TORONTO — When Conrad Black founded the National Post in 1998, the explicit intent was to create a conservative newspaper. And by Canadian broadsheet standards, that’s certainly what the Post was. But is it still?
Begin by defining terms. A paper’s orientation isn’t determined by who the editorial page endorses at election time. Rather it’s a function of how it covers the news, and the range of commentary and opinion that it carries.
Take the coverage of federal Canadian politics. If undiluted cheerleading for Stephen Harper’s Conservatives is what you want, then the Post will often disappoint you.
Don Martin, for several years the paper’s Parliament Hill columnist, certainly wasn’t a Harper fan. Indeed, one sometimes got the sense that he was carrying a (political) torch for Belinda Stronach, the one-time Harper rival who subsequently jumped to the Liberals.
As for high profile columnist Andrew Coyne, he publicly endorsed the Liberals just before last year’s federal election. Granted, he was with Maclean’s at the time, but it’s still indicative of where his head is at.
And if you wish to follow the "scandals" hanging over the Conservative government, the Post will keep you apprised. Running the gamut from robocalls to the F-35, a reader relying on it as sole news source wouldn’t be missing very much.
The paper also takes issue with the government’s policy direction in some significant ways. For instance, it tends to be critical of the drive to "get tough on crime," and it’s sympathetic to changes in the laws governing marijuana.
The Post’s political coverage of the United States in election year is another marker. If you’re hankering for a pro-Republican bias in the news stories, or a good word for the Tea Party, you’ll have to look very hard indeed.
It’s true that the regularly carried U.S.-based columnists can be classified as conservatives. But two of these — David Brooks and David Frum — are conservatives with a particular twist.
Brooks, who writes for the very liberal New York Times, is viewed with scepticism by many on the American right. To them, he’s the kind of "tame" conservative that liberals are instinctively comfortable with. He’s also had many good things to say about U.S. President Barack Obama, publicly urging him to run for president as far back as 2006.
And if many conservatives are wary of Brooks, a goodly number have started to feel the same way about Frum — a man who has undergone something of a political migration. These days, he is perhaps best described as a Rockefeller or Dewey Republican, a north-eastern species of centrist disposition that was very influential 50 or 60 years ago, albeit substantially less so in recent decades. Still, a Mitt Romney presidency, should it happen, might well rejuvenate the brand.
Then there’s the paper’s Canadian columnists. At their best, they can be very good indeed.
Although Coyne can go deep into the weeds on his pet issues, he’s also capable of disassembling much of the conventional wisdom’s echo chamber.
Writing about the controversy that followed Paul Ryan’s convention speech, he duly noted that a review of the actual text demonstrates that Ryan’s "frothing critics are rebutting an accusation that was never made." And further, a look at Ryan’s record suggests a complicated man who is "neither as principled nor as doctrinaire as either his friends or critics would have it."
Now 80, Robert Fulford is a veteran of the Canadian journalistic scene whose columns appear twice weekly. On Tuesday he writes about delightfully idiosyncratic things like the merits of the Oxford comma. On Saturdays he turns to more freighted topics like the way in which psychiatry promotes the "medicalization of everyday life."
There’s also George Jonas. Whether more aptly described as a classical liberal or a modern libertarian, Jonas has a commendable contrarian streak. At the top of his game, he can be devastating. If you doubt that, check out the September 15 dissection of Fareed Zakaria’s Time magazine musings on "going to war in the Middle East — again — on auto-pilot."
So is the National Post still a conservative newspaper? Yes, it is. But it’s also a refreshingly independent one.
Troy Media columnist Pat Murphy worked in the Canadian financial services industry for over 30 years.