Last Updated:Friday - 09/24/2010
August 21, 2000
The erosion of media diversity
Media mogul Conrad Black, one not known for understatement, has characterized the reaction to his sale of most of Canada's leading newspapers to CanWest Global Communications as "an explosion journalistic joy on the scale of of VE Day." Perhaps some were joyful - there is certainly antipathy to Black which is not limited to journalists - but the sale ought to be a cause for concern rather than joy.
Black had controlled 43 per cent of Canadian daily newspaper circulation. And while the previously Southam-controlled newspapers moved even further to the political right under his stewardship, by and large they remained quality local newspapers. The most irritating thing was not Black's newspapers themselves but rather their owner's bombastic utterances about the mediocrity of everything Canadian because the country is not sufficiently materialistic. Although Black has sold his newspapers, it is unlikely his verbal cannonades will cease.
Black always maintained that he did not have a media monopoly because even though he owned all the daily newspapers in Saskatchewan, for example, there remained other TV and radio outlets which he did not own.
With CanWest's takeover, that situation has changed. CanWest will now own the major daily paper as well as a local TV station in Victoria, Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Regina, Saskatoon and Montreal as well as a TV station and the second-ranked daily in Halifax.
Moreover, CanWest has established a reputation for running TV stations that rely as heavily as possible on relatively inexpensive American content and as little as possible on local programming. To underline the point, CanWest's kingpin Izzy Asper has told journalists on one occasion, "You're in the business of selling soap," and on another that "TV stations are gigantic advertising machines there to be filled with product."
This is a formula for high profitability but one which, if applied to CanWest's 13 major daily newspapers, could spell disaster for Canadian print journalism.
Also of concern is the so-called synergy some see being developed between local TV stations and newspapers owned by the same firm. Reporters work hard to develop unique angles to news stories. The result is the same event is often presented from somewhat diverse perspectives by various media. If the local newspaper and TV station begin to rely on the same reporter for the same story then diversity is diminished.
It must be noted that this "synergy" is being developed at the same time CBC-TV is sharply reducing its local newscasts. As well, CanWest's takeover of the Hollinger newspapers may well spur some form of alliance between CTV and The Globe and Mail. There is a real danger of an imminent narrowing of the range of perspectives available through Canadian media.
In light of the growing consolidation, the document Ethics in Communication, released May 30 by the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, becomes increasingly relevant.
The Vatican body said, "Decisions about media content and policy should not be left only to the market and to economic factors - profits - since these cannot be counted on to safeguard either the public interest as a whole or, especially, the legitimate interests of minorities.
"This principle applies even, and perhaps especially, when media are privately owned and operated for profit."
There is a public interest - and hence a role for government - in ensuring that ample diversity exists within both the content of the media and the ownership of media outlets. Media monopolies are a threat to the common good.
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