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Senate Comes to Scrutinize Big Media in BC

What's it like to live in Canada's media concentration capital? Just fine, a senate committee has already been told. They'll hear other views next week.

Donald Gutstein 28 Jan

Donald Gutstein, a former professor in the School of Communication at SFU, is the author of The Big Stall, Harperism, and three other books on links between corporations, politics and media.

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[Note: The Senate hearings will be held in Vancouver this Monday and Tuesday. Tyee editor David Beers testifies at 2:30 pm on Monday. Details, including how you can participate, run at the bottom of this column.]

Vancouver has the dubious honour of being Canada's media concentration capital.

So when the Senate Committee on Transport and Communications decided two years ago to hold hearings on the state of the media in Canada, you'd think it would make a bee-line for our balmy shores to find out first-hand what media concentration looks like on the ground.

Instead the committee, headed by former newspaper editor Joan Fraser, languished in the nation's capital, hearing testimony from all the usual suspects and issuing an interim report in April 2004.

After 36 half-days of testimony in Ottawa and two days each in Toronto and Montreal in December, the Committee is finally coming to Vancouver for a two-day session on January 31 and February 1.

Defenders of 'convergence'

Those days will be crucial for Senator Fraser and her colleagues to learn about increased concentration and declining diversity in Vancouver news media. So far, the committee has received a one-sided account of our situation, having heard from only one Vancouver source, Donna Logan, head of the School of Journalism at UBC.

Kirk LaPointe, now the Vancouver Sun's managing editor but at the time working for the Toronto Star, also gave a presentation that was not hopeful. LaPointe framed his comments with some broad-sweeping, unsupported claims: big media are "very good," there's no connection between cross-media ownership and declining journalism, and convergence so far has been "profoundly positive."

On the day the committee is here, presenters will need to reverse the impression left by LaPointe and Logan, who warned the committee not to make recommendations about regulating ownership or content. Why? Because "government attempts to control ownership and content will always meet with resistance." Logan did not specify where the resistance would come from but presumably she meant the media themselves, not their audiences.

Of course media owners will resist attempts to control their ability to eliminate competitors, produce the lowest-cost content possible and boost profits.

But that's not what news readers and viewers want. Instead they face an alarming situation.

CanWest's empire

CanWest Global accounts for 28.5 percent of total daily newspaper circulation in Canada. For Vancouver dailies it is 100 percent – the Sun and Province. Factor in the national papers, the National Post (also owned by CanWest) and the Globe and Mail (owned by Bell Globemedia), which have little local news, and CanWest still accounts for over 90 percent of daily circulation.

Television news seems less concentrated. Nationally, CanWest holds a 14.7 percent viewing share, compared to 19.2 percent for Bell Globemedia's CTV. But in the all-important 5:00 – 7:00 p.m. supper newscast slot, CanWest holds a commanding 70 percent viewing share, with its Early News, National News and News Hour.

One hundred percent of daily newspaper readers, 70 percent of supper news viewers. Add CanWest's chain of 12 community papers which blanket the Lower Mainland and you have a news hegemony unrivalled in Canadian history.

And it's all controlled by one Winnipeg family, with 89 percent of the company.

Red herrings

Logan seemed to be denying that CanWest has a stranglehold on news. We need to think about Vancouver's vital ethnic press, alternate papers such as the Georgia Straight and the community papers not owned by CanWest, she said. All true, but these hardly change the equation regarding daily news.

Nor should the committee worry about a decline in diversity "when one owner owns too many properties" because of the growth of cable TV and the Internet.

These are red herrings. True, there are dozens of cable channels but very few provide local news and informational programming, which is the issue at hand. Worse, most cable channels are owned by a handful of powerful media barons. For instance, the J.R. Shaw family owns 12 cable channels, while CanWest owns 8 analog and digital cable channels in the Vancouver market to go with its television stations.

And the Internet could become a cornucopia of news and information but if this happens it will be in spite of the media giants, which are trying to lock down free public access. More news sites like CanWest's have moved to an online subscription and pay-per-view format, eliminating access for those who don't wish to or can't afford to pay.

Logan then cautions the committee not to recommend rolling back cross-ownership because owners have to "find new outlets in hoping [sic] of amassing audiences in sufficient numbers to cover rising costs."

That might help corporate bottom lines but does nothing to address the central issue of declining diversity.

In search of diversity

Logan appeared before the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission in 2001, offering testimony that supported the broadcast license renewals of CanWest and CTV. "Converged journalism offers an opportunity to … [free] up reporters to do stories that are not being done and are vital to democratic discourse," she said.

That hasn't happened. Instead, converged journalism offers owners an opportunity to get rid of reporters and use the same story twice or more. That means greater profits for shareholders and less information for citizens.

Two months after her CRTC testimony, CanWest gave $500,000 to Logan's school of journalism for a visiting journalism professor.

Logan denied any connection. "It's not going to influence us," she said on the Rafe Mair Show.

Witnesses like Logan and LaPointe told the Senate committee that diversity is not a problem. As a result, the interim report is wishy-washy. It says that diversity could be extended to the point that every Canadian has his or her own newspaper. The committee admits this is an exaggeration for effect but then claims "the notion has an uncomfortable element of truth." No matter how many views are expressed in the media, it is always possible for some group to argue that its distinct experience or perspective on an issue has not been presented.

Yes, this is possible but hardly realistic. Forget about the bogey-man of every little group being entitled to a voice in the news. How about something simpler such as providing regular stories about environmental, labour and anti-poverty activists and giving them credible voices in the stories, for one example? This would go a long way to relieving the monotony of official and corporate voices so often heard in the mainstream media.

Some suggested fixes

There are several ways to increase diversity in the news.

1. Restore core CBC funding to its historical levels. The CBC is a genuine alternative voice to corporate media and it is being mortally wounded by dozens of small cuts over two decades.

2. Order the CRTC to not approve television broadcast licenses for companies that own daily newspapers in the same market. Trudeau did this in 1982. Mulroney undid it in 1986.

3. Develop a community-based web portal to provide alternative perspectives. The portal could be managed by public libraries, provide CBC news and information to attract a critical mass of viewers, plus access to dozens of alternative news and information sources such as The Tyee, Vancouver Community Network, Working TV, Indymedia, and as many others as want to join in.

4. Establish a publicly-funded national newspaper to be run by an independent board of senior journalists. This was proposed to the committee by Patrick Watson.

5. Support the development of a Canadian media democracy movement, which will create its own proposals for action.

Logan and LaPointe told only one small part of the story. Hopefully the Senate committee will receive the full picture about our awful Vancouver media situation.

SFU Communications professor Donald Gutstein writes an occasional media column for The Tyee.

About the Senate visit: The Standing Senate Committee on Transport and Communications are investigating the state of Canadian journalism, the media's role, rights, and responsibilities in Canadian society, and current and appropriate future policies regarding media concentration, globalisation, and technological change. Locations:

Monday, January 31, 8:00am, at the Morris J. Wosk Centre For Dialogue, Asia Pacific Hall, Room 100, 580 West Hastings Street

Tuesday, February 1, 9:00am, at the University of British Columbia, Sing Tao Building Room 104, 6388 Crescent Road

All hearings are open to the public.

The committee wants to hear from the general public: they want to hear your opinions on and experiences with media concentration and cross-ownership, media diversity, and the quality of Canadian journalism.

How can you address the committee? There will be on-site registration to address the committee.  Registration is first come first served, so it's best to sign up in the morning.  The public comment period will begin at 4:00pm on Monday, January 31.  Each speaker will have about five minutes to address the committee, and the committee may ask questions.

There is no opportunity for the public to address the committee on Tuesday, February 1.

Other questions? Till Heyde, Committee Clerk, Standing Senate Committee on Transport and Communications Tel:  (613) 991-3620 or 1-800-267-7362 Fax: (613) 947-2104  Email:  [email protected]

For further information, including the committee's interim report (April 2004), click here.  [Tyee]

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