Volume 38, Number 2: March/April 2004

Senate Sleeps While Media Concentrates

The Senate Committee Studying Media held a public hearing in Winnipeg in February, and it had all the excitement of any party that nobody wants to give and nobody wants to attend.

In fact, hardly anybody did attend. Among those absent were the committee’s two senators representing Manitoba, anyone from the Manitoba Press Council and anyone from the province’s two schools of journalism and three universities. And, of the several hundred thousand Manitobans who read newspapers, listen to radio and watch television in Manitoba two, count ‘em: two people showed up with opinions about media, and both were given the bum’s rush. I have the honour of being one of them.

This apparent indifference was ironic, given that the senate committee owes its highly paid existence to the actions of the Asper family, owners of Winnipeg’s CanWest Global Corporation. When CanWest bought a chain of newspapers from the now-discredited Conrad Black back in 2000, they conducted some unpopular experiments, notably releasing a group of columnists who wrote opinions they didn’t like, and forcing “national,” i.e. homogenous, corporate editorials on papers in all regions of the country. When the Aspers fired Russell Mills, captain of the Ottawa Citizen, an uproar of protest ensued.

This was followed by the establishment of Canada’s third formal investigation of its media. Two previous investigations, the Davey Commission in 1970 and the Kent Commission in 1981, produced great and increasing concern for potential media abuse in this country, and little else. But if the Senate’s Winnipeg hearing is any indication of its commitment to media reform, this one will be a ludicrously expensive write-off.

The lack of prairie enthusiasm for the hearing was almost certainly the product of poor organization. Few interested parties knew the details of the event: when, where, etc. This allowed Winnipeg’s two corporate dailies to report it as they pleased. Not surprisingly, they agreed with one another. The Winnipeg Sun called the event “costly crapola nobody cared about.” Murdoch Davis, publisher of the Winnipeg Free Press, told readers that the media in Manitoba remains vigorous, diverse and – well, shucks – better than ever. He was appalled at those who would consider seeking governmental remedies to any suspected problems inherent in the country’s free media.

The senators left town safe in the knowledge that all is well in Manitoba medialand. Unfortunately, quite the opposite is true.

The Winnipeg Sun presents itself as a tough tabloid for working folk, but in fact it’s owned, along with Portage-la-Prairie’s Daily Graphic, by the Sun Media Corporation (Quebecor, headquartered in Montreal), whose board of directors enjoys the leadership of former Tory prime minister Brian Mulroney.

The Winnipeg Free Press boasts that it is one of the few independently owned newspapers in the country. While this is true, it’s become a recent player in the media-consolidation game. In 2004 its owners acquired the Brandon Sun and Winnipeg’s five popular weekly neighbourhood newspapers previously owned by publisher Transcontinental. The paper also has a new and little-known agreement whereby reporting and editorial content are liberally exchanged with CanWest Global’s news service and the National Post. In a more public move to the right, the paper recently hired Charles Adler, a loud conservative voice who broadcasts daily on CJOB, property of the powerful Chorus Entertainment, and appears regularly on CanWest Global T.V. Publisher Murdoch has said publicly that his paper hasn’t ruled out a merger with a television station. No was named, but you can bet it won’t be the CBC.

In their reports of the Senate hearings, both the Free Press and the Sun cited the Internet as proof of the diversity of information available to Canadians, although both papers have shut everyone except paid subscribers out of their complete on-line editions and archives.

It seems clear that the problems already identified with consolidation and mergers – a relentless diet of corporate-driven opinion, weakened working conditions for journalists, a diminished quality of public debate, among other things – are gathering upon Manitoba’s doorstep. But the senators heard none of this.

When I showed up and signed into the Winnipeg hearing as a private citizen, I was given four minutes to make my case for a national public newspaper in Canada. I was warned I would be cut off promptly if I went overtime. Free Press publisher Murdoch Davis, who was an invited guest, got half an hour to sing the praises of the status quo, followed by a friendly, energetic chat with Themselves.

In the committee’s Interim Report, which was written before its so-called hearings in western Canada and in the Maritime provinces later this spring, the senators charged with the protection of the health of Canada’s media say that, so far, they have drawn no conclusions and made no recommendations.

No kidding.

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