a, Opinion

Owning the medium: media consolidation in Canada

Canada has the most concentrated media ownership of any liberal democracy in the world—more concentrated than America’s, or even Britain and its Murdoch empire. In 1999, our five largest newspaper chains accounted for 93 per cent of all daily circulation. Today the number is 82 per cent—lower, but still very high.

Just how pervasive is this concentration? In print, Postmedia (formerly CanWest) controls 31 per cent of total newspaper circulation, while Quebecor takes up 23 per cent, and holds 27 of Ontario’s 38 daily newspapers. Also involved in telecom, Quebecor has dominated the market in Quebec since buying Vidéotron in 2000.

Bell sold its common share in the Globe and Mail in 2010, but acquired the CTV network in the same deal. It grew even larger this past July when it bought Astral Media for  nearly $4 billion. Rogers, the largest communications company in Canada, has diverse interests from wireless service to Maclean’s and other magazines. Shaw bought the broadcasting arm of CanWest in 2010, and now operates Global TV in addition to its distribution infrastructure.

The biggest casualty of centralization is editorial independence. In 2001, CanWest, owned by the Asper family, ordered all its papers to publish editorials written at its Winnipeg headquarters. This led to a byline strike at the Montreal Gazette, in which reporters refused to allow their names to appear in print. This ended when the reporters were threatened with termination. In 2002, an Halifax Daily News editor resigned due to interference from CanWest headquarters. That summer, Russell Mills, veteran publisher of the Ottawa Citizen, was fired after running an editorial calling for the resignation of Jean Chrétien, an old friend of Israel Asper. In 2003, the Globe and Mail reported on a leaked CanWest memo that laid out plans for a centralized news desk in Winnipeg—they called it “this country’s most aggressive attempt to centralize editorial operations across a newspaper chain.” But not even the clearest violation of journalistic independence in contemporary Canadian history would lead to more regulation. The 2006 election brought Stephen Harper to power—his heritage minister,  responsible for media regulation, was a former CanWest executive named Bev Oda.

The Citizen debacle was a big missed opportunity. Political appetite to even discuss media regulation is seldom present, because controversies like the Asper disaster rarely happen. Given the firestorm that ensued, similar realizations will only be rarer in the future. However, editorial control still happens—it has just taken on subtler, more insidious forms. Executives have moved from overt statements of editorial policy to indirect control through hiring, firing, and promotion. Stories that go against policy are no longer pulled, but are ‘slanted’ through omission and preferential placement. The result is what academics call social control, where a journalist’s perks and career chances depend on writing to the company line. Ultimately, this leads to self-censorship and avoiding stories contrary to corporate interests.

Why is this a problem? Across the country, corporate media gives ‘free rides’ to those it likes, and no ride at all to those it doesn’t. In New Brunswick, for example, the Irving family holds all of the English-language daily newspapers. Like most media families, the Irvings have other large interests—they own, among other things, the largest oil refinery in Canada, forestry operations, and a frozen foods company. Their papers are known for failing to report on the sometimes-questionable activities of their sister companies.

On the West coast, look at the example of former BC premier Gordon Campbell. In January 2003, when Campbell, Premier at the time,  was caught driving with a blood alcohol content more than double the legal limit while vacationing in Hawaii. In confidence, a Vancouver Sun reporter called Campbell’s grinning, rosy-cheeked mugshot the scoop of the year—but the Vancouver Sun, known for running massive headshots, ran a tiny thumbnail. Later that year, when the provincial NDP released its environmental policy, only one paper carried the story, and even then it was buried in the middle. All of these papers were owned by CanWest at the time.

So, is editorial independence likely with media concentration? Absolutely not. As the 1981 Kent Commission on newspaper ownership wrote, “For the heads of such organizations to justify their positions by appealing to the freedom of the press is offensive to intellectual honesty.”

The only body with the power to restore the freedom of the press is the federal government. After a Royal Commission and two Senate investigations, we know the problem and the solutions. The Harper government must act before our media—and our democracy—slip further towards oligarchy.

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One Comment

  1. I’d agree that the Harper government needs to do something about the concentration of Canada’s media; I’m not entirely sure whether new regulations would be needed or whether Canada already has some package of antitrust laws that could be applied to this situation, but there should be something. On a more cynical note, I’m not super convinced that the Harper government would benefit from breaking up media conglomerates (or that the Canadian Conservative base would be particularly amenable to that sort of thing).

    It would seem (based upon my admittedly cursory understanding of the situation) that the Harper government tends to share ideological stances that tend to favor large corporations engaged in questionable activities; while I don’t know how much of that is coincidental and how much of that is due to corporate patronage of the Conservative Party, the end results are probably fairly similar.

    Increased centralization of the press by a corporate media that seems keen on transmitting Conservative-aligned values and political stances serves Mr. Harper quite well, and while it will be interesting to see the extent to which Conservative vote tallies correlate to increased media centralization I don’t see how it could hurt them unless the issue gets far more awareness that it currently is. Conversely, I don’t necessarily see Mr. Harper being willing to piss off a decent chunk of his base by regulating them and pushing to reduce the degree their views reach the ears of ordinary Canadians.

    I feel like overall it would be better to see if it’s possible to get the Liberals and the NDP to go on record in favor of antitrust actions against media conglomerates. Once that’s done it becomes an election issue; you can tie the national Conservative positions on increasing police power in Canada and their willingness to resort to inflammatory rhetoric when faced with opponents of oil sands development to their silence on the media conglomeration issue. Done properly it might be possible to portray Canadian Conservatives as the “Party of 1984” and cost them the 2015 elections.

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