Don't Regulate: Evaluate

Article excerpt

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. …