Not a Conspiracy Theory: How Business Propaganda Hijacks Democracy

Article excerpt

Not a Conspiracy Theory: How Business Propaganda Hijacks Democracy. Donald Gutstein. Toronto, ON: Key Porter, 2009. 376 pp. $22.95 pbk.

Canada has historically been a liberal country with a liberal media. From 1963 to 2005, Liberal governments held power federally about three-quarters of the time. In 2006, however, a dozen years of Liberal rule ended with the election of a minority Conservative government led by Stephen Harper, which was returned with increased support after a snap election two years later.

Then, for the first time in recent memory, the 2008 election of Barack Obama saw the United States with a more liberal administration than Canada. Much of the explanation for this anomaly can be found in a recent rightward shift in Canada's news media, the background for which is illuminated by Donald Gutstein's Not a Conspiracy Theory: How Business Propaganda Hijacks Democracy.

Gutstein, an emeritus faculty member in the School of Communication at Simon Fraser University, builds on the ideas of the late Australian sociologist Alex Carey. In his 1995 book, Taking the Risk Out of Democracy, Carey distinguished between "grassroots" propaganda, such as is occasionally required to mobilize public opinion in support of war, and "treetops" propaganda, which is instead aimed at elites, such as media, that are better able to directly influence the policy agenda. Carey pointed to the rise of U.S. think tanks, such as the Cato Institute and the American Enterprise Institute, starting in the mid-1970s. Backed by enormous corporate funding, they have published vast amounts of research promoting small government and free-market solutions to most economic and social problems. Greatly influential in the revival of U.S. conservatism in the 1980s under Ronald Reagan, their model was adopted by Canadians intent on replicating that success. As Canadian media ownership is even more highly concentrated than in the United States, the ascendance of rightwing solutions was comparatively easy to achieve in Canada.

Gutstein chronicles the successful campaign to "unite the right" in Canada when the Conservative Party was reduced to just two seats in Parliament following the 1993 federal election after the party fractured along East-West lines. Conservatives in Western Canada formed the breakaway Reform party to push a deregulatory agenda that sought, among other things, tax cuts, economic integration with the United States, and even the dismantling of Canada's socialized health care system. Backed by well-heeled foundations such as the Donner Canadian Foundation, sympathetic journalists collaborated in this cause by helping to found neoconservative magazines designed to emulate Irving Kristol's influential Weekly Standard.

Indeed, Harper himself even resigned his seat as a Reform Party Member of Parliament in 1997 to head the National Citizens Coalition, a tax-cutting advocacy group, and to edit the short-lived magazine Next City. By far, the biggest media boost to Canadian conservatism, however, came in 1996, when Conrad Black, one of the world's leading newspaper owners and neoconservatives, completed a hostile takeover of the country's largest newspaper chain, Southam Inc. …