“The shape of the newspaper industry in English Canada was then dramatically changed by an agreement between the two largest of the remaining newspaper corporations. Two papers, in Ottawa and in Winnipeg, were closed on the same day, and where there had been mingled interests, in Vancouver and in Montreal, one chain bought out its new partner.”
That’s a slightly modified excerpt from the final report of the Royal Commission on Newspapers, better known as the Kent commission, that was issued 40 years ago. I omitted the names of media conglomerates and the specific newspapers because the details aren’t terribly important when the problem is so deeply ingrained in how things operate in this country most people can’t imagine any alternative.
Historians are often reminded of Mark Twain’s timeless observation that while history doesn’t repeat itself, it often rhymes. This advice is intended to dissuade historians from seeking a deeper meaning in superficial patterns or coincidences.
But this case really makes me wonder. The Kent commission’s impetus was the near simultaneous closure of two major daily newspapers — the Winnipeg Tribune and the Ottawa Journal — in August 1980, allowing the then-giants of Canada’s news media industry, the Thomson and Southam corporations, monopolies in each of the respective markets.
The same backdoor negotiations allowed Southam, which operated the Province, to acquire the Vancouver Sun from Thomson and establish a monopoly in Vancouver as well.
The similarities with the 2017 Torstar-Postmedia “swap and chop” don’t end there. In November that year, the two media corporations swapped 41 publications, immediately closing 35 and ending competition in communities. Almost 300 people were fired, and a Tyee investigation found the companies exchanged emails about the terminations in advance.
In both cases official actions fell short — a commission whose recommendations fell on deaf ears in the case of the former, a quietly shelved criminal investigation in the case of the latter.
In both cases, the public was largely indifferent. In both cases, media companies — whether directly implicated or not — said nothing.
Kent’s recommendations were considered extreme 40 years ago, but everything they were designed to guard against wound up becoming our reality. The commission recommended no company should be allowed to own both a national newspaper and a portfolio of dailies and warned against the danger of cross-media ownership combining print and broadcast outlets.
They further recommended special review boards be given the right to block mergers and takeovers of newspapers and periodicals, and even force owners to sell if there was already excessive concentration. They even recommended editors be guaranteed independence from publishers!
Core to the commission’s work was a belief that democratic societies function best when the Fourth Estate — the news media — is unencumbered and the public has access to diverse sources of information and a wide variety of opinion.
It is almost as though some omnipotent god of Canadian news media read the report and went about doing the exact opposite. Not only are the problems of media concentration well known, with every passing decade the situation gets worse.
It should come as no surprise there was intense opposition to the recommendations — by publishers — and the pushback fell along familiar lines: government intrusion into the affairs of private business is bad for the economy and consumers alike.
Canada had about 120 daily newspapers in the early 1980s. Today, we have 75. In 1990, about 20 per cent of daily newspapers were independently owned. Now it’s about five per cent. Nothing has changed in New Brunswick, where the Irving family still owns all the dailies and most weeklies.
Between 2008 and 2019, 189 community newspapers closed, and in vast swathes of the country, “local news” broadcasts are pre-recorded in Toronto.
And despite direct government financial support, the media mastodons continue to wipe out newsrooms, careers and the foundations of our culture and democracy with reckless abandon.
The argument that new technologies have disrupted traditional journalism has been made roughly every decade since the 1970s, and despite this, the majority of Canadian consumers still value print advertising as the most effective type of its kind.
Canadians are still hungry for quality journalism, and we’re fortunate a number of small, independent outlets have been punching far above their weight for some time.
Yet the accomplishments of Canada’s independent media are often overshadowed in a media landscape where dinosaurs are kept on corporate life-support without any accountability to the public. As Kent said, “freedom of the press is not a property right of owners. It is a right of the people. It is part of their right to free expression, inseparable from their right to inform themselves.”
Media consolidation benefits the elites, not the citizens. The consolidation of media leads to a consolidation of information and a narrowing of the mind. Canadian news media in 2021 doesn’t have a liberal or conservative bias, it has a bias toward power and populism.
The comfortable cannot be afflicted, nor the afflicted comforted, as long as the majority of information and opinion serves to buttress the elites of our society.
Consider this the next time you see a politician grin through a non-answer at a press conference, or read a press release masquerading as a news story. We were warned. We were told what the problems are and offered a set of solutions too.
We have no real choice but to demand serious, structural change. Journalism without activism is public relations.