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Danger: extreme concentration
Free The Media, May 2001;, November 2000
When Southam Inc. and Thompson many years ago began accumulating newspapers in Canada, it marked a disturbing trend. There was a Senate inquiry and then a Royal Commission, both of which rang alarm bells and recommended something be done. The Liberals did nothing. Concentration of media power - the power in particular to intimidate - was too much for shilly-shallying Liberal governments which preferred to sit on their hands rather than do anything so bold as protect the public interest.

Holding companies also began merging television and radio stations in Canada. The airwaves, at least according to the Canadian Broadcasting Act, belonged to the public, and in the licensing of stations to use those public airwaves, local ownership was a democratic keystone. The mergers, and then accelerating concentration, destroyed this democratic premise. Liberal governments did nothing.

Then Conrad Black, with properties in Britain and the United States, and who also owned the Sterling newspapers, a chain of smaller papers in British Columbia, began targetting Canada in a big way, through his company Hollinger Inc. He ended up swallowing both the Financial Post and the inflated Southam chain itself (including many so-called “community” newspapers), plus the Sifton papers in Saskatchewan. Then he used the resources he could squeeze out of those properties to establish yet another paper, this one blanketing the country, The National Post. Through these acquisitions, Black would control roughly 60 per cent of all daily newspapers in the country and 45 per cent of its newspaper circulation. Liberal governments did nothing.

There was no doubt, either, that Black would manhandle his newspapers so that they would speak Black’s party line, from editorial writers to news coverage to columnists. David Radler, Black’s right hand man, put it bluntly: “I am ultimately the publisher of all these papers, and if editors disagree with us, they should disagree with us when they’re no longer in our employ.” In British Columbia, where Black owned all but one of the daily newspaper province-wide, including the two major Vancouver dailies, this meant control of coverage and opinion in spades. The Liberal government didn’t care, and neither did Preston Manning and the Reform Party, who loudly pretended to be defenders of democracy, but in practice were quite willing to see it subverted.

The distortion and bias this concentrated ownership has brought to journalism, and especially to the Vancouver Sun and The Province, is legend.

Rogers Communications Inc., the cable giant, and also owner of several broadcasting properties, at the same time acquired Maclean-Hunter and with it Maclean’s magazine. Liberal governments did nothing.

Then, as recounted here in The Big Taboo!, Black sold out the best part of his newspaper holdings in Canada to Izzy Asper and CanWest. Asper, who already owned the Global Television network, had recently also acquired BCTV and CHEK. For the Greater Vancouver area, this means particularly extreme concentration, with the two dailies (the Vancouver Sun and The Province), several other papers (like the North Shore News) and the dominant television outlet, BCTV, all under the same roof. The Liberal government did nothing.

To rub salt in the wound, none of this ownership is British Columbian. We used to have local ownership, and our papers reflected the liveliness and diversity of society and politics here. All that is gone now. No other major city in Canada, either, suffers from the extent of media concentration in single hands that we do here, but this is Vancouver so the Liberals don’t even care about that. Nor do Stockwell Day and the Alliance, the Reform Party’s successor. They just don’t care and they don’t want to talk about it, despite its crucial importance.

We do care. We know that without representative and divers media ownership, the public is shortchanged and manipulated, with a devastating effect on the choices we make and how we govern ourselves.

It’s true, mind you, that standing up to this media concentration and the corporations behind it takes a bit of courage, not least because the media are the gatekeepers and have the ability to crucify any political party that might put a democratic society first. It’s also true that the Liberals and the Alliance don’t have that courage. Some things, however, need to be done. Restoring genuinely democrat media is the first task we should set for ourselves, collectively as Canadians, because without that, the democratic game is over.

Read all about it
James Winter’s powerful exposé, Democracy’s Oxygen: How Corporations Control the
News, published in 1997 by Black Rose Books.
Campaign for Press and Broadcast Freedom []
MediaChannel []
Copyright © Herschel Hardin 2005
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