In January 2008, Canadian Dimension published a theme issue on Big Media highlighting the need for progressives to organize a movement to “break the monopolies” and democratize communication policy. Articles addressed why media reform should be a democratic priority in light of struggles over fair and affordable access to the internet, domination of media markets by eight conglomerates, pro-corporate bias in the regulatory process, and declining media diversity in light of insufficient support for public and community broadcasting.
Since then, existing initiatives have grown and new ones have sprouted in the field of anglo-Canadian media activism. In the digital era, alternative media as diverse as Rabble.ca, The Tyee, the Media Co-op, and the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network have consolidated their place alongside venerable print outlets like Canadian Dimension. They give voice to communities and movements marginalized by hegemonic corporate media, and practise more collective and participatory forms of production. Even more dramatic has been the expansion of activism oriented towards communication policy. It’s an opportune moment to take stock and assess strategy, focussing on two particular initiatives: Media Democracy Days and OpenMedia.ca.
The emergence of media democratization as a distinct contemporary form of activism arguably dates from the 1990s, but it had historical precedents. In the early 1900s, prairie municipalities and farmers’ organizations successfully campaigned for public rather than private corporate ownership of telephone systems. In the 1930s, highlighting threats of cultural continentalism and excessive commercialism, and calling for universal radio service that would not be viable through market forces alone, the Canadian Radio League assembled a blue-ribbon coalition to persuade a Conservative government to create the CBC. A half-century later, the Friends of Canadian Broadcasting would follow in the League’s footsteps as a defender of the democratic principle of independent public broadcasting.
The social upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s gave birth to the “underground press.” Weekly papers like the Georgia Straight helped constitute the youthful counter-culture, and gave voice to anti-war, urban reform, “yippie” anarchist, and other protest movements.
But the alternative media and movements of the Flower Power era did not generate activism oriented towards changing the very structure and policy framework of the media system.
Why not? Not unlike today, many activists were seduced by the emancipatory potential of new media technology, like hand-held camcorders. The popularity of Marshall McLuhan’s technocentric theories (“the medium is the message”) distracted attention from the role of capitalism in blunting new media’s democratic possibilities.
Moreover, anglo-Canadian social movements had other priorities—the Vietnam war, poverty, cultural and economic Americanization. Media were not seen as a primary problem. After all, the postwar social contract had not yet unravelled. Government was still willing to actively counterbalance some of capitalism’s gaps, whether providing summer jobs for students, or funding programs like the National Film Board’s Challenge for Change, which provided media tools for economically disadvantaged communities.
The CBC still deserved its reputation for (relatively) independent journalism. Even the corporate media could be positively influenced by emergent social movements. One example: the Vancouver Sun’s publicity to Greenpeace in its formative stages.
Québec’s distinct society, by contrast, experienced a much higher degree of class and political/ national polarization, richer interaction between alternative media practices and popular mobilizations, and the salience of culture and language as political issues. These realities had “pertinent effects” on public policy, such as support for community radio.
But in anglo-Canada, reformist pressure on communication policy makers was largely confined to occasional parliamentary and Royal Commission reports on media concentration and the cultural objectives of broadcasting. Lacking a public platform, a base in popular mobilization, or linkage to broader issues of social justice, even these modest challenges to corporate and commercial domination of the media typically languished in obscurity.
Fast forward to the mid-1990s. Two decades of ideological mobilization by the New Right had forged the hegemonic project of neoliberalism. The mantras of marketization and privatization were undermining regulatory and policy support for public service broadcasting and media diversity. Media concentration and conglomeration were proceeding apace, as Senator Keith Davey’s report had predicted 25 years earlier. Right-wing press baron Conrad Black’s takeover of the Southam newspaper chain provided a sharp wake-up call for the Canadian Left. In response, the Council of Canadians, unions representing media and other workers, research and advocacy groups concerned with media issues, and other progressive advocacy groups formed a “common front” to campaign for press diversity. Inspired by and named after a longstanding British media reform organization, the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom launched a court challenge to Black’s takeover. The challenge was a legal failure but a partial political success. While the Canadian CPBF dissolved, it suggested— for perhaps the first time since the 1930s— the potential for broad organizational support for media reform. More concretely, the CPBF’s campaign inspired local spin-offs in Toronto and Vancouver, where activists and academics launched an annual Media Democracy Day.
Celebrating media democracy
MDD is not a campaign but rather an event bringing together community activists, independent media producers, researchers, teachers and students, to promote networking and a sense of community around the twin projects of democratization of the media: changing media practices and structures to make them more representative, diverse, and accountable; and democratization through the media—using media to enhance popular political engagement and social justice issues. Vancouver’s first MDD in 2001 featured feminist icon Judy Rebick, who had just launched both a book on re-imagining democracy and the online news magazine Rabble. ca—very timely initiatives in the wake of mediaaugmented post-9/11 warmongering.
In 2002, the then-new Independent Media Centres used the internet to help make MDD an international phenomenon, with parallel events in six countries. (I recall seeing a Cairo conference attendee wearing a t-shirt labelled “Media Democracy Day, Barcelona 2002”). Clearly, the idea of building movements specifically oriented towards media change was timely, and had international resonance. For the most part, MDD has remained a locally based event, but its movement-facilitating intention is reflected in MDD’s slogan “Know the media, Be the media, Change the media,” referring to the three main branches of media democratization—critical media education, independent/alternative media, and fundamental reform or reshaping of the state policies, institutional structures, and governing logics of the media system. Albeit varying in scope and with shifting volunteer-based organizing teams, MDD has been held every October or November in Vancouver since 2001, typically featuring keynote speakers, panels that bring together academics and experts with community organizers and media practitioners, hands-on workshops for media makers, and a “trade fair” of independent media organizations.
By contrast, OpenMedia.ca (OM) has unquestionably earned both national resonance and policy impact. OM sprang from a conference at the University of Windsor in May 2007 to celebrate two of the world’s foremost critics of media propaganda, Ed Herman and Noam Chomsky. I pleaded that the best way to honour their work is to build a broad national coalition to transform the media, so that they wouldn’t have to keep writing books like Manufacturing Consent. Steve Anderson, then a graduate student at SFU, suggested FreePress.net, a leading media reform organization in the US, as a model. Starting with modest funding and in-kind donations from individuals, non-profit organizations, small businesses and labour groups, Anderson tirelessly forged support networks, a sustainable organization (originally named Canadians for Democratic Media), and a series of campaigns.
The first campaign, “Stop Big Media,” mobilized 2,000 online submissions supporting media ownership diversity to hearings held by the CRTC, Canada’s broadcast/telecommunications regulator. The outcome was modest (and insufficient) caps on future media concentration. The “Save Our Net” campaign defended the principle of net neutrality, preventing internet service providers (notably the big telecom companies) from discriminating against other content providers on commercial grounds. The result was a partial victory: strong rules, but problematic enforcement. In 2010, “Stop the Meter,” against “usage-based billing,” was an issue that potentially affected average net users’ pocketbooks, and for OM, it was a breakthrough. OM flooded the CRTC with an unprecedented 100,000 comments, gathering hundreds of thousands more names on an online petition and forcing the regulator to back away from rubber-stamping the telecom companies’ proposals.
Subsequent campaigns have included “Stop Online Spying,” an OpenMedia-led coalition that pressured Harper to shelve Bill C-30 with its noxious surveillance provisions; and Cell Phone Horror Stories, an intervention vis-à-vis the CRTC’s development of national rules for cell phone service, resulting in certain new protections for consumers. OM has also ventured into the sphere of inter-state negotiations. Its intervention at the International Telecommunications Union against state censorship (“Protect Global Internet Freedom”) helped build an enduring international coalition, and dissuaded the Canadian government from signing on. At TransPacific Partnership negotiations, OM campaigned (StopTheTrap. net) against corporate- and state-driven threats to internet users’ privacy, access and content sharing.
Reimagining Media Activism
Its impact at the policy level led even a Tory cabinet minister to describe OM as one of the most influential grassroots advocacy groups in Canada. What are the keys to its (relative) success?
OM has engaged masses of previously politically inactive young people, partly through focus on the networked media that they use daily, humour and entertainment, and genuine receptivity to creative input (including video clips) from supporters.
OM has nurtured a base of over 500,000 online supporters, a stunning achievement for Canadian media advocacy. Small individual donations from this large base account for about 75% of OM’s budget, sufficient for several full- and part-time staff.
OM has placed a high priority on financial and organizational sustainability. It selects campaign issues carefully, taking into account the real potential for policy impact, funding support, and viable coalitions, along with extensive input from its supporters. Each campaign has a distinct focus, time frame, and set of political partners and funders.
Similarly, OM frames its work strategically, starting with its own name, which resonates with youthful internet users and with open data and open government movements. The populist language of its campaigns appeals to people “where they are at,” drawing connections with their own interests and experience, and cutting through the mystifying jargon of policy wonks.
OM brilliantly combines tactics from older advocacy- group organizing—attending regulatory hearings, submitting briefs, lobbying or pressuring MPs in swing ridings, very successfully obtaining “earned” coverage in conventional media, encouraging other organizations to intervene— and more recent innovations from the digital era.
It extensively uses social media to amplify and crowd-fund campaigns. OM’s messaging, even its campaign themes and coalitions, are crowdsourced, giving supporters a genuine sense of ownership. Leading up to the CRTC’s fall 2012 hearing on CBC’s licence renewal, OpenMedia.ca was a leading partner in a creative multi-platform campaign to invite supporters of public broadcasting to critically “Reimagine CBC.” Thousands of suggestions were condensed into dozens of concrete proposals and priorities. Even the CRTC’s new chair, Jean-Pierre Blais, described Reimagine CBC as a new model for citizen engagement.
Inevitably, OM’s achievements are not without limitations and trade-offs. Yet combined with the flourishing of online alternative media, MDD and OpenMedia.ca indicate that media democratization is finally taking its place alongside other movements for social change. These two initiatives point to the fruitfulness of combining the strengths of academics and activists, media reform and social justice groups, traditional and online organizing methods, and social animators with crowd-based democratic participation.
The mediatisation of politics and culture is proceeding apace. American writer and media reformer Robert McChesney has argued that “whatever your first issue of concern, media had better be your second, because without change in the media, progress in your primary area is far less likely.” As more social justice groups take that proposal onboard, media democratization is becoming a wave of the future.
Robert Hackett is a communication professor at Simon Fraser University, co-founder of Media Democracy Days and co-author of Remaking Media: The Struggle to Democratize Public Communication (with William Carroll, 2006).
This article appeared in the September/October 2014 issue of Canadian Dimension .