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Canada's Media Language Is a Little Too Newspeak-y

Harper's made dramatic changes, yet elite influence over the mainstream drowns out criticism.

By Nick Fillmore 15 Jan 2015 | TheTyee.ca

Nick Fillmore is a Toronto freelance journalist and a Tyee National columnist. He was one of the founders of Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, the International Freedom of Expression Exchange and the Canadian Association of Journalists. Nick supports media development projects in Caribbean countries by volunteering with the Association of Caribbean Media Workers.

This commentary on Canadian national issues is made possible because of generous financial support from our Tyee Builders.

Canada is not Orwell's imaginary society where peoples' every thoughts and ideas are controlled by The Party, but it seems to me that our own powerful elite has pushed our media closer to censorship and a propaganda-feeding machine than I ever imagined possible.

Generally speaking, key elements of our elite include the wealthy, corporate executives, private media, and the Harper government. As Orwell wrote in his novel, the powerful understand that if they have strong influence over media they can limit serious criticism of the tremendous changes experienced by ordinary people.

Over the more than 40 years I've been deeply involved in media -- from publisher of my own newspaper, to an award-winning investigative reporter, to 25 years with the CBC, and as a founder of the Canadian Association of Journalists back in the 1980s -- I have watched carefully as journalism has evolved.

At no time during those 40 years has mainstream media been so ideologically right-wing. All but one of Canada's 118 daily newspapers and all four of its private television networks support the business-dominated ideology of the elite and the Harper government. The CBC has some excellent, independent minded programming, but CBC management is so terrified of Stephen Harper that it doesn't allow the boat to be rocked.

Of course, mainstream journalists are allowed to write stories that are moderately critical of the Harper government, one of the links in the chain of power, and several newspapers even ran front page editorials when Harper closed down Parliament. But considering how dramatically the Harper government has changed Canada, mainstream media has not lived up to its obligation of looking out for the interests of the public.

Far too often today, stories focus on the government's strategy to overcome an image problem. For instance, consider The Globe and Mail's front page treatment last week of the demotion of Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino. Instead of talking about how the change will allow the government to improve services for veterans, it dealt entirely with Harper trying to improve the image of the government going into an election.

Less often do mainstream journalists investigate the powers and activities of the elite, such as executives from energy corporations, banks or multinational corporations. I don't believe that smaller budgets are the reason there is so little investigative journalism at big media organizations. Even though the world economy is in tatters, mainstream journalists are not permitted to question the weaknesses of capitalism. On the other hand, it is very difficult to find positive stories on the likes of union leaders and environmentalists, two groups that are viewed as the enemy by the elite and business.

Interestingly, elites and the media establishment have such strong control over the language we use that mainstream journalists are prohibited from writing or uttering the phrase "neo-liberalism," even though this is the name of the far right-wing ideological system the Harper government has used to change Canada. This is too similar to Orwell's Newspeak, a language in which unacceptable political ideas have been removed.

Our North American elite and corporate media long ago decided that positive references to socialism and communism -- both forms of politics practiced across Europe -- were unacceptable. In Orwell's 1984, using words that had been officially removed from the dictionary because they were politically incorrect was called Oldspeak.

Elite influence

Canadian mainstream media wasn't always like this. One of the most serious changes is the lack of independent thought on media panels and in columns. I remember 20 or 30 years ago when panelists expressed their true opinions, and often argued about whether government was doing a good job of serving the public. The wellbeing of ordinary people was paramount. The key points were often around whether government was ethical, honourable and serving society.

A highpoint were the discussions heard weekly on Peter Gzowski's CBC Radio Morningside, featuring the insightful and heartfelt views of Stephen Lewis (left-wing), Eric Kierans (liberal) and Dalton Camp (conservative). Hundreds of thousands of Canadians tuned in to hear these three intellectuals discuss and argue key issues in a way that engaged ordinary folk.

Today, the influence of the elite flows so strongly into the media world that many TV and radio panelists and newspaper columnists are censored or self-censored. Two progressive journalists who appear on different CBC panels confidently told me they are careful about what they say for fear of losing their spot on their programs.

Both CTV (Robert Fife's Question Period) and Global (Tom Clark's The West Block) make sure that their politics programs in no way challenge conventional thinking on the Hill or on Bay Street. Over at CBC's News Network Power and Politics, Evan Solomon does the best job of pushing politicians for honest answers, but is careful to stay within the boundaries of what's acceptable to discuss.

The politics program that comes closest to following a Newspeak-type language is CBC's The National Thursday night media program, At Issue. Hosted by CBC chief news editor Peter Mansbridge, its usual panelists are Andrew Coyne of Postmedia/National Post, Toronto Star columnist Chantel Hebert, and the non-journalist member, consultant Bruce Anderson of Abacus Data.

At Issue discussions are very controlled. Panelists don't say anything that will annoy the elite. Although Parliament is the place where tons of legislation is produced that affects the country, these four seldom, if ever, say whether a new program is, or is not, in the public interest.

At Issue seldom, if ever, deals with lofty topics. Instead, almost all episodes discuss what strategy XX party will adopt in response to whatever move YY party has made. Strategy and positioning of politicians are the big topics. An entire segment can be eaten up with pompous answers to questions that have very little significance 1,000 yards from Parliament Hill.

Then there's that Mansbridge interview

During their year-end program, the four discussed Mansbridge's earlier rather weak interview with Harper. Harper adopted a smiling, nice-guy persona for the Mansbridge interview. Harper's polite tone and demeanour -- obviously a PR strategy -- was at odds with the way he has bullied the country for nine years.

Mansbridge's first question to his panel was a perfect example of what's wrong with the program. He asked: "Was there anything new about Stephen Harper or the way he's positioning himself (my emphasis) going into an election year?"

This gave panelists an excellent opportunity to speculate about whether Harper's smiling presence in the Mansbridge interview was for real, or an attempt to control the nature of the interview. But, as though guided by the laws of Newspeak, the three lapped up everything Harper had said. They were like naïve j-school graduates who had forgotten one of journalism's key laws: Pay attention to what politicians do, not to what they say they will do.

Coyne thought he heard a hint that Harper might do a flip-flop on climate change. [Had he been there, Harper might have said to Coyne: "Gee thanks for putting that out there. That should help confuse people."]

Hebert said Harper needed the next few months to re-introduce himself to people who voted for him in 2011. [Harper to Hebert: "Thanks for the advice. Just what I was thinking."]

Anderson said he thought that Harper's approach of painstakingly explaining his electoral positioning "will work better with most voters who are at least open to the idea of voting Conservative." [Harper to Anderson: "Glad you liked my performance."]

Toward the end of the program, Mansbridge asked a very important question. He wanted to know whether his panel members thought Harper had accomplished what he said he would do in 2006: Change Canada so much by the time he was through that we wouldn't recognize the country?

There it was: THE question on the minds of millions of Canadians. Four of the country's so-called media celebrities had a chance to say how much damage they felt Harper had done.

Speaking in turn, Coyne, Hebert and Anderson did a little tap dance, and then stated that Harper had not changed Canada in any meaningful way.

Hello! Has Harper not altered our tax system to make the rich and corporations even more wealthy, while allowing the middle class to slide into greater debt? Has he not put our national health care system on a path to be financially unsustainable? Are there not 1,000 more ways he has tried to destroy the Canada we have known?

This is where mainstream journalism finds itself in 2015. And just like the citizens of Orwell's Oceania were subjected to massive control and censorship, our society is subjective to much less information control, but nevertheless control that prevents us from having access to vital information and that undermines our basic democracy.  [Tyee]

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