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Itís the media, stupid
The Democrat, September 2001
|The New Politics Initiative! NDProgress! Grassroots groups! National discussion sponsored by the federal party! Here in BC: Review, Renew, Rebuild! We read all about them in the July issue of The Democrat, but what do they really mean?
Given the setbacks of the party both federally and provincially, it's good that people are talking and debating. Remember, though, that relatively recently, in 1994 and 1995, we went through much the same kind of process, at least federally. "Renewal conferences," they were called. Those discussions were, for the most part, earnest and animated, and didn't lack for soul-searching, but politically they didn't bring us much further ahead.
Is it possible that we're going around in circles, and doing so because we're ignoring a key, disabling factor in the way that the party works?
I believe we are, and the key factor is the mass media. The increasing concentration of mass-media ownership in right-wing hands constricts and distorts the relationship between a left-wing political party and the public. The mass media establish the frame, and we're outside the frame even when, on specific matters, the public agrees with us, which it often does. Similarly, the public's feedback to us is distorted. Without major left-wing mass media to help engage people at large in the way we see things, they don't share in our discussion and don't connect.
It's impossible for us in the circumstances to have a dynamic relationship with the larger public. Without that, in turn, we're dysfunctional no matter how hard we try and how many renewal initiatives we undertake.
It's not that media bias and opposition are something new. Most media in Canada have been right-wing going back in time, and even those that were more liberal didnít do us any favours. Tommy Douglas and the Saskatchewan CCF had to overcome rampant media hostility to be elected in 1944. Douglas did succeed and we've been government at other times, in Saskatchewan and other provinces. Federally, however, we've never been more than a third party, usually with just a small contingent in the House of Commons, even in the glory days of J.S. Woodsworth. Provincially, when we do get elected, we're vulnerable to malicious media antagonism which not only affects our popularity but also plays havoc with the way we govern.
It's important to remember how Tommy Douglas did it in Saskatchewan. A lot of factors contributed, including a general leftward political shift and Saskatchewan farmersí long political involvement. More than that, however, Douglas wasn't cornered by the media the way that he would be now.
- On the campaign trail and between elections he had direct access to the public. People still went to political meetings in those days and heard directly from Douglas and the CCF in some detail and with immediacy. Now the key event is a single, superficial, multi-person television debate with a frustrating format, the most important part of which is the spin the media put on the debate the next day.
- The movement also had its own mass medium, the Western Producer, published weekly by the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool. The Western Producer was created specifically to circumvent the bias and hostility of existing newspapers, and almost every farm household in Saskatchewan - the majority of the population - received it. The province's right-wing newspaper owners were effectively put in check.
- The early Saskatchewan CCF also had the CBC. Radio was a powerful new medium, that brought actuality into people's living rooms. It wasn't that the CBC was left-wing. It wasn't. It did, however, being publicly owned, attempt to provide balance, openness and divergent views. Money and power, or ownership of a newspaper, no longer gave one special access or editorial control. This made a tremendous difference. The CBC wasn't just a small niche medium, either. It was the Canadian national radio network, the only network, and stood astride the Canadian media scene.
Now compare this to the scene today. Instead of a populist and balanced CBC helping to create the "frame," we in B.C. have BCTV and CKNW. Instead of the Western Producer, we have the Vancouver Sun and The Province, owned by ideologically committed right-wingers (who also own BCTV!). They also gave money to the B.C. Liberals. The CBC is still around, but it's now just a minor player with a fractional audience, and even in that limited role, inevitably reflects much of the bias of the more numerous and powerful media outlets around it.
There's another factor that wasn't around in the early days: pervasive brand-name propaganda. It's everywhere these days. This is media, too: on television, 12 minutes or more per hour, ever hour. This propaganda, culturally, is profoundly antithetical to the NDP, which is the political party of community. If Coca Cola, Nike, McDonald's, GM and company are the icons that count, then the NDP is irrelevant.
The mass media, particularly with the advent of television, now dominate in a way they hadn't in the past. In this society, the media are the gatekeepers, and who controls the gate is politically crucial.
There is, fortunately, a strategic response available to all of this: make media and culture major political and electoral issues. This means talking about them all the time; giving them a key place in leaders' speeches (those of the federal leader in particular) and in Question Period in the House of Commons; actively and systematically tracking and challenging media bias; engaging journalists openly on these issues; arguing for the democratization of media ownership; and putting ownership and control of the mass media in the message box at election time as a key issue. It means helping the public to understand how media power works, and works against them.
It means, in short, doing politics in a new way. It's a necessary change. And change is change, as different from talking volubly about the need for change, but in practice, under another name or in another package, just doing the same kinds of things we've always done.
If we don't make that change, we can hold renewal conferences until the cows come home and it won't make a bit of difference.