Democratic Media Reform in Canada

Campaigns, coalitions aim to democratize media system
July 1, 2010

Faced with a corporate-dominated mediascape and perceived editorial indifference or hostility, trade unions and other progressive Canadian organizations have responded pragmatically when they need to influence public opinion.  They have adopted media relations strategies, often run by specialized staff, to gain whatever space is available in the news media; they have used paid advertising in advocacy campaigns; and they have created their own media, from in-house newsletters to websites and social media. 

While necessary, these strategies assume the existing media system as a fixed part of the political landscape.

Now there is another alternative: joining campaigns and coalitions to democratize communications policy-making and the very architecture of the media system.

Historically, citizen action, like the Canadian Radio League of the 1930s, has helped to embed elements of a democratic public sphere in Canada’s communication policies. These elements include public regulation, public consultation processes, and some public ownership in broadcasting and telecommunications; the “common carrier” principle in telecommunications; public access/community broadcasting; Canadian content rules and support for Aboriginal and minority language broadcasting; tax subsidies and incentives for cultural and media production; and limits on foreign ownership, and (minimally) concentration and cross-media ownership.

None of these policies, however, fundamentally altered the commercial and corporate domination of Canadian media, and they are under attack from neoliberal ideologues and governments, including the Harper regime in Ottawa. The longstanding issue of concentrated media ownership has assumed new implications: a series of mergers and acquisitions since 1998 has aggregated over half of all Canadian media revenues in the hands of three firms, and the huge debts acquired during merger mania have contributed to a crisis of local and investigative journalism. The worthy efforts of bloggers and citizen journalists cannot, on their own, fill the gap in original newsgathering that’s been exacerbated by massive newsroom layoffs in the past few years.

Meanwhile, regulatory and funding support for the CBC has been whittled down, its board, management and programming seemingly abandoning the principles of public broadcasting. Community broadcasting, formally one of three pillars of the broadcasting system, struggles along with minimal resources. And on-again, off-again federal copyright legislation threatens to restrict users’ rights of “fair dealing.” 

But why worry about the “legacy” media? Won’t the Internet, with all its democratic potential for interactivity and low-cost publishing, automatically save the day?

Think again. Digital divides based on geography (rural, remote, inner-city), ability (cognitive, physical), class, age, gender, and ethnicity still prevail. There is little public policy to offset the access inequalities ultimately generated by capitalism, or to support Canadian new media content. Most ominously, escalating violations of the principle of “net neutrality” threaten to create an increasingly tiered Internet, in which fast-lane access is confined to content providers who can afford extra fees.

Broader democratic values are at stake in these developments: accountability of media institutions to public and democratic policy goals; access to, and diversity of, citizen-relevant information; community-building, at both local and national levels; domestic control over Canada’s media system as a prerequisite for citizen participation in communication policy-making; more broadly, universal access to the key means of public communication as a basis for equality and participation in society, culture, and politics. 

If neoliberalism succeeds in restructuring Canada’s media, progressive social change will be more difficult across the board.

Fortunately, civil society has generated a growing movement for change. In the U.S., an increasingly influential media reform movement has mushroomed in ways unimaginable a decade ago. With nearly 500,000 supporters – half a million! -- the flagship organization Free Press has joined hundreds of local and national groups working on independent media, media education, and policy advocacy.  Canadians have started to follow suit. The veteran Friends of Canadian Broadcasting has been joined by other groups lobbying on telecommunications and copyright issues. Media workers’ unions have developed detailed policy proposals and launched collaborative policy-oriented campaigns.  Activists and educators in Vancouver, Toronto, and elsewhere have organized an annual Media Democracy Day since 2001. And in 2007, (originally the Campaign for Democratic Media) was launched as a network of member organizations and individuals committed to expanding the public interest voice in communications policy. 

Meanwhile, the World Association for Christian Communication (WACC), an ecumenical NGO concerned with communication rights for all, moved its global headquarters to Toronto.

In that context, and with key issues – Canada’s digital strategy, net neutrality, community TV – currently on the policy agenda, and WACC, in collaboration with communications scholar Robert Hackett, decided to research the potential for building media reform in anglo-Canada.  Funding was supplied by the Necessary Knowledge for a Democratic Public Sphere program of the Social Science Research Council, with support from the Ford Foundation. 

An online survey of 57 NGOs in different stakeholder sectors (political, professional/service, independent media, arts/culture, gender, religion, human rights, labour, First Nations, environment, etc.) was supplemented by 18 in-person interviews. Respondents were asked about the priorities, resources, strategies, challenges, partnerships, and achievements of each NGO, as well as use and perceptions of digital and news media. The objective was to identify opportunities and frames for successful media reform campaigns, projects, and partnerships. The research shows definite potential for a much stronger movement for change in media and telecommunications in Canada.

What follows are the edited conclusions of the resulting report, Revitalizing a Media Reform Movement in Canada, which can be found at

*     *     *

This snapshot of the political landscape for media reform is small in scale, and thus exploratory rather than definitive. But, combined with the authors’ own experiences in the movement, the research enables us to identify some springboards for an ongoing media reform movement. First, though, we must acknowledge the challenges such a movement faces.

Obstacles and Challenges

Compared to the United States, media reform in Canada has not yet reached the take-off stage. As stakeholders most likely to support democratic media reform, the NGOs we surveyed reported positive relationships with at least some of the “mainstream” media.  Their investment in gaining access to dominant media, and to an even greater extent in building and using their own media, probably limits their willingness to devote scarce resources to challenging the dominant media’s structure. 

The corporate media do not appear to constitute a perceived threat or a shared grievance to the same extent as in the U.S. There, a decade of state repression of citizen-run low-power FM radio, the virtual disappearance of local radio in the wake of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, the FCC’s efforts to further raise the ceiling on media concentration, the arrogance of former FCC chairman Michael Powell, the rabidly reactionary politics of Fox television, the domination of talk radio by right-wing gas-bags, and the perceived collusion of the U.S. media as a whole in the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq – all helped to galvanize a remarkable upsurge of media activism in the past decade, and the dramatic emergence of Free Press, noted above. 

By contrast, Canada offers no obvious comparable catalysts for progressive media politics. Indeed, the most visible media villain, Conrad Black, the press mogul who inspired an oppositional campaign in the 1990s, has since been humbled through the mechanisms of the system itself.  The most frequent shared grievance for Canada’s progressives appears to be the Harper government. 

Corporate influence over media institutions and policies is more likely to be perceived as a problem by those NGOs already in the media and cultural fields. Our data, however, show that they have no single diagnosis of the media’s shortcomings; the most common prescriptions for change include structural reform, better journalism and content, and regulatory and financial support for independent and community media, and for public service media. Support for the CBC is widespread, but qualified in some quarters by the CBC’s perceived similarity to other dominant media. 

NGO support for alternative media, though also widespread, was constrained by perceived limitations of their audience reach or credibility with policy-makers.  Some of the other communications issues that concern NGOs fairly directly (copyright, the crisis of journalism) bring into play conflicting interests and prescriptions.

Some potential beneficiaries of a more democratic media system seem, to date, relatively unlikely to engage in media reform campaigns (or surveys!). These include peace and environmental groups, charities (which are constrained by tax rules limiting their involvement in advocacy), and journalists in the mainstream media.

Other “gaps” in the building blocks for a media reform movement are less obvious. The excellent policy and advocacy work of media workers’ unions is sometimes constrained by territorial rivalry between them. Another is the paucity of policy-relevant research conducted by communications scholars or other academics and, with notable exceptions, their general disengagement from formal regulatory and policy processes, such as CRTC hearings. A vibrant media reform movement would need an active “brains trust.” has taken some initial steps to develop one, including a Toronto workshop of Canadian media activists. Co-sponsored with WACC, it culminated with this research project in May 2009.

Judging from our data, the field of progressive civil society activism in Canada is bifurcated between larger state- and economy-oriented organizations and smaller marginal groups. At both levels, NGOs perceive sustainability, financial, and other resource shortages as their biggest challenges. They are hard-pressed to mount campaigns beyond their primary mandates. Their financial precariousness may make them vulnerable to agendas set by funders, of which government is particularly prominent.  Moreover, it is difficult to identify a nexus for progressive civil society activism in Canada; only a few organizations were mentioned as partners by more than one NGO. 

Springboards and Resources

And yet, a Canadian media reform movement continues to build. Our study contains many positives for its growth. 

At the broadest level, the “mediatization” of society suggests that “more people are going to want to get involved in issues related to the media and communication as they begin to recognize the centrality of this to everything else that’s going on in their lives,” argues Canadian media scholar Marc Raboy. Most NGOs are well aware of the importance to their primary work of access to, and representation in, the media.

Respondents show an encouraging level of familiarity with media democracy concepts, and a considerable though uneven level of dissatisfaction with the media’s democratic performance -- dissatisfaction that correlates with willingness to join media reform campaigns. (Satisfaction with media does not preclude communications activism, however; there can be other motives, such as the defence of a valued service like CBC.) A majority of the NGOs have engaged in at least one media-related coalition or campaign in the previous five years, and would consider doing so again. 

Ideologically, most of our 75 respondents have a vision broader than their own organization’s immediate goals.  Social justice and human rights are common themes, but many identified themselves with an emerging media democracy movement. Skepticism towards market forces, competition, and the profit motive – the neoliberal “solutions” to communication shortfalls – is widespread.  Conversely, there is considerable support for a positive role for the state in shaping a democratic communication environment – in particular, regulatory and financial support for independent, community, and public service media, notwithstanding qualifications in some quarters. 

Most strikingly, there is overwhelming recognition that the Internet is critical to the NGOs’ work, and unanimous endorsement of the principle of Net Neutrality as a regulatory underpinning for equitable and affordable access to the Internet. That finding suggests that’s adoption of its current name, and its emphasis on the campaign, has a strategic as well as principled grounding. Why does Net Neutrality resonate relatively highly? Because, as a means of building coalitions and attracting funding, it has several advantages:

  • A great many stakeholders would be negatively affected by the loss of Net Neutrality, including many (such as small businesses, and young people as heavy users of digital media) that are not among the “usual suspects” of progressive coalitions.
  • Net throttling and multi-tiered service directly threaten the daily work of most NGOs, as it jeopardizes control over their own means of publication to their own members and broader publics. 
  • As a regulatory issue, it is discussed in specific, identifiable, and publicly accessible venues and time-frames, such as CRTC hearings.
  • Net Neutrality is perceived as winnable, particularly given U.S. President Obama’s endorsement of this principle.  

At the same time, given the scope of the media’s democratic deficit and of the current policy agenda, Canada’s nascent media reform movement cannot confine itself to a single-issue focus. The diversity of perspectives and priorities evident in our respondents’ views of media issues is a resource. It should be possible to find partners for campaigns on a range of issues. 

The data confirm that independent media, arts, and culture groups, and trade unions, particularly those representing media and cultural workers, are core advocates for democratic communications. Other groups are also supportive, especially human rights groups and broadly-focused progressive advocacy organizations. Some of these groups are small, but there is a multitude of them, and the research suggests a welcome culture of collaboration that can help offset organizational fragmentation. 

Campaign-framing and coalition-building go hand in hand. For instance, although it is not easy to simplify and is not yet widely familiar, the frame of “communication rights” may be suitable for attracting human rights activists to media reform campaigns. It is encouraging that WACC is creating a global clearing-house for communication rights information in Toronto. Future research and activism will undoubtedly disclose new partners, beyond the NGO sector: for example, some municipal governments in metro Vancouver are allying with community groups to wrest control of community television away from monopolistic cable companies that are reducing coverage of city council meetings. 

Shared values of media openness, access, and innovation (social and political, not just technological) could help popularize support for media reform. Our respondents’ unequivocal support for equitable access to the Internet suggests that a strategy to coalesce NGOs around this issue and related frames could be productive.  Also, a journalism campaign with a positive frame might appeal to peace and environmental groups, to charities, and to journalists in the mainstream media. Charities and NGOs might find the soft-lined approach of a positive frame less threatening to their charity status and media contacts, respectively, and journalists would surely find such a campaign more inviting.

Key factors limiting a media reform movement may be the lack of a unified progressive social movement in Canada, as well as the disinclination to date of existing progressive organizations to act upon the relevance of communications structures and policies to their own primary mandates. 

What are the strategic implications?

First, one key task for a media reform movement is to engage in dialogue and reciprocal learning with existing progressive groups on media issues. Internet access and Net Neutrality seem an especially promising entry point. Larger and longer-term coalitions and networks could facilitate communication and engagement with a broad array of organizations. Civil society groups will likely better identify and articulate their stake in media and telecommunications policy if more of them are actively engaged in ongoing, expansive media reform networks.

Second, our findings raise the question of framing.  The concepts of “media reform” or “media democracy” may not resonate with some of the constituencies that would need to mobilize if a more democratic public sphere is to be achieved in Canada. Media reformers need to consider whether a unifying master frame is possible and necessary, and/or whether different “sub-frames” or “thematic frames” should be adopted for different campaigns and constituencies, as international communication rights campaigner Sean O’Siochru has suggested. 

Encouragingly, most of our respondents regard themselves as part of a broader movement, which can be categorized rather broadly as “progressive.” They do not coalesce, however, around a specific political ideology, issue or organization, and it may be that communication values, rather than more overtly political concepts, would be more effective. Responses to this study suggest that values such as openness, accessibility, participation, choice, diversity, and innovation may resonate well with NGOs in Canada.

Thus, the frame of “open media” suggests itself as productive – if employed thoughtfully. It would be crucial to distinguish this frame from the neoliberal project of “opening” media to unregulated market forces, and to avoid overemphasizing the libertarian project of removing blockages to access without duly considering other dimensions of a genuinely democratic public sphere, including equality, justice, dignity, solidarity, responsibility, and accountability. 

The “open media” frame, however, does have advantages.  It connotes recognition of the growing importance of digital media. It could appeal to constituencies beyond the existing progressive groups represented in our study. In particular, it could appeal to a younger generation of activists and new media users, and could bring media reformers closer to related and burgeoning communities centred on Open Source Software, Open Data, Open Internet, Open Web, Open Content, Open Education, Open Government, and many more. 

At the very least, “open media” should take its place alongside other longstanding media change frames, such as communication rights, media democratization, free press, communication rights, and media justice.


(Robert Hackett is a CCPA research associate at Simon Fraser University, and co-author with William Carroll of Remaking Media: The Struggle to Democratize Public Communication. Steve Anderson is co-ordinator of, a national, non-profit, non-partisan organization working to democratize media in Canada. Visit: