Well, here's an interesting twist on a common story. We've pointed to lots of examples of companies and public figures using questionable copyright claims to take down content that was critical of them. Now, we've got what appears to be a newspaper hiding behind bogus copyright concerns as an excuse for taking down content that was critical of one of their advertisers. A press release from the Canadian Pirate Party points us to the story of a political cartoonist for the Vancouver Province, who claims a parody video he made criticizing an oil company was taken down from the newspaper's website after the company threatened to pull all its advertising from the newspaper's parent chain.
Dan Murphy, of the Vancouver Province, created an animated parody targeting Enbridge Inc. and the potential environmental impact of its proposed multi-billion-dollar Northern Gateway pipeline proposal that would cross B.C. and Alberta.
The original Enbridge video was designed to promote its controversial pipeline project.
Murphy’s animation mocks Enbridge, splashing oily goo on the screen while questioning the oil giant's environmental record.
Murphy told CBC News that he was told Enbridge was outraged that its ad was mocked and put heavy pressure on Postmedia News.
The parody was taken down and Murphy says he was given a blunt message by Vancouver Province editor Wayne Moriarity.
"'If it doesn't come down, Enbridge says they're pulling a million dollars worth of advertising from Postmedia, and if it doesn't come down, I, Wayne Moriarty, I'm going to lose my job,’” Murphy said Moriarity told him.
The editor, however, told a different story, offering vague "copyright issues" as the reason for the takedown. Meanwhile, the advertiser denied almost everything:
Contacted by CBC News, Moriarty would only say copyright issues are involved. Other managers at Postmedia did not return CBC’s phone calls.
Enbridge has released a statement saying it did not threaten to pull its ads and that it did not ask for the video to be removed.
An Enbridge spokesman did say a conversation took place with Postmedia, but he wouldn't divulge any details about who contacted the newspaper company or what was said other than post media [sic] had apologized for the spoof.
Though it's currently a his-word-against-theirs situation, it's pretty hard to take the statements from the editor and the advertiser at face value. As the cartoonist mentions, he is putting his career on the line to speak out about this, and knows he may end up in hot water with Postmedia—and he has made specific statements about what his editor said to him. If it's a publicity stunt, it's a pretty damn stupid one. Meanwhile, the "copyright" claims are flimsy—especially considering Enbridge says nothing about copyright in their statement. This is most likely just another example of copyright being used as a convenient way to hide real motivations.
Now, it's important to note that this is not an issue of censorship. The newspaper is free to publish and unpublish whatever it wants, and the editor doesn't have to tell anybody why—and, of course, it's up to the reader to look at their decisions and stated reasons then decide whether it's a newspaper they want to pay attention to or trust. The relationship between newspapers and advertisers has long been uneasy, and this isn't the first time an editor has been forced to make a tough choice. Of course, this also isn't really a first for this newspaper chain and its relationship with oil companies: back when it was a part of Canwest (the publishing division of which later spun off into what is now Postmedia), it sparked complaints to advertising standards regulators over a series of paid advertorials about Canada's tar sands that were misleadingly labelled as "Special Information Features".
Maintaining integrity as an advertiser-supported news source is a serious challenge that newspapers have struggled with for decades, and once an editor is stuck in one of these conflicts, there's often no easy way out—except, perhaps, saying something about copyright and hoping that does the trick.