The disquiet among Canadians is palpable. Disdain for their news media is unmistakable. It is the end result of ownership control so tight that it squeaks. So powerful have the media become in Canada that they extracted federal subsidies in 2018 worth $595 million over five years. Those will soon be running out, however, so they are now asking Ottawa to force Google and Facebook to pay them instead. It is all based on the fiction—as portrayed in the media—that they are losing money and dying. Instead the biggest media companies in Canada reap annual profits greater than the GDP of many countries. The difference between perception and reality is propaganda, which has been perfected in Canada through tight media control.
This may be a Howard Beale moment, when Canadians are upset enough about it to stand up and shout “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore.” The fictional news anchor in Sidney Lumet’s classic 1976 film Network went a little bit berserk from reading all the bad news. “I don’t have to tell you things are bad,” he told viewers. “Everybody knows things are bad.”
The dollar buys a nickel’s worth; banks are going bust; shopkeepers keep a gun under the counter; punks are running wild in the street, and there’s nobody anywhere who seems to know what to do, and there’s no end to it. We know the air is unfit to breathe and our food is unfit to eat. And we sit watching our TVs while some local newscaster tells us that today we had fifteen homicides and sixty-three violent crimes, as if that’s the way it’s supposed to be! We all know things are bad—worse than bad—they’re crazy.
Beale’s advice to viewers was to rise up and make their voices heard. “I want all of you to get up out of your chairs,” intoned a wild-eyed Beale, played to perfection by the late Peter Finch, who won a posthumous Oscar for the role. “I want you to get up right now and go to the window, open it, and stick your head out and yell, ‘I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!’” Ratings spiked, saving Beale’s job, but his commentaries grew ever wilder, including exposing foreign ownership of his own network. He tells viewers they are degenerating into “humanoids” devoid of intellect and feelings before network executives order his on-air assassination. The film concludes with a voiceover noting “the first known instance of a man who was killed because he had lousy ratings.” Lisa Laflamme got off easy.
Is it getting that bad with Canadian media? A recent study by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom showed that trust in news media here has dropped 13 percent since 2016, with only 42 percent of respondents now saying they trust “most news, most of the time.” You might wonder why it takes a UK research institute to lay bare what ails Canadian media. Canada has long needed an independent institute to study our news media, but exposing the facts surrounding their industry is the last thing news media here want. Reuters is owned by the filthy-rich Thomson family of Toronto, who also own the Globe and Mail. They took over the historic news agency in 2008 and moved its headquarters from London to Bay Street as Thomson Reuters.
It makes annual profits of more than $2 billion at profit margins exceeding 30 percent. That’s chump change compared to Bell and Rogers, however, which annually rake in about $10 billion and $6 billion, respectively, at profit margins of around 40 percent.
Disquiet on the right with Canadian news media was obvious during the recent trucker protests, with journalists catching it on the chin, almost literally, from protesters. Newly-installed Conservative Party leader Pierre Poilievre has quickly formed an adversarial relationship with the press. He is on record as accusing the Liberals of trying to buy off the news media with the federal bailout and thinks he can win an election despite a hostile press. He may be onto something, promising freedom to people weary of being told what to do by their government for the past two years. Populism isn’t rocket science, as Donald Trump discovered. You simply find out what people want and then promise it to them.
Disquiet on the left has grown with increased concentration of ownership and foreign ownership of Canadian news media. Postmedia Network, which publishes most of our major daily newspapers, is two-thirds owned by a New Jersey hedge fund despite a supposed 25 percent limit on foreign ownership of this culturally-sensitive industry. The then Conservative government looked the other way in 2010 as Americans took over the former Southam chain, then again in 2014 when they bought up Canada’s second-largest chain, Sun Media. Earlier this year, Postmedia also took over the Irving chain that for decades dominated New Brunswick’s media, and nary a peep was heard from Ottawa.
Postmedia newspapers regularly promote far-right causes and have been called out recently for promoting white supremacist propaganda and even denying that racism exists in Canada. Postmedia has relentlessly pushed first for federal bailout money and more recently for forced payment by Google and Facebook for supposedly “stealing” their news stories. Just last week, on the eve of hearings into that very matter, it announced it would cut print publication on Mondays at its newspapers across the country despite receiving tens of millions in subsidies recently.
The government, meanwhile, seems bound and determined to control the media and thus the message. The Liberal-NDP coalition which rules Parliament has taken its media bailout strategy in a different direction by promising publishers it will force Google and Facebook to fund them instead. Bill C-18, the Online News Act, which would do just that, is part of a package of legislation designed to regulate the Internet for the first time in Canada.
One by one, the bills are lined up for Parliamentary and Senate approval this fall. Bill C-11, the Online Streaming Act, which would tax foreign streaming services and force them to fund Canadian content, passed third reading before the summer recess, but the Senate is taking a careful approach to passing it. Next to be served up are Bill C-27, which encompasses three acts designed to protect online privacy, and a still-simmering “online safety” bill.
This federal offensive is unlikely to reassure Canadians concerned that their news media have come under government or foreign control. They are obviously mad as hell. The only question is whether they are prepared to take it anymore. Should the government be so foolish as to call yet another snap election this fall, they might just get an answer they weren’t expecting.
Marc Edge is a journalism researcher and author who lives in Ladysmith, BC. His books and articles can be found online at www.marcedge.com.