Efforts to promote media democracy in Canada are scattered and divided as pressures to continue the economic rationalization of the media are building. There are signs that the federal government is poised to ease restrictions on foreign ownership in telecommunications and, given the increasing ownership and operational ties between telecommunications, broadcasting and newspapers, it only seems a matter of time before restrictions in these areas too will fall.
While opening the floodgate to foreign investment in Canada’s media seems a sure way to raise share prices, history illustrates that it will not increase the range and diversity in the media. Media profits are wrung from extending economies of scale and “repurposing” content created for one medium for use in another. Quebecor has been aggressive with this type of cost-cutting strategy in Toronto, where it has combined content from the Sun newspaper and canoe.ca for Sun TV’s critically condemned new show “Canoe Live.”
Even a cursory review of magazine stands and television schedules illustrates that Canadian media markets are already largely extensions of their American counterparts. Further integrating these markets will not create more diversity, particularly in terms of Canadian perspectives on the world.
And while there are a number of voices calling for change in the structure and operation of media in Canada, public pressure is fragmented at best and the policy process presents clear challenges to effecting change. However, beginning with struggles to establish public broadcasting and the CBC in the early 1930s, protests over the ownership and lack of diversity of media outlets have a long history in this country.
Following a 1996 decision by the CRTC to change regulations that had been designed to keep newspaper, broadcasting and telecommunications companies separate, cross-media ownership deals struck during the year 2000 radically altered the Canadian mediascape. Three companies emerged out of this orgy of media mergers with commanding control of Canadian news markets: CanWest Global, Bell Globemedia, and Quebecor. Following these mergers, corporate tinkering with editorial policy and firings– particularly surrounding CanWest’s takeover of the Southam newspaper chain– prompted calls for a federal inquiry into the effects of recent consolidation.
Meanwhile, as the economic rationalization of private, profit-driven corporate media has proceeded apace, the public and community media have also met with significant deregulatory pressures over the last 15 years, resulting in cutbacks to the CBC, moves to privatize provincial broadcasters, and changes in cable regulation that cut off mandatory funding of community television. These changes, too, have prompted concern from a wide range of community interests.
While the federal government took no direct action to address these concerns, they did find voice in the 2003 report from the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage (known as the Lincoln Report) and prompted the Senate Committee on Transportation and Communications to strike an inquiry to examine the diversity and quality of news and information available to Canadians. The Canadian Media Guild made submissions to the committee and the Senate inquiry.
Lincoln made a number of recommendations designed to help ensure editorial independence, control cross media ownership, bolster public broadcasting, and support community broadcasting. They have yet to be acted upon, although Conservative Heritage Minister Bev Oda is expected to provide her government’s view of the Lincoln report recommendations in the next few months. The Senate Committee’s hearings are ongoing.
Apart from the reform of corporate media, one way of addressing concerns over media diversity is to increase the number of alternative media voices or outlets. “Alternative media” should both encompass and encourage social and political diversity. The key here is that these organizations have a mandate or purpose to serve a particular range of social groups and/or interests and that the mandate is foregrounded over the private profit motive. Ideally, the outlet is operated on a not-for-profit or co-operative basis. Among the kinds of organizations that might be included under this definition are the ethnic and labour press, environmental publications, aboriginal media, and other media with a progressive social mandate.
There are many print, broadcast, and web-based media organizations operating across Canada that meet with this definition. However, for the most part, because of their small size and reach, these media outlets lack economic stability. Moreover, there is little in the way of government support to help promote the development of these media and some of the infrastructure that did exist has been eroded over the last decade.
In the larger struggle for media reform, the interests of alternative media are often sidelined or completely overshadowed by those working with issues surrounding corporate media and the CBC. Giving the concerns of the people working with these media a central place in media reform initiatives might prove a key step in helping consolidate a media democracy movement in Canada.