Acadian journalists question feudal empires in Canada
By Dru Oja Jay*
(MONCTON, November 10, 2003) -- Canadian Journalists hope to avoid the fate of Italy, where Prime Minister Berlusconi controls the largest newspapers and broadcasters. "Media concentration is worse in Canada than in other industrialized countries; in New Brunswick, way worse." Spoken by American media economics expert Robert Picard, this statement set the tone for a day-long discussion on media ownership. Organized by the Acadian Association of Journalists and held in Moncton, New Brunswick, "Media concentration in the 21st century: an international, national and provincial phenomenon" was the occasion for a diverse dialogue between journalists, politicians, editors, producers and academics.
While citizen groups in the US are putting unprecedented pressure on Congress to reinstate cross-ownership regulations that the Federal Communications Commission recently attempted to roll back, those concerned about concentration of ownership are realizing that in Canada, the final step of deregulation is a fait accompli. Says Picard, "Canada backed itself into a corner--[the government] didn't act to stop concentration when it could." The government is now left with two choices. It can split up the existing media monopolies, or it can open up the market to foreign competition. The first choice is "messy" and will involve a major political battle, while allowing foreign ownership could mean domination by American media companies.
"The soap box in the town square is easily drowned out by high powered, corporate-owned amplification," said Enn Raudsepp, head of Concordia University's journalism program. According to Raudsepp, 84 per cent of Canadian media is owned by the five largest media companies, resulting in "increasingly homogenous perspectives." CanWest Global, the largest Canadian media company, controls over 30 per cent of the Canadian media market, including 14 metropolitan daily newspapers and hundreds of community papers.
Speakers at the conference pointed to a number of problems with concentrated media ownership, almost all of which referred to a threat to democracy. Jens Cavallin, a philosopher from Sweden, compared media empires to feudal states, with "kings and princes." Raudsepp said that information is the "oxygen of democracy." Jean Pelletier of Radio Canada hinted at the danger that concentration of power in the media could hold during an election.
Many of these problems were illustrated by Izzy Asper, the former head of CanWest Global. Asper was well known for his staunch support of Jean Chretien, his intolerance of criticism of Israel, and for the institution of "national editorials," which would appear in many of the hundreds of papers owned by his corporation. Speakers at the conference also used the example of Silvio Berlusconi, Italy's egomaniacal Prime Minister who controls a vast empire of newspapers, TV, radio and construction companies, and is the richest person in Italy. Berlusconi's company owns the three largest TV stations, the country's leading daily, and dozens of other outlets.
Beyond the potential for abuse of vast political power, many expressed serious concern about the quality of information. Raudsepp cited a study that found that 75 per cent of news items in Canadian papers were not initiated by reporters, but came from a "canned event," such as a press conference or PR campaign. Erin Steuter, a Sociology professor at Mount Allison University, said that journalists are "under siege," having faced massive layoffs since corporations like CanWest Global, Thompson, and Hollinger began acquiring newspapers and other media outlets. "Before, journalists would only post several stories a week, and now they're being asked to post several stories per day, which means that their stories are coming right off the news wires, with possibly an interview or an attempt to clarify or confirm something, but with none of the investigative journalism you would have seen before."
The most heated moment of the conference arrived with the last panel which featured Erin Steuter and Kim Keirans -- both long-time critics of the Irvings -- with Saint John Telegraph Journal publisher Jonathan Franklin and Times-Transcript columnist Lisa Hrabluck. Both the Telegraph Journal and the Times-Transcript are owned by the Irving Group, along with all English-language dailies in New Brunswick and more than half of its community weeklies. The Irving Group is a New Brunswick-based corporate empire with major holdings in oil, timber, and manufacturing.
Opting not to respond to specific criticisms, Franklin argued that the quality of the Telegraph-Journal was better than comparable newspapers in British Columbia. Franklin said that the only directive he receives from his employers is to put out a good newspaper. Hrabluck said that working for the Irvings is not the first thing on her mind while covering a story.
Many solutions were proposed, including the creation of a government fund to subsidize independent newspapers, stronger limitations on ownership, and various other regulation schemes. Almost everyone agreed, however, that these solutions are either incomplete or unrealistic. Unrealistic, because the public is both unaware of media concentration, and not actively interested in the issue.
The fact that most of the media chains in Canada are owned by people politically in line with the ruling Liberal party makes sources of political will for addressing media concentration scarce at best. The Acadian Association of Journalists plans to lobby the government to stop media concentration, but sees its work -- especially as the business-friendly Paul Martin takes power -- as a damage control campaign. President Phillipe Ricard said that the association will argue for an end to CBC budget cuts and regulation of further concentration of the media in Canada.
Kim Keirans, who is director of the King's College journalism school, said that the government could not be counted on to stop concentration. "It's not going to stop," she said, arguing that the only relief from media concentration will come from the efforts of communities and independent journalists.
*Dru Oja Jay is editor of The Dominion (http://dominionpaper.ca) from which this article is reproduced with permission. Dru may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org