing graduate Tom Harrison, who later became a well-respected pop music writer for The Province, and, also Alex Varty, both of whom played in a rock band with graphic artist David Lester and incoming Georgia Straight editor Bob Mercer. Under Mercer's direction, the Georgia Straight gradually became less dependent on music industy ads. Dan McLeod--a fine writer of clear prose--pandered to the Hollywood movie industry by accepting junkets to the openings of films in Los Angeles, usually providing front page coverage in return. Simultaneously, to keep his newspaper afloat, McLeod was publishing the Vancouver Star, a soft-core tabloid that provided sex personals and recycled, plagiarized pornography from sleazy American publications that were acquired on a weekly basis by an employee named Sharkey who travelled across the border to Blaine.

As the movie industry ads beefed up revenues, and as Bob Mercer widened the range of coverage, McLeod experimented with a name change, hoping to gain more acceptance by calling his weekly arts & entertainment newspaper The Vancouver Free Press. It wasn't the first time the Georgia Straight had attempted a radical shift. Women associated with the paper in its hectic infancy took over the publication for a week, claiming--justifiably--that the paper chronically exploited female sexuality for sales and displayed mysogynist tendencies during the era of so-called Free Love. That coup failed. Around that same period McLeod (presumably) secured his legal control of what had been an essentially a collaborative enterprise. Another offshoot had been The Grape, mingling disgruntled Georgia Straight writers with disgruntled Vancouver Sun and Provice scribes. It, too, fell by the wayside. By jettisoning the name Georgia Straight in the 1970s, McLeod hoped to gain more access to a broader range of advertisers and distributors. The name change was short-lived, but orientation towards the 'middle-of-the-road' was the recipe for survival. As well, Mercer's acquisition of some sophisticated local writers--including documentary filmmaker Tom Shandel, media rabble-rouser Ben Metcalf and even anarchist philosopher George Woodcock--slowly changed public attitudes towards the Georgia Straight. As the paper's theatre critic, Alan Twigg edited the Georgia Straight for only one issue, putting Arts Club artistic director Bill Millerd on the cover. McLeod benefited from a major strike at Pacific Press owned by Southam Inc., publishers of both The Vancouver Sun and Province daily newspapers. During the prolonged labour dispute, he showed the extent to which he was willing to pander to controversy in the name of broadmindedness by hiring right wing columnist Doug Collins. Shandel and Twigg promptly resigned in protest. The strike enhanced the viability of the Georgia Straight by allowing sales staff to make contacts with larger advertisers. The former hippie newspaper was soon festooned with full-page colour beer ads.

Dan McLeod proceeded to make a lot of money in the 1980s and 1990s. After years of persecution and penury, few could say he didn't deserve it. The Georgia Straight became slicker and fatter, with increasingly less editorial content in relation to ads. It won awards. By this time Bob Mercer had opted for a paycheque with Pacific Press. The 'golden era' of increased respectability occurred with Ubyssey-trained Charles Campbell at the helm as editor. (The Ubyssey student newspaper at UBC had long been in the unofficial training ground for Province and Vancouver Sun scribes.) Dan McLeod always retained his place atop the masthead as editor-in-chief. In 1997 the newspaper published a jumbled retrospective tribute to its 30 years of endurance, gathering snippets from articles written by its countless contributors, many of whom had become 'names' in society. These included Stan Persky, David Suzuki, Terry Glavin, rocker Sir Bob Geldof, environmental activist Paul Watson and ex-Greenpeacer Bob Hunter. The Georgia Straight: What the Hell Happened? (Douglas & McIntyre 1987) was not an in-depth reflection of the newspaper's significance. The mish-mash was evenly spread over the paper's 30-year history, thereby minimizing the significance of its most volatile and socially influential era. Charles Campbell had been called upon to rescue the project at the eleventh hour while preparing for a brain tumour operation. He got the job done, took a leave-of-absence and recovered from his surgery, only to discover McLeod wanted to retain new editor Beverly Sinclair. Like Mercer before him, Charles Campbell semi-reluctantly opted for the Pacific Press paycheque.

In 1998 Taku Pacific Multimedia produced a documentary on soft-spoken Dan McLeod called The Last Streetfighter: The History of the Georgia Straight. This one-sided documentary air-brushed the past, mostly portraying McLeod as a heroic figure in the name of free speech. McLeod's long history of underpaying writers and his reliance on The Vancouver Star were never considered. Benefitting from the weekly reporting of CBC researcher Charlie Smith, the newspaper's lone 'news' reporter, the Georgia Straight grew in size and respectability after the 1990s. Dan McLeod was honoured with a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Western Magazine Awards Foundation in 2002. Eventually the Georgia Straight became a victim of his own success. Although McLeod had accepted lionization from the Magazine Awards Foundation, he was stunned to receive a tax notice from the provincial government in 2003, issued on the grounds that the Georgia Straight was no longer a newspaper. Its ratio of advertising to editorial had become so skewed in favour of commerce that provincial tax auditors were able to make an argument that the Georgia Straight, for at least four years, had not been worthy of its newspaper exemption from provincial sale tax for printing bills. McLeod cried foul. This was discrimination all over again. Other giveaway newspapers were also rife with ads, many were stuffed with advertising flyers, etc., but the provincial government of Gordon Campbell's Liberal Party, stung by repeated criticism in the Georgia Straight, maintained its tax assessment department operated at arms length. It was McLeod versus Campbell all over again. Dan McLeod proceeded to mount a legal appeal to obviate his overdue tax bill that amounted to $1 million. And the provincial tax department backed down.


The Georgia Straight: What the Hell Happened? (Douglas & McIntyre 1997)

[Alan Twigg / BCBW 2003] "Journalism"

Press Release
Dan MacLeod Under Attack (2003)

B.C. Liberals Hit Straight With Million-Dollar Fine
By Dan McLeod, Georgia Straight, October 9, 2003

The Georgia Straight is faced with the biggest threat in its 36-year history.
Following a visit from a provincial-government auditor, the Straight has been stripped of its status as a newspaper under provincial sales-tax legislation and assessed fines and penalties that will total more than one million dollars by year's end. This fine must be paid immediately and can only be reversed through a difficult and expensive appeal process that could tie us up in court for several years to come.

At the same time, community newspapers that are dumped on doorsteps unsolicited and laden with so many advertising flyers that a big elastic is often needed to hold them together are still considered official newspapers and therefore exempt from this legislation. Is it any coincidence that the owners of most of these papers are friends of the B.C. Liberals?

The Georgia Straight thus becomes the only newspaper in Canada to be classified as less than a newspaper under provincial legislation. No other newspaper need fear such a threat. Because of the Straight's uniqueness, the Liberals have found a way to target us without affecting any other paper in the province. In other words, this has all the earmarks of a witch-hunt.

Appeals of the crushing million-dollar assessment must first go to the Minister of Provincial Revenue. Chances of success at this stage are very slim, so our best chance for any justice is to take the matter to the B.C. Supreme Court. The Liberal minister, however, has the power to hold up the matter for months, even years. By that time, the Georgia Straight could be out of business.

The ruling harks back to the Straight's beginnings, when we were prosecuted frequently under a wide assortment of trumped-up charges. In 1967, a crusading mayor and chief prosecutor conspired to use the city licence department to close down the paper. When that attempt was overruled by the Supreme Court, they had us thrown in jail for criminal libel, a charge that had only been used twice in the history of Confederation. And on and on it went, until the harassment ended around 1972.

Using the Revenue Ministry to close down a newspaper is a ploy well-known to political leaders such as Gordon Campbell. For example, it is documented that Richard Nixon used the IRS to harass political opponents. As the only independent newspaper in Vancouver--and, indeed, the only local newspaper that consistently publishes articles critical of the government--we find this move not only discriminatory in the extreme but a politically motivated attempt by the government to silence one of its harshest critics.

It is also a direct attack on all the arts and cultural and business life of the city. The Straight is appealing to arts and entertainment organizations, nonprofit groups and charities, as well as small-business owners, to speak out against this decision and help by swearing affidavits in our defence if and when it comes time to take the government to court. If a court battle does ensue, we intend to fight vigorously and to the bitter end.

The need to fight this battle would stop now if we were to abandon our Time Out listings guide. This we refuse to do. The guide is a free public service that is based on one of this paper's founding principles: to encourage and foster the growth of a healthy and lively arts and cultural scene in our city.

By successfully closing the Straight, Gordon Campbell will have destroyed the only independent media outlet left in this city. He can then take credit for finishing the job that his namesake mayor, Tom Campbell, began more than 36 years ago. It appears that driving our province's social structures into a ditch is not good enough for the premier. Now he must silence the only newspaper that dares to criticize his mean-spirited policies. Making him accountable for his actions is our journalistic duty, even though our very existence is at stake.

Q&A About the B.C. Liberals' Plan to Terminate the Straight

QUESTION: Why does the Straight have to pay $1 million in provincial sales taxes on its printing costs?
ANSWER: This is a good question, because the Social Service Tax Act says that newspapers do not have to pay sales tax on printing costs. The B.C. Liberal government recently claimed that the Straight is not a newspaper, which is why the revenue ministry imposed a $1-million penalty.

QUESTION: Why don't the Asper family's CanWest Global papers have to pay this tax?

ANSWER: Because the B.C. Liberal government says that all of the Asper family's papers--including freebies like the Vancouver Courier, the North Shore News, the Richmond News, and the Burnaby Now--are "newspapers" under the Social Service Tax Act.

QUESTION: If the Straight manages to pay the $1-million fine, will it be okay?

ANSWER: Even if the Straight manages to pay the fine, it will still have to continue paying this tax--an additional $250,000 or more per year. It is difficult for any small business to survive when it has to pay a large tax that none of its competitors has to pay. Especially when the competitors are as large and deep-pocketed as CanWest Global.

QUESTION: The Straight has won scores of journalism awards. Doesn't this make it a newspaper?

ANSWER: Not in the eyes of the Gordon Campbell government.

QUESTION: The Straight looks like a newspaper and feels like a newspaper. How could the government conclude that the Straight is not a newspaper?

ANSWER: Under the Social Service Tax Act, a newspaper must have at least 25 percent "editorial" content. The B.C. Liberal government arbitrarily decided that the 25-percent figure can't include the Straight's Time Out listings, which it described as "advertising". Therefore, the government claims the Straight is not a newspaper under the act and demanded taxes dating back four years. If the Straight published TV listings in place of Time Out, it would qualify as a newspaper under the B.C. Liberal government's definition.

QUESTION: Why does the Straight say that Time Out is "editorial" content and not "advertising"?

ANSWER: Time Out is prepared and written by the editorial staff. The listings include the Straight critics' recommendations and are not connected in any way with advertising. Time Out also includes cartoons, which have no connection to advertising.

QUESTION: What's in it for advertisers?

ANSWER: Buying an ad does not guarantee a listing in Time Out. These listings are published for free, which lets local arts and entertainment groups tell readers about their events. Human-rights organizations, postsecondary institutions, transportation groups, and many others also get a chance to inform people about events in the Time Out section. It's one of the ways in which the Straight serves the community.

QUESTION: If the B.C. Liberal government changed its mind and decided that Time Out is "editorial" content, would the Straight be considered a newspaper under the act?

ANSWER: Yes, but the government wouldn't be able to collect $1 million in sales taxes over a four-year period.

QUESTION: Could the Straight qualify for a sales-tax exemption in the future if it cut down the size of the Time Out listings?

ANSWER: Yes. If, for example, the Events and Arts listings were eliminated, the Straight would qualify.

QUESTION: Is the Straight considering the option of cutting the listings?

ANSWER: According to the publisher, the answer is a definite no. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees freedom of the press.

QUESTION: Can the Straight qualify for a sales-tax exemption if it is considered a magazine?

ANSWER: Yes. However, under the Social Service Tax Act, a magazine is defined as a "bound" publication. The Straight's pages aren't connected by staples or glue. Therefore, the government has concluded that the Straight is not a magazine.

QUESTION: What if the Straight were to bind its pages with staples or glue?

ANSWER: Then it would qualify as a magazine and it would be exempt from paying future sales taxes on its printing costs. However, there is no press in Vancouver capable of producing a bound weekly publication within the deadlines required by the Straight.

QUESTION: But haven't the Straight's writers, illustrators, and photographers also won dozens of magazine awards, regionally and nationally?

ANSWER: Yes. The Straight has even been named Magazine of the Year for both B.C. and Yukon and all of Western Canada, but that doesn't make it a magazine in the eyes of the Gordon Campbell government.

QUESTION: Do magazine publishers have to pay provincial sales tax on their printing costs?

ANSWER: Magazines don't pay provincial sales tax on printing costs if 10 percent of their content is not advertising or promotional material. The Straight would qualify if the government agreed with the magazine industry and defined the Straight as a magazine.

QUESTION: Has the Straight ever made political donations to the B.C. Liberal Party?


QUESTION: Has the Asper family's company, CanWest Global Communications Corp., ever made political donations to the B.C. Liberal Party?

ANSWER: Yes. Between January and May, 2001, leading up to the last provincial election, CanWest Global donated $30,000 to the B.C. Liberal Party.

QUESTION: Is that the only connection between CanWest and the premier?

ANSWER: No. CanWest's CEO, Leonard Asper, and CanWest's local boss, Dennis Skulsky, each had private meetings with Premier Campbell in the premier's office after the 2001 election. Last month, Premier Campbell and Skulsky were standing together at the corner of Georgia and Burrard streets hawking copies of the Vancouver Sun. This doesn't prove any conspiracy, of course.

QUESTION: CanWest owns the Vancouver Sun, which prints the "New Homes" section. Why doesn't the B.C. Liberal government consider this section "advertising" and make the Vancouver Sun pay provincial sales tax for its printing costs?

ANSWER: Perhaps you should call the premier's office to get an answer to this question. The number is (250) 387-1715.

QUESTION: Before the last election, the Straight described Premier Campbell as a politician who wanted to cut taxes. Why is his government now so gung ho to collect taxes?

ANSWER: Perhaps the premier was wrong when he said tax cuts would pay for themselves. Now he is scrambling for revenue. According to the provincial budget, Campbell hopes to increase provincial sales tax revenue by almost $500 million per year by 2005/06.

QUESTION: What's in it for the tax collectors?

ANSWER: The Gordon Campbell government actually created a law that docks the revenue minister's salary by up to 20 percent if he fails to meet financial targets. This year, each government auditor is expected to collect $520,000 in sales taxes and $2.7 million in "overdue account receivable" revenue. That was reported in the ministry's "service plan".