Ban Media Convergence, Make Papers Independent
Kent, Tom, Canadian Speeches
The 1971 call for a ban against corporate ownership of both newspaper and broadcast media is sounded again. And a trust arrangement is proposed to make each newspaper in a chain editorially independent and "democratic." Cross-ownership is called a "a combination against the public interest" that "limits the role and scope of information that reaches the public" and is said to be "contrary to democracy." Excerpts from evidence to the Senate Committee on Transport and Communications, Ottawa, April 29, 2003.
Generally, and particularly in most Canadian situations, we must recognize that attracting the readers, viewers and listeners sought by the advertisers is not closely dependent on the breadth, insight and balance of the information and comment on public affairs.
Fortunately, crass economics can be offset by a sense of responsibility, as well as by the prestige and influence that come with media ownership. While there was predominantly local ownership, family traditions with concern for the quality of journalism could and did develop in many cases. It is important that, in the first chain development in Canada by the original Southam papers, that spirit was maintained. The consequence was, for a while, more public complacency about concentration than one Senate inquiry could shake.
The reality shock came only with the newspaper upheaval of 1980, which resulted in a royal commission being required to articulate a little bit of obvious economics. Those obvious economics are that, apart from The Globe and Mail with its national ambitions, a newspaper recognizing its public responsibility was not, and is not, a business that is maximizing its profits.
Any accountant could see that such a newspaper was spending more on its public affairs content than it needed to do. Therefore, the commission had to conclude that such a newspaper was worth less in its existing ownership than it could be to a smart, cost-cutting entrepreneur. It was ready for takeover.
It seemed then that the newspaper future at that time was clear. There would be increasing concentration of ownership in corporations with diminished regard for the principles of journalism. There would be less diversity in the information and comment that democratic politics requires.
I have a few suggestions. The first is very simple. [Cross-ownership should be banned] for the sake of "independent, competitive and diverse sources of news and viewpoints"--a quote from the 1982 Order in Council which directed the CRTC not to issue new broadcasting licences, or to renew existing licences for proprietors of newspapers, where the newspaper and broadcasting areas overlapped. Then, cross-ownership was just a local problem, dominant only in New Brunswick. Today, of course, cross-ownership or convergence is not local. It is absolutely national.
I think the economic evidence is one of considerable doubt, at least, as to whether that type of convergence benefits even any investors. What is certain is that it is a combination against the public interest. It undoubtedly limits the role and scope of the information that reaches the public. It creates a considerable degree of--to use an economist's phrasing -- oligopoly. It is contrary to democracy, to a free society, and it can be simply broken because of the power the government has necessarily to control broadcast licences. It can be simply broken and it should be. Cross- ownership, convergence, can be simply prohibited.
Of course, legally, chains in the print media are a different issue. Existing competition law deals only with commerce, not with diversity of information and opinion. Its extension used to be dismissed as an infringement of provincial jurisdiction. That argument, always dubious, seems to have been cleared away by the 1982 Constitution. Under the Charter, it is surely Parliament's responsibility to preserve Canadians from infringement upon their freedom of information and expression. …