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October 24, 2002 Panel debates control of media



by Sylvain Comeau

Media concentration is a fact in Canada, but speakers at a panel in late February disagreed on whether it is a problem for this country.

Moderator Dave McLauchlin, Foreign Correspondent for the CBC, opened the panel by discussing the sea change that has swept Canada’s media in three decades.

“Thirty years ago, when I started working (in the media), 40 per cent of English and 50 per cent of French-language daily newspapers in Canada were independently owned. Today, 96 per cent of those papers are in chains; that means they are owned by corporations. [Media conglomerate] CanWest Global owns 50 per cent [of those]. Only three daily newspapers in Canada — the Winnipeg Free Press, the White Horse Star and Montreal’s Le Devoir — are privately owned.”

Pierre Desrochers, Research Director at the Montreal Economic Institute, an economic think tank, said that media concentration has not dampened journalistic diversity.

“I think there is still a vast diversity of opinion and voices in the media. I conduct research by accessing many newspapers online; I feel that journalists are very independent [from media owners.”

He pointed out that today’s vast media empires may become tomorrow’s relics.
“I’m not sure that today’s movement toward media concentration is economically viable. William Randolph Hearst was a big media mogul in the early 20th century, but Hearst’s business eventually failed during the Depression; he was heavily in debt and wasn’t generating enough revenue. “

He added, “Today, CanWest and Quebecor have a lot of debt, and I’m not sure, in the long run, that they will prove as omnipotent as people like to believe... I also feel that we will always have enough dedicated people from both the left and the right who will come up with new alternatives, and make sure that we won’t be stuck with a lack of diversity within the media.”

However, Line Beauchamp, Liberal Party MNA for Sauvé and a member of Quebec’s Commission de la Culture, expressed concern about cross-ownership of media.

“The Quebec government asked the Commission to look at issues of media concentration because of print media transactions. But I think that we are mistaken if we look only at the press. We have to take a larger view, because Canada is one of the countries which has permitted the creation of new kinds of enterprises: cross-properties,” she said. Beachamp is also the spokesperson for the official opposition in matters of culture and communication.

“Cross-ownership means that the same company can simultaneously own newspapers, TV and radio stations, which is mostly prohibited in the United States. In Quebec, the best example is Quebecor, a media empire which has been assembled with the help of La Caisse de Dépôt et Placements [a government body that makes loans to Quebec corporations].”

However, some of the insights to emerge from the report by the Commission, which held public consultations on the issue of media concentration, are not altogether negative on the issue.

“We stated that every democratic society has to maintain a necessary distance between the political universe and the media universe. That is why we unanimously decided not to pro- pose government interventions through legislation. We also noted that media concentration is not necessarily unhealthy. It can provide newspapers with greater financial resources for hiring journalists, especially foreign correspondents.”

Mike Gasher, a Concordia professor of journalism and co-author of Mass Communications in Canada, said there is less risk from government regulation than from the current situation.

“I welcome the initiative by the provincial government — and, I expect soon, the federal government — to put this debate back in the policy picture, to consider ways of dealing with convergence, corporate concentration and the conglomeratization of media. I don’t think that regulation of the media necessarily leads to politicized journalism. The best broadcast journalism today is by the CBC, which is a public broadcaster regulated by the CRTC.”

Without regulation, Gasher says, the recent behaviour of the media giants points to continuing abuse of their power.

“In this country, and particularly in Quebec, we are faced with a situation in which the governance of the media is largely in private hands. Radical views contrary to owners’ views are rare, and sometimes not even tolerated.

“At CanWest, we have seen journalists fired and suspended, columns and editorial cartoons being pulled. This is pretty outrageous stuff.”

Frédéric Dubois of the Conseil des Médias Alternatifs du Québec went further, calling for tough new laws to rein in media giants.

“We need anti-cartel laws to stop cross-ownership of media, and government funding for independent media in rural areas. We also have to look at criminalizing things like national editorials printed throughout a newspaper chain.”

Dubois picked up on an unintentional double meaning in Dave McLauchlin’s opening comments.
“What McLauchlin said was very accurate: He said that newspapers today are ‘in chains’. That’s true, they are chained, and they need to be freed.”