Reprise: Media Worries of 1903

Canadian Speeches, May-June 2003 | Go to article overview

Reprise: Media Worries of 1903


Today's concerns about the quality and direction of journalism sound very much like those expressed 100 years ago. Excerpts from evidence presented May 6.

If only to put things into historical context, I recommend this book to you. It is entitled "How Can Canadian Universities Best Benefit the Profession of Journalism as a Means of Moulding and Elevating Public Opinion?" It was published in 1903 -- exactly 100 years ago. It is the progenitor of this Senate committee inquiry; the first time these persistent anxieties about the media were set down for the record. It is actually quite illuminating.

The book came about because Sir Sanford Fleming, then the chancellor of Queen's University, was sufficiently concerned, if not alarmed, about the increasing social influence of the newfangled, as it then was, mass circulation newspaper that he commissioned a $250 essay prize inviting suggestions for the betterment of Canadian journalism and the correction of its shortcomings. The best 13 submissions were collected in a volume and published by Queen's Quarterly.

What were they worried about in 1903? It turns out that they were worried about almost exactly what we are supposed to be worried about in 2003. Uniformly, the various contributors to the volume lamented that the press, unprecedented in its potential as a popular educator and a moral force, was in fact being squandered. I quote, "It kills time, satisfies the thirst for scandal, and acts as a preventive to thought."

In turn, each of the essays deplored Canadian journalism's preoccupation with lurid crime, its invasions of privacy, the dominance of American news, the unsavoury influence of advertising, the literary bankruptcy of journalistic prose, and the fact that newspapers had become "a 'rivulet of text' amid a wilderness of pictures."

Their core concerns were twofold. First, they worried that crass commercialism had hijacked the very process of public communication; and second, they fretted about how easy it would be for an unscrupulous proprietor to use his media holdings to propagandize the population. That is, what most concerned these writers in 1903 was the prospect of a media system in which political factionalism and a slavish devotion to the financial ledger override commitment to public duty.

One thing that did not exist in 1903 was concentration of media ownership or cross-media convergence. Nonetheless, the writers of that time were quite aware of what might come about. I quote:

"The growth of huge trusts in commerce has suggested the idea of a number trust which might be organized by persons with large selfish ends to serve in gaining the ear of the public. ... The danger is not imaginary."

A commercial trust at the time was our equivalent of a corporate conglomerate.

The first point I should like to leave honourable senators with this morning is the following: there is nothing new about the complaints directed at the mass circulation commercial press.

Second, these complaints are all but ineradicable. One cannot bring the press to heel, one cannot police the contents of the media without compromising an essential principle of a free society, which is precisely that the media should not be beholden to any political authority. That is not to say that the conduct of the media system as a whole is off-limits to public policy intervention or that such intervention is anathema to democracy. …

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