Tom Kent’s unfinished business

Canadian democracy lost one of its most vigilant sentries last month. Tom Kent was 89.

Kent is best known for his epic contributions to federal policy innovation. Recruited by reformist Liberal Lester B. Pearson in the early sixties, Kent helped pour the foundations for regional development, the Canada Pension Plan, Medicare and the Canada Assistance Plan. He helped weave a social safety net that saved many of our families and neighbours from poverty and despair. He was a giant among mandarins.

Less well known is the fact that Kent’s unflinching fidelity to the public interest was rooted in his journalism. After breaking fascist code in England during WWII, Kent worked for The Economist and The Guardian. In 1954 he assumed the editorial helm of The Winnipeg Free Press. Kent was thus no cloistered technocrat. He was deeply rooted in the courageous tradition of democratic journalism: to hold the powerful to public account; to better illuminate the public interest; and to involve the public in its active pursuit. He was the founding editor of Policy Options magazine. On his retirement he frequently debated policy in the pages of the Globe and Mail. But perhaps his bravest mission was the Royal Commission on Newspapers. The Kent Commission was launched in 1980, after the abrupt closure of dailies in Ottawa and Winnipeg reduced both cities to one-paper towns. This was where his two great gifts—his democratic devotion to press freedom and his genius for policy innovation—intersected with a very loud bang.

Born in the land and age of George Orwell—the English journalist who introduced the term ‘Big Brother’ into the democratic lexicon—Kent was deeply struck by the paradox of press freedom in this far-flung land. Canada relied utterly on mass communication for its effective democratic functioning. Yet it had the most highly concentrated newspaper industry in the developed world. This media monopoly—which was not inclined to report on its own deficiencies—posed a silent menace to fair, accurate and comprehensive coverage, the airing of diverse views and the stimulation of democratic vitality. In particular, the capture of the press by unaccountable corporate monopolies threatened to marginalize alternative viewpoints—particularly those that criticized the establishment views, prejudices and projects most dear to media owners and large advertisers.

Kent recommended controversial limits on chain size, cross-media ownership, and the ownership of both a national daily and local dailies to ensure a reasonable level of diversity and competition in the marketplace of ideas. In the case of Saskatchewan, where editorial expenses lagged far below the national average, Kent recommended the Sifton family be forced to divest either their Regina or Saskatoon dailies. At the time, their Armadale group commanded four fifths of the province’s daily circulation. This was an “extreme situation which, in the public interest, cannot be tolerated”.

“There may be only one newspaper in Regina and one in Saskatoon,” the report concluded, “but there would be a better flow of information for the people of Saskatchewan as a whole, and a greater diversity of expressed opinion, if those two papers were in healthy competition for the premier position as spokesman in Saskatchewan”.

Kent argued that journalists’ freedom to provide balanced, impartial and independent accounts of the world required protection from the economic and political biases of powerful owners and advertisers. In this, he took inspiration from the muckraking tradition of tough-minded journalists who had famously locked horns with the captains of industry—exposing everything from the scandals of child labour and unsafe working conditions to political corruption. Armed with the facts and figures, he was well prepared for the inevitable backlash from the densely interlocked fraternity that comprised the corporate media elite. They shared common interests, values and were not well known for suffering the insolence of ‘the help.’ Newspaper owners wrapped themselves in the cause of press freedom to defend the right to profit from their properties as they saw fit. Kent’s recommendations were swiftly and soundly defeated, as an imperiled Trudeau government beat a hasty and unseemly retreat. Facing the concerted wrath of the press barons of the day, mere evidence proved politically unpersuasive to a political class which could ill afford to antagonize those who controlled its public image.

With the election of the deregulation-minded Mulroney Conservatives in 1984—with the strong financial and political backing of Conrad Black and his Hollinger Inc.—Kent’s recommendations were shelved indefinitely. In 1996 Black bought out the Sifton papers, firing 173 Leader-Post and Star-Phoenix staff in one day, and diverting the proceeds from these stripped assets to the launch of his Toronto-based vanity flagship, the National Post. Black’s political contributions and editorial campaign for tax cuts and the unite-the-right movement quickly confirmed Kent’s worst fears—that unrestrained monopoly media power would end up serving vested interests, corrupting journalism, and undermining the democratic process.

While Kent’s campaign for the democratic reform of Canada’s press monopoly failed, Carleton University Professor Dwayne Winseck has demonstrated that the new network media economy has since raised the democratic stakes yet further. Since 1984, the top four chains have increased their share of daily newspapers from two thirds to three quarters. Similarly, the top four players in the television market now sop up 78 percent of all sector revenues. Traffic share of the top ten websites nearly doubled—from 20 to 38 percent—between 2003 and 2008. Most of these websites are established media franchises. Technology appears to have brought us unprecedented informational choice. In reality, more and more power over public opinion continues to accrue in fewer and fewer hands with less and less public accountability.

Kent’s fraught, failed but forward-looking Commission may yet turn out to be his most profound legacy. For a fair, accurate and comprehensive journalism is really at the centre of all democratic politics. Whether it’s inner-city poverty, on-reserve housing, resource policy, climate change, the wheat board or student debt, the quantity and quality of all democratic debates is ultimately conditioned by media diversity—and its capacity to give voice to wide-ranging interests and perspectives.

Kent’s seminal investigation into Canada’s media monopoly taught us how central the struggle for media reform must be to realize the democratic ideal of knowledgeable, engaged citizens as society’s motor force. Without a well-functioning and diverse press corps, the public becomes increasingly deaf, dumb and mute; it is vested interests, the corrupt, and those with something to hide who prevail; and democracy becomes an increasingly hollow promise. Restoring depth, breadth and dynamism to Canadian democracy by expanding the freedom and diversity of journalistic expression is Kent’s unfinished crusade. In this, he was clearly ahead of his time.

Diamantopoulos is a founder of prairie dog and Planet S magazines, edited the anthology Thirty years of journalism and democracy in Canada: The Minifie Lectures, 1981-2010 and chairs the School of Journalism, University of Regina.

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