Faced with a corporate-dominated mediascape and perceived editorial indifference or hostility, trade unions and other progressive Canadian organizations have responded pragmatically when they need to influence public opinion. They have adopted media relations strategies, often run by specialized staff, to gain whatever space is available in the news media; they have used paid advertising in advocacy campaigns; and they have created their own media, from inhouse newsletters to websites and social media.
While necessary, these strategies assume the existing media system as a fixed part of the political landscape.
Now there is another alternative: joining campaigns and coalitions to democratize communications policy-making and the very architecture of the media system.
Historically, citizen action, like the Canadian Radio League of the 1930s, has helped to embed elements of a democratic public sphere in Canada's communication policies. These elements include public regulation, public consultation processes, and some public ownership in broadcasting and telecommunications; the "common carrier" principle in telecommunications; public access/community broadcasting; Canadian content rules and support for Aboriginal and minority language broadcasting; tax subsidies and incentives for cultural and media production; and limits on foreign ownership, and (minimally) concentration and cross-media ownership.
None of these policies, however, fundamentally altered the commercial and corporate domination of Canadian media, and they are under attack from neoliberal ideologues and governments, including the Harper regime in Ottawa. The longstanding issue of concentrated media ownership has assumed new implications: a series of mergers and acquisitions since 1998 has aggregated over half of all Canadian media revenues in the hands of three firms, and the huge debts acquired during dot.com merger mania have contributed to a crisis of local and investigative journalism. The worthy efforts of bloggers and citizen journalists cannot, on their own, fill the gap in original newsgathering that's been exacerbated by massive newsroom layoffs in the past few years.
Meanwhile, regulatory and funding support for the CBC has been whittled down, its board, management and programming seemingly abandoning the principles of public broadcasting. Community broadcasting, formally one of three pillars of the broadcasting system, struggles along with minimal resources. And on-again, off-again federal copyright legislation threatens to restrict users' rights of "fair dealing."
But why worry about the "legacy" media? Won't the Internet, with all its democratic potential for interactivity and low-cost publishing, automatically save the day?
Think again. Digital divides based on geography (rural, remote, inner-city), ability (cognitive, physical), class, age, gender, and ethnicity still prevail. There is little public policy to offset the access inequalities ultimately generated by capitalism, or to support Canadian new media content. Most ominously, escalating violations of the principle of "net neutrality" threaten to create an increasingly tiered Internet, in which fast-lane access is confined to content providers who can afford extra fees.
Broader democratic values are at stake in these developments: accountability of media institutions to public and democratic policy goals; access to, and diversity of, citizenrelevant information; community-building, at both local and national levels; domestic control over Canada's media system as a prerequisite for citizen participation in communication policy-making; more broadly, universal access to the key means of public communication as a basis for equality and participation in society, culture, and politics.
If neoliberalism succeeds in restructuring Canada's media, progressive social change will be more difficult across the board.
Movement for …