Concern about the state of the news media has been a recurring
theme in Canadian public life over the past few decades since control of the
media has become concentrated in a few large corporations. The primary fear is
that this concentrated ownership may reduce the quality and independence of the
information Canadians need in order to govern themselves.
In a democratic society, the news media play an indispensable
role. They provide the information that sovereign people require in order to
form opinions on matters of public policy and to make judgments about the
performance of their representatives and the leaders they have chosen. Without
accurate, timely and independent sources of information, the ability of people
to form these opinions and judgments will be reduced and democracy will suffer.
When the news media fail in these responsibilities, the sovereignty of the
people — an essential characteristic of democracy — is impaired.
The information and debate supplied by good journalism are
the oxygen of democracy.
Perhaps the most vital characteristic of the information that
citizens of a democracy require is independence. By “independence,” I mean
freedom from any pressures or incentives that might cause information to be
distorted, either in pursuit of rewards or because of fear of consequences.
There should be no pressures on the news media to offer information that is
less than as complete and accurate as possible. There should also be no
pressures to limit debate to only certain points of view.
Independence from government is perhaps the single most
important aspect of the overall independence of the news media, since
government controls so many of the rewards and punishments that might cause
information to be distorted between the source and the public.
Because independence from government is so vital, some may
question the wisdom, and even legitimacy, of a Senate examination of the state
of the news media. They may feel the state of the industry should be left as a
private matter between the news media and their customers, and that no arm of
government or Parliament should interfere.
As far as the editorial content of news media is concerned, I
believe they are right. Because independence from power is so vital, I would be
uncomfortable with a government or parliamentary body making recommendations
about the editorial content of print media, which are, and should be,
unregulated. Broadcast media, which operate under an act of Parliament, are
different, but even in the case of broadcasting, the vital independence of
editorial content should be recognized and respected.
I believe such questioners are wrong, however, as far as the
structure of the industry is concerned. All societies have rules for allocating
broadcast frequencies because of scarcity. Most impose public obligations on
broadcasters and it is common in democratic societies to have limits on
ownership, including cross-ownership of broadcasting and other media.
The print media are also affected by structural rules. Foreign
ownership is effectively banned and parts of the industry benefit from postal
subsidies. These rules, and how they affect information, are a legitimate
subject for examination by a committee of Parliament.
Previous inquiries into the media have had limited but generally
positive results. One reason their success was limited was because, in some
cases, they went too far in making recommendations that could interfere with
editorial content. The Senate’s special committee under Keith Davey more than
thirty years ago led to the creation of Canada’s first press councils. The
royal commission under Tom Kent, which studied the newspaper industry more than
twenty years ago, made many recommendations that were not enacted but resulted
in the expansion of press councils across the country.
While press councils are imperfect bodies, as someone who has
both served on them and testified before them and been subject to many of their
judgments, I believe they generally improve newspapers by making them more accountable
and responsive to the public. The public airing of issues and debate about the
news media that these inquiries engendered was also positive.
The Senate committee’s work also has the potential to have
a positive and even greater impact if you are careful to avoid trying to deal
with editorial content directly. Some of the provisions in the proposed
newspaper act in 1981 that flowed from the work of the Kent commission would
have come close to bringing government into Canada’s newsrooms. One measure
would have made newspaper editors accountable to a community committee
operating under the aegis of a minister of government. I fought this along with
all other senior people in the newspaper industry. With the help of
international press freedom organizations, that proposed act was eventually
While there were some problems in the newspaper industry twenty
years ago, that cure was far worse than the disease. By reaching too far,
the entire proposed law collapsed. Since that time, freedom of expression has
also been enshrined in our Constitution in the Charter of Rights and
Freedoms. Intrusive proposals may not only be unwise today; they may also
be unconstitutional. Recommendations that deal only with structure and avoid
impinging on content may have the greatest chance of resulting in change in
improving the state of the news media in Canada.
The greatest concentrations of ownership are in cities across
the country. In Vancouver, for example, CanWest owns both daily newspapers as
well as television stations. You need to travel to some of these communities to
hear from citizens about problems that concentration may be causing. You will
be handicapped in your ability to assess this if you try to do it by inviting
people to Ottawa. You will get a richer cross-section of opinion by visiting
communities most affected.
Many of the complaints you will hear will undoubtedly be about
content. It fine to hear those. The recommendations you make, however, should
only be about structure and steer clear of proposals that would suggest there
is any role for government in controlling editorial content.
You will undoubtedly hear from media owners that Canadians have
access to more sources of information than ever before and that, therefore,
there is no need for this inquiry and no need for structural change in the
industry. This is only partly true. Anyone with an Internet connection and
sufficient time has access to an incredibly rich variety of information and
opinion on international affairs and, to a lesser extent, on national affairs.
The major gap is with information about municipal and, in some
cases, provincial governments. Since these governments deliver most of the
services that Canadians see and use, this is a serious deficiency. Most of the
information and opinion about municipal and provincial governments comes from
newspapers and, to a lesser extent, from television. In Canada these media now
often have a common owner.
As these owners push their convergence strategies and try to
achieve efficiencies in news gathering, a reporter covering a municipal council
meeting, for example, may file a story for a newspaper that will also appear on
the newspaper’s Web site and then go on to provide a commentary for television.
The effective result of this is transfer of power from elected officials to the
news media. A mayor, for example, trying to communicate with his or her
constituents may have to do it through one reporter rather than the several he
or she might have faced before. If this reporter decides to downplay a story or
gets it wrong, all of the community may be deprived of accurate information.
With more reporters, there is a greater chance that the message will get
The other problem with using the Internet as an excuse for inaction
is that there is no evidence that Canadians or any other people will spend
significantly more time reading or viewing the news simply because the richness
of the Internet is available. Except in special circumstances, like the
terrorist attack on the United States in September 2001, or the start of the
recent invasion of Iraq, a typical educated Canadian will spend about half an
hour to three quarters of an hour a day with the news. The richness of the
Internet may be available but, except for specialized purposes, it is not used
very much. Most Canadians still get the vast majority of their general news
from television, radio, and newspapers. That will continue for the foreseeable
future. Because of this, an examination of the concentration of ownership of
the traditional media that dominate delivery of news in Canada is appropriate
in spite of the Internet.
I am sure you will also be told that there is no need for
structural change because the newspaper industry has less concentrated
ownership than it had at the time of the Kent Commission. That is true. There
is also much less concentration than it was four or five years ago when
Hollinger, Conrad Black’s company, owned almost 60 per cent of Canada’s daily
newspapers. It is true that when you consider newspapers alone at the national
level, concentration has been reduced, mainly because CanWest sold many smaller
newspapers to two new players in the industry, Osprey Media and
There are two problems with that, however. One is that because
of the convergence strategies of media companies that are trying to achieve
efficiency and synergy across different media, it does not make sense to
consider newspapers alone. Since different media are being managed jointly, it
is appropriate they be analysed jointly. The second problem is that
concentration is primarily a local problem affecting communities rather than a
national one. You should be looking at concentration of all media in cities
such as Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton and provinces such as British Columbia,
Alberta, Saskatchewan and New Brunswick, rather than relying on national
The presence of weekly newspapers is also not an answer to the
concentration issue because they usually only cover the suburbs of the large
cities most affected by concentration and also many of them are owned by the
same large media companies that own the dailies.
A reality is that while the news media provide a vital public
service in a democracy, for the most part they are also private businesses with
shareholders, debt loads and expectations of performance like all other
companies. The obvious exception is the CBC. Those private companies are under
the constant scrutiny of investment analysts. A news medium is often described
as a ``public trust in private hands,’’ and that is not a bad way to sum up the
situation. Managers of media companies must balance the quality of information
they provide to the public against the demands for improved earnings per share
and other business imperatives. In the short run, these are often in conflict.
In the past, Canada has often relied on public-spirited owners
who were willing to put their public trust responsibilities ahead of business
imperatives. For several decades, the two major companies in Canada were Southam
and Thomson. I worked for both and they exemplified very different approaches
to balancing public trust and business demands of newspapers. Southam was
controlled by a public-spirited family that was willing to sacrifice profits in
order to serve the information needs of communities. Thomson, however, did not
spend a nickel more than necessary on content. The exception was The Globe
and Mail, which was run separately and with more generous editorial budgets
in the years that Thomson owned it.
The Southam newspapers generally supplied good journalism while,
because of inadequate resources, the small Thomson newspapers generally did
not. Ironically, the relatively lowly profitability of the Southam papers made
the company vulnerable to a takeover once the Southam family lost control of
the majority of the shares.
Another reality is that in our system, the freedom of expression
that is protected in our Constitution ultimately belongs to the owners of the
news media, not to editors or other journalists. Owners have the right to
control the news and editorial content of their media outlets, if they choose.
In the early days of journalism, this was the rule, since there were often
several newspapers in a community and each was used to promote the interests, political
views and often the career of the owner. Readers often had to read more than
one paper to get both sides of an issue. As newspapers evolved and many went
out business, the remaining papers generally became more professional and
objective. They tried to present balanced coverage of the news, and opinion was
restricted to the editorial page. Control of content was likely to be delegated
to publishers, editors and their journalists.
Over the long haul, cancelled subscriptions and changed
channels can be powerful tools in promoting better journalism.
In recent years, the use of media to promote the views of the
owners has made a come back, notably since CanWest became a newspaper
proprietor. The principals of the company have been quite open about their
desire to use their newspapers to promote their interests and views. Staffs of
the newspapers have learned which issues are sensitive and when to censor
themselves. For example, you are unlikely to find much that is favourable about
the CBC or about Palestinians in CanWest newspapers. Managers of the papers
have learned that Canadian broadcasting and the conflict in the Middle East are
highly sensitive matters with the proprietors. Some readers of CanWest
newspapers have complained that they do not get balanced coverage of these and
a few other issues. In spite of this, owners undoubtedly have the
constitutional right to control content if they so choose.
What can be done? As I have said, I believe that any attempt to
control editorial content directly would be unwise and probably illegal under
our Charter of Rights and Freedoms. As frustrating as this may be for
some who would like to improve the media, content issues must be worked out
between proprietors and their customers. Readers and viewers must be more
demanding of the news media and make their views known when they believe they
are not receiving quality journalism or balanced coverage.
There are structural changes, however, that could promote
greater diversity in news and opinion. This would involve limiting the number
of media outlets that any one proprietor could own. This can best be done by
banning the cross-ownership of broadcasting and newspapers that has impeded the
flow of information in several Canadian cities and provinces.
For several decades, ownership of broadcasting and print in the
same city was discouraged. In 1982, this became formal government policy, and a
directive was sent to the CRTC. In 1985, however, this policy was reversed
shortly after an election and a new government took power. The reasons for the
reversal have not been made clear.
The most important public policy change that could be made to
improve the state of Canada’s news media would be to recognize that the 1982
policy was the correct one. Ownership of both broadcasting and newspapers in
the same city gives an owner too much control over the flow of news and
opinion. Banning of cross-ownership would create greater diversity in sources
of news and opinion in many Canadian cities. Tom Kent suggested a ban on
cross-ownership in a thoughtful article in Policy Options last fall, and
I support his conclusions.
Media owners may tell you that they must own different media in
order to meet the needs of advertisers and to compete against much larger
foreign media companies. Both of these rationales are highly questionable.
Media buyers and advertising agencies are already very skilled at arranging
multimedia advertising packages involving different companies. Common ownership
adds little value to this. There is little direct competition between Canadian
media companies and their foreign counterparts. Few foreign newspapers are sold
in Canada and while Canadians watch a lot of foreign — particularly U.S. —
television, Canadian media companies control virtually all of the advertising revenue
directed at the Canadian market. Canadian magazines, of course, do compete
intensively with foreign magazines, but ownership of broadcasting outlets by a
magazine company would be of little or no help.
In fact, the entire business rationale for cross-ownership and
convergence of media is shaky. Companies that have invested heavily in
convergence by buying other media have generally seen significant declines in
their share prices. Investors appear to be questioning the value of the
purchases and the debts that have been taken on to finance them. You should
question claims that under convergence news media are stronger because they can
support each other. The truth is that, in many cases, the debts of parent
companies have resulted in severe cost cutting and made Canada’s news media
weaker, not stronger.
A ban on cross-ownership would also enforce the vital
independence of print media from government. Broadcasters require licences from
government in order to operate their businesses. A broadcast licence is an
extremely valuable asset for a company and this may give the company a powerful
interest in remaining on good terms with the government. This has the potential
to affect the objectivity of journalism. Broadcast journalists, of course, have
no choice but to operate in this environment but there is a public interest in
not having print journalists compromised by the ties of their owners to
In this sense, a ban on cross-ownership would extend the ethical
standards that good governments impose on their employees to the level of
ownership. The Globe and Mail, for example, would not permit one of its
reporters to accept a free airline ticket from government in order to cover a
story because of concern that this might influence content. However, BCE, the
owner of The Globe and Mail, receives a broadcast licence from the
government to operate the CTV network, which enables the company to make
millions of dollars in profits each year. Owners should be subject to the same
ethical standards as they impose on their employees; they should accept no
benefits. Removing broadcast licences from newspaper owners with a ban on
cross-ownership would achieve this, and several thousand Canadian journalists
would become free of their owner’s ties to government through broadcasting
Because media companies have made substantial investments in
cross-ownership and convergence strategies however, they should be given
reasonable time to adapt to the change. Legislation should be passed that would
give media owners until the end of their current broadcasting licences to be in
compliance with a ban on cross-ownership. In most cases, this would be about
five years. BCE, CanWest and Québécor would have to decide whether they wanted
to be in the newspaper business or the broadcasting business and sell assets to
bring themselves into compliance. In the meantime, awareness that
cross-ownership is coming to an end would halt the convergence activities that
are now limiting diversity of coverage. Mediums that will be sold must be
You may also look at the issue of an effective ban on foreign
ownership of Canadian media. While it might be tempting to permit foreign
ownership of Canada’s media to promote diversity of proprietors, I think this
would be a mistake. Foreign ownership would almost certainly mean ownership by
large U.S. media companies. I know from experience in working with them that
there is often little recognition that Canadian information needs and
viewpoints may be different. When Canadian and U.S. opinions on policies
diverge, as they did recently over the invasion of Iraq, it could be unwise to
have control of Canadian news outlets in U.S. hands. Canadian-owned news media
remain an important tool to promote our national identity.
Abraham Lincoln once said, “Let the people know the facts, and
the country will be safe.” I hope you will be able to make sure that nothing,
including media ownership, gets in the way of Canadians knowing the facts so
that our country can continue to be safe.