Control Ownership

Article excerpt

Ownership controls are said needed to avoid media domination by a limited number of mouthpieces and to preserve Canadian perspective. But keep hands off content. Excerpts from evidence presented May 1.

It is often said that 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.

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. 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 shelved.

While there were some problems in the newspaper industry 20 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 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. …