|Its a weekend tradition across the country. Bathrobe-clad Canadians roll out of bed and wake themselves slowly over a cup of coffee and the newspaper. Newspapers have evolved to support this tradition by offering expanded content in their weekend editions, from commentary to travel sections. The result is a symbiotic relationship, whereby we emerge from our tradition a little more enlightened and newspapers count their biggest audiences on weekends.
But the relationship is in peril. Newspapers continue to make a profit, but we are coming out less enlightened. The newspaper you read in the morning simply repeats verbatim what you watched on the news while you were preparing your coffee. The same story is printed again in the other newspaper that you glance over later in the day while running your errands. Whats going on? The reason is simple: media ownership in Canada is becoming increasingly concentrated.
The past decade saw the Canadian government repeal the restrictions that banned one company from owning various kinds of media outlets. Today, as a result, more than 84 per cent of Canadian media is owned by five companies across Canada. CanWest Global Communications Corp. controls more than 30 per cent of the Canadian media market, including 14 metropolitan daily newspapers (such as The National Post and the Calgary Herald), 120 smaller dailies and weeklies (including Dose) and the Global TV network. BCE Inc. Bell Globemedia owns the Globe and Mail and CTV, Canadas largest private television network. Torstar Corporation owns the Toronto Star and the CityMedia group of newspapers. Montreal-based Quebecor owns the Sun newspaper chain along with magazines, cable TV, music and video stores, the Canoe Internet portal and a private TVA network in Quebec. Rogers Communications owns Maclean-Hunter Magazines and has stakes in cable, radio television, video stores and wireless telephones.
The concentration continues with last months bid by Torstar to purchase 20 per cent of Bell Globemedia. The move would give Torstar a stake in the Globe and Mail, CTV and 15 specialty TV channels, including TSN.
Whats driving this increased concentration in media ownership? Fewer people owning the news makes good business sense, as it enables media to pool their resources more effectively. "In the future," said Leonard Asper, the president and CEO of CanWest Global at a 2001 Canadian Club meeting in Winnipeg, "journalists will wake up, write a story for the web, write a column, take their camera, cover an event and do a report for TV and file a video clip for the web." Justified by this theory of convergence, massive layoffs and cutbacks have plagued Canadian media since big businesses took over.
But business sense doesnt always equal common sense. Fewer people involved in media means fewer people decide what constitutes news and what does not. It restricts a newspapers ability to reflect a diversity of opinions, to be locally relevant and, most importantly, to counter the biases that are natural to media. Journalists have enormous power over the voice that emerges from their stories they decide who to interview, what parts of the interview to use and which facts will be used to support their story. Whereas prior times saw reporters from across the country covering events, each bringing their own unique perspective to a story, todays readers are denied pluralism by being exposed to fewer perspectives in their news coverage.
The result has dire consequences for Canadian democracy. Speaking at a recent day-long discussion on media ownership held in New Brunswick, Enn Raudsepp, head of Concordia University's journalism program, identified information as the "oxygen of democracy." A healthy democracy relies heavily on the free exchange of ideas, opinions, debates and disagreement. As media has always been our best forum for this exchange, media concentration compromises our ability to engage in democratic discourse.
According to Raudsepp, media concentration also compromises the quality of information offered in Canadian media. Raudsepp pointed to a study that found that only 25 per cent of news stories were actually initiated by reporters, with the other 75 per cent of their stories coming from "canned events" such as press conferences or public relations campaigns. The reason is attributed to time constraints in the past, journalists were required to file several stories a week, while todays journalists are asked to file several stories a day. The increased demand leaves little time to take the initiative to find stories or to engage in investigative reporting.
While proper media strives to minimize biases and provide fair and accurate reporting of events, theres little incentive for businesses to do the same. CanWest Global has repeatedly made news for their attempts to impose editorial policies on their member papers. In 2002, the Canadian Association of Journalists and the Quebec Federation of Professional Journalists criticized CanWest Global for "a disturbing pattern of censorship and repression of dissenting views." The accusations stemmed from reports by several CanWest journalists of being punished for expressing opinions that were not in line with those of CanWests owners, the Asper family. CanWest has refused to print columns that expressed sympathy for the plight of Palestinians in the West Bank, or that criticized former Liberal prime minister Jean Chrétien, a personal friend of the Aspers. Stephen Kimber, a 15-year veteran of the Halifax Daily News, quit after his column was killed by CanWests headquarters. The column in question, which eventually ran in the Globe and Mail, criticized the Aspers, commenting, "CanWests owners, Winnipegs Asper family, which made its fortune in the television business, appear to consider their newspapers not only as profit centres and promotional vehicles for their television network, but also as private, personal pulpits from which to express their views. The Aspers support the federal Liberal party. Theyre pro-Israel. They think rich people like themselves deserve tax breaks. They support privatizing health care delivery. And they believe their newspapers
should agree with them."
The result is a censored, biased mainstream media that feasts on a public with few critical thinking skills. Stories arrive at our doorstep and on our television that continually reinforce points of view that are approved by the Aspers and other media owners. Either consciously or subconsciously, our perceptions and responses to issues ranging from the Kyoto Protocol to the federal election are shaped in response to what the media tells us about the issue.
But like all social plagues, the development of a media monoculture in Canada has been met with some resistance. The Internet has become a dominant player precisely for its ability to offer a variety of voices and viewpoints. Most newspapers and magazines that offer alternative viewpoints are thriving. But in an increasingly competitive market, these alternative media outlets are challenged by limited resources. And most of these magazines continue to rely on advertisers, who often demand that they appeal to a substantial audience, for the bulk of their revenue.
Many solutions have been put forward to tackle the issue of media concentration, ranging from government subsidization of independent newspapers to stronger limitations on media ownership. The proposals face some tough challenges, but none so tough as the lack of interest and motivation on the part of the general public and politicians. Much of Canadian media is owned by supporters of the Liberal party, dissuading the ruling Liberals from taking more initiative to curb media concentration. And Canadas most prominent alternative to big-business media, the CBC, continues to suffer cuts to its budget, offering a tangible estimate of the publics drive to counter this issue.
It is becoming increasingly clear that media today is big business, not a symbiotic Canadian weekend tradition. In 1991, after acquiring a 20 per cent stake in New Zealands TV3, Izzy Asper, past president and CEO of CanWest Global, spoke poignantly to this fact. He asked a journalist, "You. What business do you think youre in?" The journalist replied, "The business were in is to make sure our audience gets the most carefully researched news and information possible." Asper asked the question of a few others in the room and got similar replies.
"Youre all wrong," Asper told them. "Youre in the business of selling soap."