Academic journal article Canadian Parliamentary Review

Reflections on the State of Canadian Media

Academic journal article Canadian Parliamentary Review

Reflections on the State of Canadian Media

Article excerpt

Concern about the state of the news media has been a recurring theme in Canadian public life over the past few decades since control of the media has become concentrated in a few large corporations. The primary fear is that this concentrated ownership may reduce the quality and independence of the information Canadians need in order to govern themselves.


In a democratic society, the news media play an indispensable role. They provide the information that sovereign people require in order to form opinions on matters of public policy and to make judgments about the performance of their representatives and the leaders they have chosen. Without accurate, timely and independent sources of information, the ability of people to form these opinions and judgments will be reduced and democracy will suffer. When the news media fail in these responsibilities, the sovereignty of the people--an essential characteristic of democracy--is impaired.

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. These rules, and how they affect information, are a legitimate subject for examination by a committee of Parliament.

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. The Senate's special committee under Keith Davey more than thirty years ago led to the creation of Canada's first press councils. The royal commission under Tom Kent, which studied the newspaper industry more than twenty years ago, made many recommendations that were not enacted but resulted in the expansion of press councils across the country.

While press councils are imperfect bodies, as someone who has both served on them and testified before them and been subject to many of their judgments, I believe they generally improve newspapers by making them more accountable and responsive to the public. …

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