Several major media mergers are threatening to make the Canadian media scene an even more concentrated affair. A few examples: CTVglobemedia has inhaled CHUM (with Rogers taking the spoils), Alliance Atlantis is on the brink of becoming a part of CanWest, and Quebecor Media is poised to take over Osprey Media.
A year ago (June 2006), the Standing Senate Committee on Transport and Communications Report on the Canadian News Media concluded that there are "areas where the concentration of ownership has reached levels that few other countries would consider acceptable." Canadians agree: well before the latest round of mergers, 56 per cent of Canadians said they had less trust in the media because of media consolidation, and fewer than one in five Canadians thought news organizations were independent.
Canadians understand very clearly the effects of media consolidation on media choice. For example, CanWest will now own the IFC (Independent Film Channel). Since CanWest is known for its conservative editorial stances, this change indicates that the Independent Film Channel is now anything but Independent.
Or again: as a result of CTVglobemedia's purchase of CHUM, the same company now owns MTV Canada and MuchMusic. One of these channels will likely face considerable divestment. It just wouldn't make good business sense to keep aggressively investing in both. Both of these two channels have become crucial spaces for the development of youth culture, and important sites of exposition for Canadian artists, as well as favourites among media consumers.
Fear in the newsrooms
The Canadian Energy, Communications and Paperworkers (CEP) union recently published a landmark study focusing on Canadian journalists, titled Voices From the Newsroom. The study suggests that journalists and news consumers are already feeling the brunt of big media domination.
Only 9.5 per cent of journalists indicated that they believe the corporate owners of their news outlet valued good journalism over profit. This perspective perhaps reflects the bookkeepers' view of employees as liabilities -- a management approach that is only exacerbated when big media get bigger.
CHUM laid off 281 people and cancelled news broadcasts across the country just hours before CTVglobemedia announced its intention to take over CHUM.
Quebecor -- another big media enterprise looking to get bigger -- has locked out the office and editorial staff of the Journal de Québec since April 22, 2007. Journalists tried to restart the negotiation process in mid-June, only to have Quebecor negotiators reject their efforts, sticking to their original demands from December 2006.
With this kind of treatment, it is not surprising that 44 per cent of journalists in the CEP study report a decreasing desire to stay in journalism.
With the recent and likely continuing big media centralization of media, we can only expect news and journalism to suffer more as economic imperatives drive operations. We can look forward to more unemployed or dissatisfied journalists, and more media consumers left wanting the penetrating journalism that used to be more prevalent in Canada.
Internet to the rescue?
Some people point to the Internet as the medium that will save us all from concentrated print and broadcast uniformity. Unfortunately, a high level of media consolidation also means that we are in danger of losing the open Internet in Canada and the ability to chose which websites we go to. For the most part, the media conglomerates that dominate conventional media also dominate web traffic. Independent media are pressed to compete with the vast holdings and promotional clout wielded by national big media conglomerates.
As big media increasingly merge with Internet service providers like Rogers, BCE and Telus, we risk unwittingly trading our open Internet for a closed system. In such a system, Internet (and cell phone) service providers can push traffic to their own content and that of their partners, while traffic to other more diverse media sites is slowed or blocked.
During the Telus strike in 2005, the corporation blocked access to a website run by striking Telus employees called "Voices for Change." There are many more examples of non-neutral Internet service-provider behaviour. A lone blogger or independent news website is hard-pressed to compete with the vast holdings and promotional clout wielded by national media conglomerates.
The Canadian Radio and Television Commission (CRTC) recently called for public input for their Diversity of Voices proceeding in order to review issues relating to the ownership of Canadian broadcasting companies. The main focus is on the impact that ownership trends have on the diversity of voices provided by Canadian broadcasters.
Until July 18, Canadians have an opportunity to submit comments about media ownership regulations, and the effect of concentrated ownership on free and vigorous debate about important public issues. The Diversity of Voices proceeding could result in drastic changes to the rules that govern Canadian media and communications.
How to take action
Canadians have historically supported media diversity. Many government reports have called for strict limits on media concentration. In 2002, an Ipsos-Reid poll reported that 86 per cent of Canadians believed the federal government should do something to alleviate Canadians' concerns about media concentration.
However, there is a new factor now. Canadians from across the country are speaking out loudly and clearly, asking for media choice over big media domination. They are urging the CRTC to maintain media diversity and public access to our national and regional communication platforms. The question is, will the CRTC take the lead from the Canadian public? With a clear indication that Canadians want a more diverse media system with more media choice, will the CRTC live up to its mandate to regulate media in the public interest?
The airwaves belong to the Canadian public, and rules to curb media concentration in Canada are long overdue. CRTC proceedings are usually dominated by big media, so comments from Canadians from across the country will go far to demonstrate the importance of media consolidation to all our lives.
Canadians can submit comments directly to the CRTC through a straightforward comment system on the Canadians for Democratic Media (CDM) website.
As former U.S. federal communications commissioner Nicholas Johnson said, "Whatever is your first priority, whether it's women's rights or civil rights or environmental concerns, your second priority simply has to be media reform. Because with that, the progressive community has a hope, and without it, you don't have a hope."
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