Big Media Bad Thing

Once upon a time, a Committee of the Senate of Canada undertook to “consider and report upon the ownership and control of the major means of mass public communication in Canada.”  Diversity of voices, that was the issue.  “The more separate voices we have telling us what’s going on, telling us how we’re doing, telling us how we should be doing, the more effectively we can govern ourselves.”

But diversity is an endangered species, imperilled by the utter corporatization of the media.  “The purpose of this Committee was not to ascertain whether concentration of ownership is a Good Thing or a Bad Thing.  Of course it is a bad thing; in a land of bubblegum forests and lollipop trees, every man would have his own newspaper or broadcasting station, devoted exclusively to programming that man’s opinions and perceptions.”

Bubblegum forests?  Lollipop trees?   What are these people, hippies?

But of course they were.  The year was 1970, and even the squares were tuning into the counter-culture.  That hotbed of old fogeys, the Senate of Canada, delivered a report on the Mass Media that sided with the kids against the suits, the left against the right, a lost cause against an economic inevitability.

Flash forward 36 years.  Not so simple, is it?  Welcome to a world in which the bubblegum forests and lollipop trees are not only real, but plantations to be harvested.  Post all you like to MySpace or YouTube, the people really getting rich are the people who own the display windows.  There has always been more money in the pipes than in the pipedreams.

If the worry a generation ago was that the common folk had little outlet to publicly express themselves, the plain truth today is that they can’t shut up.  Blog this, upload that.  Podcast, videostream, webcam, spam.  The bubblegum forest is a candied thicket of hard-core porn, overheated opinion, juicy rumour, lonely souls, teens gone wild, and people trying to move merchandise over e-Bay.  Money, sex and narcissism.  What did we expect?

Put it this way.  Are we better off in the lollipop world of today rather than the world of yesteryear, circa 1970?  Are you kidding?  Show me the man who wants to turn back the clock and I’ll show you a sourpuss in a retirement condo.  Or possibly in the Senate of Canada.

In my lifetime, there have now been three quasi-governmental inquiries into the state and conduct of the Canadian news media.  They have all argued the same thing, and they have all met the same fate.  That wagging finger of high-minded disapproval was the last thing anyone saw before each of the tabled reports sank like a stone.  Deploring what has become of the nation’s journalism is one thing – hell, who doesn’t? – but no mature democracy would ever have an agency of the state step in to sort things out.  Contemplate it, maybe.  But actually do so?  Not without ceasing to be a democracy.

And in any case, reality has had a way of overtaking whatever we were supposed to be so worried about.  The 1970 Special Senate Committee on Mass Media (the Davey Committee) urged that we put the brakes on galloping corporate acquisition of our agencies of public address.  Left to itself, we were told, the market would inevitably choke off choice.

In fact, the next 10 years saw a steady expansion of the traditional mass media.  By 1980 the beginning of the end of the dominance of the broadcast networks was already in sight, signalled by the introduction of subscription-TV offerings as diverse as C-Channel (showcasing ballet, opera and high-end culture) and the Playboy Channel (showcasing breasts, pretty much).

The 1981 Royal Commission on Newspapers (the Kent Commission) was occasioned by the simultaneous closings of the Ottawa Journal and the Winnipeg Tribune by rival chains clearly in collusion.  It, too, argued that something had to be done to stop cold any further corporatization of the media.  Otherwise it was only a matter of time before all markets were monopolies and all media answered to the same corporate masters.

Au contraire.  The next 20 years saw an unprecedented proliferation of the media.  In the newspaper industry alone, the Globe and Mail went to satellite delivery, the Sun chain entered markets across the country, one by one the local broadsheets started to publish on Sundays, and the National Post arrived to give the Globe and Mail a run for its money.

And lo, the TV channels multiplied.  All-news, all-sports, all-reruns, all-cooking shows.  Documentaries, cartoons, patently superior children’s programming – a wealth of viewing unimaginable to the people who wrote the Davey Committee report back in 1970.

By what stretch of the imagination could this be a Bad Thing?  I suppose one might insist that these options are not really choices, that they are all ladled from the same corporate stew.  The Globe and Mail or the National Post, Newsnet or Newsworld, it hardly matters.  The parameters of debate are so penned in we might as well be in a political petting zoo.  But how tunnel-minded would you have to be to believe that?

Meanwhile, what the Web has made possible, no exaggeration, is as significant as the invention of wireless telegraphy.  We are privileged to witness the birth of an entirely new echelon of public communication.  The blogosphere, the picture phones and the hand-held mini-cams are the least of it.  Your eight-year-old daughter is already online with her friends in some benign avatar universe.  Your 80-year-old father, pissed off at something or other, now has the means to let it be known, together with every other equally exercised geezer on the planet.

What is happening, right in front of our eyes, is the full flowering of liberal democracy.  The rule of the people requires that the people have their say.  Not a dozen years ago, whatever the people had to say was channelled through a small number of media outlets – the local paper, the nightly newcast.  Now they can mouth off all they want, and they can listen to one another to their hearts’ content.  It is exhilarating.

In the face of all that, why get an ulcer over whether some lumbering company has designs on something as leaden as your local newspaper?  Which brings us to the 2006 report of the Standing Senate Committee on Transport and Communications on the Canadian news media, three years in the making.  By virtue of timing, if nothing else, this Committee had the means, motive and opportunity to say something really interesting.  It interviewed almost everyone in the country who had anything to say on the subject: media proprietors, unions, journalists, eggheads, interest groups, members of the public.  You’d think, from such a range of testimony, it would be possible to cull a sort of wisdom.

Unfortunately, the Committee asked its witnesses the wrong questions.  It did not ask them to assess the prospects for Canadian public expression in this brave new world, or how we might usher things along in the best public interest.  Born in the wake of CanWest Global’s acquisition and controversial stewardship of the former Southam chain of newspapers, the Committee took for granted that something is awry in the news industry and invited its witnesses to elaborate.  It was an exercise in pessimism from the beginning – a forum for complaint and defensiveness.

Funny how the “oppositional” argument has become the safe argument, the default position that even a committee composed of political opponents can agree upon.  Getting your shorts in a knot over Big Media is very Chomsky, very “No Logo,” but utterly unremarkable.  Had the report concluded that to concentrate on concentration of ownership was missing the point, that would have been scandalous.  But that would have required the Committee to come up with an argument that wasn’t recycled from before Hendrix died.

The government is dead keen on “performance indicators.”  So how does the 2006 report stack up?  Well, the Davey Committee also interviewed just about everyone on the subject of the Canadian news media, but did so in less than five months.  The Winnipeg Tribune and the Ottawa Journal closed on August 27, 1980.  The Kent Commission reported just under a year later, in August 1981.

Neither of these inquiries may have prompted much in the way of regulatory intervention, but at least they left something to the historical record.  The main reports of both are substantial documents, pleading their cases insistently and each clocking in at more than 250 pages of small type.

The main report of the 2006 Committee, by comparison, runs to 65 pages of double-spaced typescript and took three years.  Slackers.  It is like a term paper gone wrong.  It took so long it’s hard to remember what made it seem necessary in the first place.  (Hint: It had something to do with Jean Chrétien, the Asper family, and the dismissal of the publisher of the Ottawa Citizen.)  Properly, the document should be remembered as the Fraser Report, since Joan Fraser, once the editor of the Montreal Gazette, was the original chair.  But by the time the report was tabled Lise Bacon had become titular chair of the Committee, and it is her name on the title page.  She acknowledges in her foreword that she had next to nothing to do with the document that bears her signature.  Defeat, as they say, is an orphan.

But the problem with the report is not that it is slight and flimsily argued.  The problem is that it is not argued at all.  It does not marshal evidence in order to support its contentions; it does not acknowledge demurring perspectives so as to answer them.  Which is to say, it is not written in English.  It is written in PowerPoint – a variation of English composed of declarative statements punctuated with pop-up “highlight” boxes.  This is not a carefully considered treatise.  It is a slideshow, a cut-and-paste job.

No wonder it takes only 65 pages to make 40 “recommendations” and 10 “suggestions.”  (And what, by the way, is the difference between a “recommendation” and a “suggestion?”  One is more urgently non-binding than the other?)  If one blithely assumes that one’s central premise – Big Media Bad Thing – is universally shared, one can dispense with the burden of trying to prove it.

Look, in most municipalities there is only one bus company.  It is expected to cover its costs. But as long as it operates as a public service – if its fares are not prohibitive, if it lets anyone on board, if it blankets the city without favouring some neighbourhoods relative to others – who cares that it’s a monopoly?  What matters is whether it is well managed.

Same with the media.  There are some very large media companies with acquisitive appetites that nonetheless perform very well by any standard (the New York Times corporation, for example).  By the same token, history is pockmarked with examples of independently owned newspapers run by petty monomaniacs eager to promote their own prejudices.

Just as Big Media are not the death knell of diversity, multiplicity of ownership is no guarantee of anything.  Manila has scores of daily newspapers, but almost all of them would make your eyeballs bleed.

The Senate report does not entertain any such quibbles.  It rolls up its sleeves and gets on with the business of doling out advice.  Its recommendations are perfectly well intentioned, but hazy on specifics.  Let’s take two of the most prominent just to illustrate.

The very first recommendation is for an automatic and mandatory government review in the case of media mergers of “news gathering organizations … if certain thresholds are reached.”  What do they mean by “certain thresholds?”  The Senators don’t seem too sure themselves, but they do mention “Mergers that involve acquiring more than, say, 35 per cent of a particular audience or subscribers.” 

So, let’s say that Bell Globemedia – which in turn is owned by BCE, the telecommunications giant  – decides to buy a number of local newspapers in Newfoundland.  But in any one of these towns that would give Bell Globemedia far more than 35 per cent of newspaper readers.  With the local daily and the nationally distributed Globe and Mail, it would all but own the newspaper audience.  For this we should trigger an automatic government review that would have to be off its rocker to scotch the deal in the end?

Not only is the figure of 35 per cent utterly arbitrary in a world of niche markets, the notion of “news gathering organizations” is awfully quaint.  For a start, almost all of them are already owned by companies that do a lot more than just gather news, and that applies to the CBC as much as to CTV.  Even in your local daily the amount of actual news is dwarfed by the comics, the classifieds, the TV listings, the display ads, the supermarket inserts – and always has been.  What looks like a news gathering organization is really a compendium of commercial interests.   The Senators haven’t quite thought this through, have they?

Recommendations 12 through 19 all have to do with the CBC, which is urged to get “Back to Basics.”  Core to this is the recommendation that “CBC television focus its efforts on providing a range of services that do not inappropriately duplicate those of the private sector.”  Sounds good, except the CBC’s problem is not that it apes the commercial broadcasters but that the private sector has been steadily eating away at its relevance.

Twenty-five years ago, the CBC knew what it was about.  It existed to provide programming that the private sector either could not or would not.  There was no profit to be made in programs about faith or spirituality, and so it fell to the CBC to make Man Alive and Tapestry.  The private sector paid no attention to science, so the CBC made The Nature of Things and Quirks and Quarks.  The CBC made documentaries, paid attention to books and the arts, made non-commercial children’s programming.

Now we have Vision TV, Discovery, Animal Planet, the Documentary Channel, History Television, Books TV, the Independent Film Channel, Teletoon and the Family Channel.  Should the CBC abandon these genres of programming just because the private sector has muscled in on the act?  Of course not.  The idea is to beat them: to make smarter, better programs than they come up with.  You can call it inappropriate duplication if you like.  I call it competition.

In sum, I am unpersuaded by this latest Senate inquiry into the news media.  More than that, I am

  • Literary Review of Canada December 2006