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Restoring media democracy – let’s do it!
Free The Media, May 2001;, November 2000
Break up extreme concentration of media ownership
If one believes in a genuinely democratic society, there is only one thing to do with concentration of media ownership: break it up. It isn’t after all a natural phenomenon. Media concentration happened only because Liberal governments over the years did not have enough backbone to stop it. Breaking up concentrated media holdings should be as commonplace a matter as the mergers and consolidations that produced it.

There is precedent for it, too, especially in the United States. AT&T, the powerful telecommunications company, was broken up by court order. Microsoft faces similar action today. The United States has a history of trust-busting, going back to the dissolution of the Standard Oil Company in 1911.

The need to act on Canadian media concentration is even clearer. Mass media play a key role in portraying events and establishing perspective. One cannot have a truly liberal democracy with so much media ownership in a few hands.

Here is a possible scenario to consider: (1) eliminate “cross-ownership” of broadcast and newspaper holdings (where one company owns both radio or television stations and newspapers); (2) return the broadcast side to more diverse ownership; (3) break up concentrated ownership of newspapers itself.

How many newspapers should any one company own? Let’s hew to democratic principle. The cardinal premise of liberal democracy is that citizens have equal political rights - we each have one vote. The ownership of the mass media, which inform the public and influence public opinion, should reflect that same working principle: equality of political expression. At the most, then, no one person or company should own more than one paper.

Some newspapers, however, are quite large. It wouldn’t be fair, for example, to allow one company to own the Toronto Star, with its huge circulation, and limit someone else to only a small paper. So we adjust the maximum ownership accordingly: total circulation up to that of the largest newspaper in the country. There’s the benchmark. The democratization involved would resonate across the country.

$2 billion a year for the CBC
That isn’t a misprint. We meant to say $2 billion, and might have even proposed a higher figure. The CBC’s budget is currently $1.4 billion a year, of which $500 million comes from commercials and $900 million from public appropriation. The extra public financing would allow the CBC to remove commercials on its television services, gain independence from the McDonald’s, Coca Colas and Nikes of this world, and become the great public-broadcasting service it should be.

A $2 billion budget for the CBC is modest compared to other major television broadcasting systems. The BBC’s budget in Great Britain, from licence fees, is C$4.9 billion and, unlike the CBC, it broadcasts in only one language. CBS’s annual revenue is C$11.1 billion and ABC’s C$11.4 billion. Canada’s defence spending is in the $10 billion range.

“Either we have a country or we don’t,” someone once said about our broadcasting, and if we are going to have a Canada, a dynamic public-broadcasting system will be a part of it. By contrast, the Liberals, who have cut the CBC’s budget, only pretend they’re standing up for country. In fact they have been destroying our uniqueness and they don’t really care.

A CBC freed from commercials would be the first step in putting broadcast financing on a more efficient basis; financing television by commercials is extraordinarily wasteful. (See the analysis of broadcast financing in Brainwashing Stalin would have admired). [internal link] Stockwell Day’s proposal to privatize the CBC is as wrong-headed and backward as they come.

More important, the new budget would free the CBC from the “propaganda system” which commercials represent (again, see Brainwashing Stalin would have admired). [internal link] It would also free it journalistically to debunk that propaganda, not to mention providing consumers with independent market information that would undermine the whole wasteful and inflated objective of brand-name advertising. This new freedom would, at one and the same time, return the CBC to its populist roots and usher Canada into the “post-propaganda age.”

The CBC would also have the resources to be a great television broadcasting system, giving American television a run for its money.

We are talking of a paradigm shift here: a breaking up of a retrograde propaganda system, with a powerful liberating, and futuristic, effect on Canadian journalism and society. It would also be a Canada that would leave the Americans behind.

Democratizing the media for the 21st century
Liberating the CBC would be only the first step in democratizing the media for the 21st century. Once one accepts the idea that there are other, and better, ways of financing broadcasting than by commercials, the door opens to new kinds of ownership - ownership as diverse as Canada itself - like co-operative ownership by radio listeners and cable subscribers, broadcasting operations governed by journalists themselves, provincial public broadcasters creating a federated national network, and so on.

There is an important principle to this, too: that the more that the mass media are governed in diverse ways, the freer all media are. No one kind of ownership, like private corporate ownership, can dominate journalism.
Copyright © Herschel Hardin 2005
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