Corporate ownership of both print and broadcast media are seen as necessary to Canada's media model, said to be the world's best. Government should regulate neither media ownership now content, but better evaluation of how well the media are performing is called for. Excerpts from evidence presented May 27.
What we have learned, from previous inquiries into the state of the media in this country, is that government can do very little about either of these issues. Davey, Kent and others made recommendations in these areas, with few consequences. For the media to perform its role in a functioning democracy, it must be free and independent. Hence, government attempts to control ownership and content will always meet with resistance.
However, if you believe that the media is a public trust and that the well-being of democracy depends on people being sufficiently well-informed to make intelligent decisions about their lives and about their country, then government bodies such as this one ought to examine, from time to time, the degree to which media is fulfilling that role. The mere exercise of having the discussion has a value in and of itself. Beyond that, the most useful role the Senate committee can play is to attempt to make recommendations that would create a framework in which a free and independent media offers a diversity of views to all Canadians. Rather than specific regulations about ownership or content, you should explore new ways of giving voice to groups that feel disenfranchised by the existing mainstream media. There are many ways to do that.
During my time at CBC, I had the opportunity to work with or train journalists in the U.S., Mexico, Europe -- both old and new -- and Africa. My conclusion from that experience was similar to what others have said before me: the media model developed in this country is probably the best in the world. The combination of public and private ownership in broadcasting is the envy of many countries. I have not changed my view of our system since leaving CBC six years ago, but the system itself has undergone cathartic change in that period -- some of it good, some of it not so good.
On the positive side of the ledger are the explosion of cable TV and the growth of the Internet. Both these developments go a long way toward addressing the concerns about diversity raised when one owner owns too many properties. The downside is that these developments have led to fragmentation of audiences, making it more difficult for the media to exercise its traditional role of consensus building in a democratic society.
The other major development in roughly the same time period has been the emergence of converged ownership. Technology has driven both fragmentation and converged ownership. Almost limitless channel capacity spawned fragmentation, which, in turn, meant that owners had to reaggregate the fragments of audience to maintain economies of scale. This means that because newspaper circulation has been trending downward for several years, owners have to find new outlets in hope of amassing audiences in sufficient numbers to cover rising costs. Anyone recommending that cross ownership be rolled back needs to keep this in mind.
The other development to be taken into consideration in assessing the present -- and especially in determining future needs -- is the emergence of the Internet as a media player. Working with young graduate students, mostly in their early 20s, has put me in the fortunate position of being able to appreciate how far-reaching the impact of this phenomenon is. One of the students at the UBC School of Journalism this past year did a study on news habits of people in their early 20s. He found they spend as much time gathering news as previous generations, but they do it almost exclusively on the Internet. They read newspapers, watch television and even listen to radio on the Net. They look at traditional sites, but they also look at a lot of alternate sites, and they rely on CNN, NSNBC and Google News for quick hits of international news. The reason they go to the Net for news is that they have grown up wanting the news when they want it and they do not want to pay for it.
The other interesting finding was that young people feel mainstream media is not addressing their interests and needs and that they have a much better chance of finding the information and news they want on the Net. As a result of globalization and the easy access to information, their focus is much different from that of most people in this room at a similar age. They may not be able to rhyme off the names of all Canadian premiers, but they probably know a lot more about Asia and Africa than we did at their ages. Many of my students had already travelled extensively in the Third World before entering the school.
The final factor that has changed the media world in Canada in recent years is the diminution of the public broadcaster because of funding cuts. Private owners have argued that, as their sector becomes stronger and technology makes it possible for them to easily reach all Canadians, the need for a public broadcaster is obviated. I would argue exactly the opposite. The more concentrated the public sector becomes, the more crucial it is to have a strong public broadcaster, without the constraints of commercialism, as a means of guaranteeing that a diversity of views will be heard and Canadian stories will be told.
The tragedy about all these developments -- the explosion of cable TV, the convergence of ownership, the emergence of the Internet and the diminution of public broadcasting - is that we have very little empirical data about their impact. Unlike the U.S., Canada does not have a Pew Center, a Poynter Institute or a Freedom Forum to study these issues. Do we really know what impact ownership has on content? Many rant and rail, there are opinions and anecdotes; but the hard evidence is just not there.
In a modest way, the UBC School of Journalism, together with the York-Ryerson Graduate Program in Culture and Communications and the Centre d'etudes sur les medias at Laval, has recently begun to study some of the issues surrounding the media in Canada. Funded by a public benefit from Bell Globemedia, we have just launched our first major research study to examine the credibility of Canadian journalism. We hope to go into the field in the fall of this year with a comprehensive survey, and to produce results and analysis early in 2004.
This is a beginning but much more needs to be done. The media industry in Canada has never paid enough attention to research and development. They do countless market studies but they do not do much research about what is happening in their own industry. There are precious few mid-career scholarships for journalists; financial support for courses and further study is truly spotty. Training is excellent at the CBC, but in the private sector, few can make that claim. Why is this? All these things would seem to be an investment in the future prosperity of the product. Can some means be found to encourage this kind of activity among owners -- increased tax incentives, perhaps?
Not much has been said thus far in these hearings about the ethnic press and the alternate media in this country. What is their role in this debate? One-third of the greater Vancouver population is Asian. Two daily newspapers and two -- soon to be three -- television stations, plus a number of radio stations compete to serve them. Arguably, the Asian community has more choice than the English-speaking community when it comes to daily print media. Yet, when the Vancouver situation is discussed, the role of the ethnic media is rarely included. Alternate papers such as the Georgia Straight or community papers -- which are thriving -- are also excluded from the discussion, yet they are not all owned by CanWest. Hollinger and David Black -- not to be confused with Conrad -- own several papers in B.C., some of which are daily.
Vancouver is not the only city with a vital ethnic media. In fact, it has become so important in Canada that The Toronto Star now owns 49% of Sing Tao newspapers in Canada.
Any framework for the future needs to include a revitalized public sector, particularly the CBC. It needs more resources to provide good investigative journalism, top quality Canadian drama and comedy, and comprehensive local coverage. It must also be given money to expand its Web site so that it could truly become the public newspaper that some have suggested here.
Of course, this raises the question of cross-ownership and why it is acceptable in the public sector but not in the private sector. The CBC has owned both radio and television for years and now it has a highly successful Web site. It has recently amalgamated all of its news operations. The obvious difference between public and private is the commercial imperative, but does the lack of the need to make money guarantee a diversity of views? Not necessarily. Trying to combine radio and television news runs the risk of weakening the more successful service -- that is, radio. That is because the cultures are very different and the demands of TV are bound to take precedence. The CBC is mandated as a full-service broadcaster and, therefore, should be discussing such changes with the public through the CRTC or other means. Instead, it is my understanding that it was all done behind closed doors without consultation of the people responsible for producing the news. In fact, the CBC has gone one step further than the p rivate sector. It has merged the management structure of two different media -- which is something that the CRTC expressly forbade Bell Globemedia and Can West from doing.
The irony in all of this is that even if this committee were to recommend that cross-ownership be disallowed, it would not change the print situation in Vancouver where both English dailies have the same owner.
I have tried to show that the answer does not lie in regulating ownership or in interfering with content. If we truly want a free and independent media that is responsive and responsible, we need a concerted commitment and effort from all parties concerned to create greater knowledge and awareness of the issues, better training and support for journalists and more accountability. As Lee C. Bollinger, President of Colombia University, said recently in a statement discussing journalism education:
There is nothing inherently inconsistent about good journalism operating in a market. Capitalism is a well- proven method of serving public needs and preferences, both for goods and services and for information. But like any system, its advantages turn into harms unless moderated by an internalized value system. It is time to examine and reinforce the value system.…