June 2008: The Press Vs. The People

Media ownership in Canada one of world’s most concentrated
June 1, 2008

Lawrence Martin of the Globe and Mail, writing in 2005, noted that the media in Canada have become “concertedly conservative, moving to the right of the people, most strikingly on the question of U.S.-Canada relations (missile defence, Iraq, defence spending, taxation, etc.).”

His column continued:

“The conservative media tend to favour a clear embrace of the United States and its values. Canadians themselves show little inclination to go that route. It is a storyline—the press versus the people—that runs right to the heart of the debate over the future of our country and to the heart of politics.

“The end result is two large newspaper chains on the right, none on the left.
“Meanwhile, at Maclean’s, a former editor of The National Post is in charge. At Policy Options, formerly a very liberal magazine, two former employees of Brian Mulroney now run the show.

“In traditionally liberal Ottawa, policy-makers wake up to four newspapers that all tack conservative: The Ottawa Citizen, The Globe and Mail, The Ottawa Sun, and The National Post. The largest segment of the population are centre-left Canadians.

“On missile defence, the media tone was remarkably hostile. The issue was examined not so much on the basis of what Canadians think, but on what the Bush administration would think. It was as if—after 138 years of existence—we were still strapped down to a client-state mentality wherein the driving imperative was approval from a higher authority.”

Well-known journalist and author Geoffrey Stevens puts it this way:
“Media ownership is more concentrated in Canada than in any other Western country—and our laws to protect the public interest from excessive media power are the weakest anywhere. The media have no interest in enlightening the public about the perils of entrusting too much power to too few media owners.”

To those who say there is no problem, given the proliferation of TV and radio stations, Stevens says: “What use are 100 voices if they are all saying the same thing, promoting the same values, advocating the same policies? Three times in the past 37 years, Ottawa has conducted inquiries into ownership concentration and cross-ownership (print owning broadcast and vice versa). But nothing has been done.”

Stevens points out that the Southam chain of newspapers used to be known for quality coverage, especially in international news.

“Then they fell into the hands of Conrad Black. After Black had done all the damage he could, he enriched himself by selling the papers to the Asper family, of Global TV. The Southam papers had 11 foreign bureaus when the Aspers acquired them. Only two remain today.

“What’s worse, the Aspers have served notice that they intend to pull CanWest Global, their print and broadcast behemoth, out of the Canadian Press, the 89-year-old national news-gathering collective. The departure may cripple CP and it will leave CanWest readers and viewers with even less news of Canada and the world.”

As for CTVglobemedia Inc., owner of CTV and the Globe and Mail, and their takeover of CHUM Ltd., with its 33 radio stations, TV stations, and 21 specialty channels, “the takeover would never be allowed in the United States, where laws against excessive concentration and cross-ownership are enforced. But not in Canada.”

I talked about all this to a top Ottawa media expert, who asked to speak “off the record.” He said that only Italy has such an appalling level of media concentration. I asked how this could be in a democracy like Canada. Was it the political donations? No, though they had been a factor in the past. More to the point was the media’s ability to influence votes. The right-wing publisher appoints a right-wing editor, the editor hires the journalists, and the journalists avoid offending the boss.

There is an “unspoken mutuality of perspective.” There develops “a serious fear” among politicians of no news coverage, or of stridently negative coverage. And of course there is an even greater fear among journalists with families to support, mortgage payments to make, and kids to send to university. Don’t cross Conrad Black. Don’t offend the Asper brothers.

The prevailing government ideology, despite all the enquiries and reports, is “hands off the media.” And the media raise all the red herrings about a 500-channel universe and the thousands of blogs. So what if the news desks have been decimated? So what if so many channels feature American junk, cooking shows, sports, reality TV?

Kim Kierans, director of the School of Journalism at the University of King’s College in Halifax, writes:

“Canada is said to have a free press. But the three ‘C’s’—concentration, convergence, and cross-ownership—are eating away its foundation. Media in Canada are among the most concentrated in the world. In 2004, three companies controlled 63.3% of all daily newspapers in Canada. Of our 102 English and French daily newspapers, only six remain truly independent.”

Bear in mind that this is many years after the Davey Report, the excellent Kent Commission, and other government studies on media concentration, including, most recently, a 2006 report from the Senate. Almost every prediction and warning about growing media concentration in these reports has come true. As Kierans writes:

“Residents of cities such as Vancouver and provinces such as Saskatchewan, New Brunswick and Newfoundland live with ‘monopoly’ and ‘multiple media’ ownership. For example, in Vancouver the media company CanWest owns both daily newspapers and has a 70.6% broadcast share with its television stations. This domestic monopoly situation puts into question the role of the media as an agency of democracy in the lives of Canadians, a point repeatedly made in various studies.”

As others have observed, powerful corporate control of the media sharply narrows their role as critics. American media critic Ben Bagdikian points out it also allows advertising values to dominate the news process where, as Kierans writes, “the basic business system isn’t criticized.”

The 2006 Senate report said: “No real democracy can function without a healthy, diverse and independent news media to inform people about the way their society works. The argument is that, in a democracy, government should foster healthy and independent news media.”

For Kierans, “What we see is a move from public interest to market interest. Other countries, such as France, the United Kingdom, Germany and the United States, take broadcasting regulation and an independent media more seriously.” In these countries, there are stringent controls limiting concentration of media control and cross-ownership in broadcasting and newspapers.

For quite some time, there has been concerted pressure to allow increased foreign ownership of the media in Canada, including the telecommunications carriers and broadcasters. Whatever you may be told to the contrary, inevitably editorial and news decisions would be controlled outside Canada.

The final report by the Senate in 2006 once again criticized the high level of concentrated ownership, convergence, and cross-ownership of the media and suggested new rules to curtail it in the future. Since the Senate report, CTVglobemedia has taken over CHUM, Rogers has purchased five CITY-TV stations, and Astral Media has taken over Standard Radio.

Peter Desbarats, of the University of Western Ontario, writes: “My own experience at competitive newspapers in Montreal, Winnipeg, and Toronto from the 1950s through the 1970s, and that of the majority of my colleagues, convinced us that competition was the sine qua non of a responsive and responsible press. And as competition lessened, more and more journalists found themselves muzzled.” Meanwhile, “the Harper government muzzles the Press Gallery in Ottawa by cutting off information at the source and, after a few squawks last spring, the media accept this!”

For Kim Kierans, what has been happening to the media in Canada means that “public dialogue is taking a back seat to a profit-driven business model. The Senate report bluntly blames the CRTC and the Competition Bureau for not using ‘the process available to them to limit concentration’.”

True to form, the Senate’s final report generated little media coverage (of course!) and hence little public discussion.
A few final words from Kim Kierans:

“If you want to find out about the Canadian media, go to the business pages of your national newspapers. That’s where you’ll read about media mergers, stock prices, and industry changes. In the past 40 years, independent newspapers, television and radio stations have been gobbled up and are part of converged, concentrated, and cross-owned media conglomerates. Just consider Bell, Globemedia, CanWest, and Quebecor. These conglomerates own newspapers and magazines, television and radio networks, production houses, cable, satellite and Web portals.

“Canadian media are now big business, driven not by public interest, but by financial interests. Their main clients are shareholders, not viewers, readers, or listeners. The results are fewer diverse sources of local information and less public dialogue, which undermines the health of our democracy. A handful of locally-owned and independent media remain. They are an endangered species.

“The successful lobbying of private media has been at the expense of the public broadcaster, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation... The CBC suffers from unstable and declining federal funding. The Senate’s 2006 Final Report recognizes that, ‘in a world of media concentration and cross-media ownership, the importance of the CBC as an alternate source of news and information programming is greater than ever...’

“Concerns about media concentration, consolidation and cross-ownership appear to be confined to the halls of academe and the Senate. The issue is not on the agenda of the public or public policy-makers. So Canadians are in for bigger media and can look forward to diminished public discourse as the public agenda is issued from corporate boardrooms.”

Meanwhile, contrary to many reports and the perspective they so often present to politicians and regulatory authorities in Ottawa, Canadian newspaper owners are still doing well. In 2003, they had an operating profit margin of 15.1%; in 2004 it was 14.2%, and in 2005 13.3%. Operating profits in 2005 were $696 million, and advertising revenue increased 2.2% to almost $3.9 billion, while circulation revenues rose 5.2% to $871 million, despite declining circulation. While more Canadians are reading their news online, some 47% say that they read a newspaper every day. And, while circulation in the United States has been dropping, in Canada the overall picture is better. I can think of dozens of industries that would love to have operating profit margins similar to those in the Canadian newspaper business.

Further to Lawrence Martin’s comments about the media and the U.S. missile-defence plans, while most Canadians opposed Canada’s participation in the invasion of Iraq, most Canadian newspapers supported it.

It’s notable that Canadian newspapers invariably refer to the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives as “left-wing” or “left-leaning,” but they never call the C.D. Howe Institute “right-wing,” and rarely describe the far-right Fraser Institute as what it is. Meanwhile, the right-wing Institute for Research on Public Policy is supposedly a “non-partisan think-tank” and, incredibly, the National Citizen’s Coalition is also a “non-partisan organization.”

The pattern affects how news events are covered. When the important, years-in-the-making World Peace Forum was held in Vancouver in 2006, with some 5,000 people from 78 different countries in attendance, the press coverage ranged from appallingly bad to totally non-existent. The focus of the Vancouver Sun was a negative, ignorant attack on the forum, and the coverage by CTV and Global Television was minimal, with little or no positive comment. Highly regarded international experts from many countries who attended and participated in the forum were not interviewed and for the most part were completely ignored by the media. The range of important topics—such as the growing proliferation of nuclear weapons, the weaponization of space, the increasing dangers of terrorists acquiring nuclear weapons, and many other vitally important topics—was virtually ignored by the Canadian media.

In the preface of my book, I briefly mention the mostly unreported secret meetings to discuss plans to further integrate Canada into the United States, a story also largely ignored by the media. This being the case on such a crucial issue, how can we possibly respect the judgment and motives of our media owners and their editors?

Aaron Paton, the young Canmore, Alberta, journalist who helped break the story, won a prize for best story at the Canadian Newspaper Awards, while almost all of Canada’s major newspapers, our two national papers, and our three television networks distinguished themselves by largely ignoring this huge story.

Five months after the top-secret Banff meetings, documents released through the U.S. Freedom of Information Act included the official minutes of the meetings and plans for increased integration of Canada into the United States. In my interview with Aaron Paton, I said:

“If I was concerned before when I read the initial documents about those who were planning to attend, I am definitely much more concerned now. What we are looking at is an élite that is getting together to try and set up an agenda for the political economy for the three North American countries. They refer to governments as ‘weak,’ and they are determined to dramatically alter the direction of the three countries, putting into place a series of policies that will very much be of benefit to big business.

“It’s a very scary scenario and they are obviously well-funded. Here’s a high-powered group of people getting together in secret and they’re not interested in letting the public know what they’re doing, even though it’s of such enormous importance.”

Is this interesting? Apparently not. Almost all the media in Canada ignored the news story once again. [The CCPA Monitor was a notable exception.] But then again, consider this: If our media had reported the secret Banff meetings, they would likely have had less room to keep us so very well informed about the activities of Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan, Paris Hilton, Mel Gibson, and Anna Nicole Smith.

This is not the place for a long essay on the media in the United States, but it’s worth noting that most Americans still believe Iraq had weapons of mass destruction before the United States invaded and that Iraq was directly involved with al-Qaeda in the World Trade Center attack. Moreover, a steady stream of George W. Bush White House lies created a pro-war climate that the media either contributed to or was painfully slow to counteract. As Amy and David Goodman wrote in the Seattle Times, “Media monopoly and militarism go hand in hand.” A September 2007 poll showed that, when asked whether “falsifying stories is a big problem in the U.S. news media,” 62% of Americans agreed, while 34% disagreed.

And so what if CBS was owned by Westinghouse and NBC by General Electric, two major weapons manufacturers producing materials for the war, a fact that seemed to be reflected in their TV support for the Iraq invasion. In the words of former TV host Phil Donahue, “there really isn’t diversity in the media any more. Dissent? Forget about it.”

Given what we all know now, and what many of us suspected at the time—that day after day, week after week, month after month, the Bush administration was lying to its own people, and to the world—how can you account for the fact that most major U.S. newspapers published the Bush claims on their front pages virtually unquestioned? Even Bob Woodward [of All the President’s Men fame] wrote a book that seemed to accept virtually all that his White House sources gave him. The New York Times asked, “How could all this have happened? How could some of the best, most fact-checked, most reputable news organizations in the English-speaking world have been so gullible? How can one explain the temporary paralysis of skepticism?”

In 2002, Reporters Without Borders ranked the United States 17th of 167 countries in its Press Freedom Index. In 2004, the United States fell to 22nd place. In 2005, it was all the way down to 44th.

For a final word on the media in the United States, let’s turn to former CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite. In a keynote address at Columbia University, he said that...”no longer could journalists count on their employers to provide the necessary resources to expose truths that powerful politicians and special interests often did not want exposed. Instead they face rounds and rounds of job cuts and cost cuts that require them to do even more with ever less. It’s not just the journalist’s job at risk here. It’s American democracy. It is freedom.”

* * *

In Canada, in the case of the secret Banff Springs Hotel meetings, or the so-called Security and Prosperity Partnership of North America, it’s not just a question of a biased, blinkered, overly concentrated media; it’s in fact the very survival of our country that’s at stake.

We still have many first-class journalists in our country. And, aside from those who are well known nationally, there are, within every community across Canada, other hard-working, perceptive writers who do not get the exposure they so often deserve. But for the media owners I have little respect.

We have the huge Quebecor media conglomerate of newspapers, magazines, and television; we have the Rogers Communications empire of TV, radio stations and magazines; the Astral Media/Standard Broadcasting group of over 80 radio stations plus television and movie networks; the CTVglobemedia/CHUM newspaper, TV and radio groups; Corus and Shaw Communications with their TV and radio assets; and CanWest Global with their huge newspaper and television networks—all mostly dominated by a plutocracy on the far-right of the political spectrum.

So where does that leave us? For Lawrence Martin, “You alter the character of a nation by changing how it sees itself. You change how it sees itself by changing the media.”

In Lloyd Axworthy’s review of Linda McQuaig’s 2007 book Holding the Bully’s Coat: Canada and the U.S. Empire, he writes how our “Yankee cheerleaders” are given “disproportionate platform time by our media—just check out the panel lineups on our nightly news shows.

To quote McQuaig: “It is the views of the élite... Their views are given an extraordinary amount of media time and space, which gives them considerable influence in shaping the debate and making palatable a neo-conservative political agenda.” How ironic that they should be advancing at full throttle here in Canada when their neo-con heroes in the United States are in such decline and disarray.

Professor Marc Raboy specializes in media policy at McGill University. In his opinion, “The horse left the barn a long time ago, but we keep seeing more extreme cases of media consolidation.”

It’s never too late, but what needs to be done quickly will require strong political leadership that seems to be non-existent in our country today. Meanwhile, the Stephen Harper government, in unprecedented ways, has to the best of its ability cut off the flow of information to the media, and hence to the public. Most ministers are not allowed to talk freely to the media. The public flow of information and requests under the Access to Information Act have been slowed in a manner never seen before.

And worse, much of the news media people seem increasingly intimidated by the all-powerful Prime Minister’s Office and are prepared to accept that they must be on a pre-approved list before they are even allowed to ask questions.

The foregoing is a chapter from Mel Hurtig’s new book, The Truth About Canada, now available at bookstores. Hurtig, a former publisher, is the author of several other best-selling books, including The Betrayal of Canada, The Vanishing Country, and Rushing to Armageddon.