2023 High School Honorary Mention – Ellis Jackson
“Freedom of the press is not a right of property owners. It is a right of the people.” These words were written in the final report of the Royal Commission on Newspapers, colloquially named the Kent Commission for its chairman, Tom Kent. The commission was established in 1980 to investigate the state of Canada’s newspaper sector after the shocking closures of the Winnipeg Tribune and the Ottawa Journal. The verdict? That freedom of the press in Canada had become endangered by “undue concentration of ownership and control of the Canadian daily newspaper industry.”[i]
As a student finishing high school at Eric Hamber Secondary in Vancouver, I have written for and served as an editor with our school newspaper, The Griffins’ Nest, for two years. One memory that stands out was when our editor-in-chief published a list of independent English-language news media and press organizations in Canada.[ii] How many of them were so-called “big names”? I could not find one. I was struck by how none of news sources that I and many other Canadians consumed regularly was on the list. Canada is a strong and vigorous democracy, is it not? We should be brimming with independent news, free from the control of corporate conglomerates and special interests. The truth is far from this ideal vision.
The Kent Commission reported that in 1980, three large corporations controlled 90 per cent of French-language publications, while another three conglomerates oversaw two-thirds of English-language publications. Furthermore, in seven of the 10 provinces, two-thirds of print circulation was controlled by one chain. [iii]
Today, the situation is far from resolved. According to the Canadian Media Concentration Research Project, 54 per cent of newspapers in Canada are owned by the three largest print media conglomerates—Postmedia, Torstar and Quebecor. This is a marked decline from 10 years ago, when 83 per cent of Canada’s print publications were owned by Postmedia, Torstar and Quebecor. However, some of these numbers can be deceiving, as many of the newly spun-off publications and independent press organizations struggle to make inroads into the newspaper industry. In broadcasting, the six largest companies—Bell, TELUS, Rogers, Shaw, Quebecor and the CBC—constituted 69 per cent of network media revenue.[iv]
The dangers of a highly concentrated media sector are significant in a free and democratic society such as Canada. Independent journalism and a free press are critical to ensuring the public is properly informed—a crucial foundation on which modern liberal democracy is built. Thomas Jefferson wrote that “wherever the people are well informed they can be trusted with their own government.”[v] Maintaining a free and open forum for public debate, one unchoked by corporate interests, is likewise key to facilitating the democratic process. With only a few large newspaper chains and media conglomerates, the diverse perspectives that democracy needs to thrive are more easily ignored or silenced.
Canada need only look south to witness the threats posed by a lack of sustainable independent media and press. In the United States, the largest news broadcasters such as FOX News, CNN and ABC are owned, directly or indirectly, by some of America’s largest media conglomerates. FOX is owned by Rupert Murdoch, the founder and chairman of the News Corporation, a massive media empire that also publishes the Wall Street Journal, the New York Post and Sky News Australia. CNN is controlled by Warner Media, another media titan, while ABC’s majority shareholder is Bob Iger, the current CEO of Disney.[vi] The results of this corporate influence are manifest. According to a Pew Research poll, over 50 per cent of Americans in 2021 did not trust the media. Furthermore, a whopping 70 per cent stated that the news media were not transparent about their financing, and 60 per cent felt they were not transparent about potential conflicts of interest.[vii]
Americans possess far more faith in their local media. Another Pew Research survey indicated that 75 per cent of Americans trust local news, compared to 58 per cent for national news media.[viii] A report from the National Bureau of Economic Research stated that only around 23 per cent of local news organizations are controlled by private equity, with much of the remainder being controlled by the state or as family-run businesses. That same report remarked that the entry of private equity often corresponded to a decline in local political participation.[ix]
If people do not trust media, they will be far less willing to consume it, and thus less willing to inform themselves on the matters of the day. Good governance and sound policymaking will be under threat as civic engagement declines and the electorate becomes increasingly uninformed or misinformed. Voters making thoughtful, informed decisions about the way they use their political power is a fundamental aspect of a healthy democracy. The lively public debates that uphold our democratic processes will become all the more difficult to carry out as different sets of facts come to exist for different sets of people.
The threat to productive public discourse that media concentration poses is worrisome. Constructive, rational political discourse is a building block of democratic governance, whether in formal settings, as in leaders’ debates during election cycles, or in informal settings such as online discussion or dinner-table conversations. The concentrated ownership of news media by corporate interests can be detrimental to this discourse, as the lack of independent media can result in conformity to the handful of companies that control much of Canada’s news media. The vitality of the democratic process depends on the input of a multitude of different perspectives and diverse voices.
One of the effects that was noted in the National Bureau of Economic Research’s report was that corporate-owned press outlets tend to become more national and less local in their coverage of the news.[x] Many nationally oriented media institutions tend to give platforms to the same voices time and time again, making it difficult for the less advantaged to get a foothold in the national consciousness and shunting local issues to the sidelines. The voices of rural populations, Indigenous peoples, LGBTQ2S+ people and others can often be ignored in Canada’s traditionally homogeneous newsrooms; according to the Canadian Association of Journalists, much of Canada’s corporate-owned press have overwhelmingly white staff members when compared to Canada’s demographic makeup.[xi] Additionally, the dominance of large national corporate news can cause local issues to be ignored in favour of more attention-grabbing national stories.
In my home province of British Columbia, numerous smaller papers have shut down, reducing the number of daily newspapers from 36 in 2010 to merely 16 in 2016, often with the closures occurring after a series of purchases by B.C.-based publishers Black Press and Glacier Media.[xii]
The decline of local news media reduces political participation as local issues and events become more difficult to follow. From small community publications in the B.C. Interior to nationally distributed and recognized newspapers in Toronto and Montreal, the corporate consolidation of the media corrodes public discourse and civic engagement.
When media ownership becomes concentrated in a handful of corporations, important information can be repressed and less subject to public scrutiny and debate. As a consequence, the integrity of the media and press can become compromised. In 1995, the CBS show 60 Minutes decided not to air a report on Jeffrey Wigand, former vice-president of the tobacco company Brown & Williamson, who had claimed the company misrepresented information about the harmful effects of tobacco. Lowell Bergman, executive producer of 60 Minutes, blew the whistle on CBS, claiming that the network had self-censored itself to avoid a potential lawsuit. Bergman also reported on rival network ABC’s policy of not airing negative stories about major advertisers and NFL teams.[xiii]
Media critic Ben Bagdikian, a famed journalist and author of the book The Media Monopoly, remarked that media corporations regularly keep stories hidden in order to protect advertisers. He believed that “no commercial power should dominate the news—just as no state should.”[xiv] Over the years, the deadly effects of smoking have been made abundantly clear, as have the effects of the corporate clampdown on information concerning the dangers of smoking.
As many of us in the West are learning, democracy is a fragile thing. It must be carefully tended in order that it might thrive. The press and the media in general are essential components of a flourishing democracy. Canada’s media is alarmingly concentrated, and while this corporate dominion is beginning to retreat, it remains strong.
The hegemony of a few large corporations over Canadian media threatens our cherished liberal democracy in more ways than one. It threatens to quash diversity in journalism and repress local reporting—both critical to ensuring that every Canadian is properly informed on the issues that matter and are relevant to them. And the interests of private business often conflict with the public interest, meaning that important information can be repressed to protect those concerns.
The decline in local journalism caused by corporate media concentration also suppresses participation in local politics. If we hope to encourage engagement in our political systems from the roots in local government all the way to the highest branches in the federal government in Ottawa, we must support local, diverse journalism to connect all Canadians to the body politic.
Independent news media is something that cannot go unsupported if we hope for it to thrive. In this area, there is some hope. In October 2022, the Government of Canada announced the rollout of its Local Journalism Initiative in partnership with non-profits to coordinate funding for journalism in underserved communities.[xv] However, efforts like this are not enough. If we as a nation wish to uphold a strong democracy for future Canadians, we must never forget what the Kent Commission concluded: that a free press is a right of the people.
[i] Government of Canada. Royal Commission on Newspapers. Royal Commission on Newspapers. Privy Council Office. 1981.
[ii] Izen, Spencer. “The Nest’s List of Independent News Media.” The Griffins’ Nest, 24 Dec. 2021, https://www.ehnewspaper.ca/journalism-blog/list-of-independent-news-media-in-canada.
[iii] Government of Canada. Royal Commission on Newspapers. Royal Commission on Newspapers. Privy Council Office. 1981.
[iv] Winseck, Dwayne. “Media and Internet Concentration in Canada, 1984-2021”, Global Media and Internet Concentration Project, Carleton University, https://doi.org/10.22215/gmicp/2022.02.
[v] Jefferson, Thomas. Letter from Thomas Jefferson to Richard Price. 8 Jan. 1789. Library of Congress.
[vi] “US Media Index.” The Future of Media Project, Harvard University, 11 May 2021, https://projects.iq.harvard.edu/futureofmedia/index-us-mainstream-media-ownership.
[vii] Gottfried, Jeffrey, et al. “Americans See Skepticism of News Media as Healthy, Say Public Trust in Institution Can Improve,” Pew Research Center, 31 Aug. 2020, https://www.pewresearch.org/journalism/2020/08/31/americans-see-skepticism-of-news-media-as-healthy-say-public-trust-in-the-institution-can-improve/.
[viii] Gottfried, Jeffrey, and Jacob Liedke. “Partisan divides in media trust widen, driven by a decline among Republicans,” Pew Research Center, 30 Aug. 2021, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2021/08/30/partisan-divides-in-media-trust-widen-driven-by-a-decline-among-republicans/.
[ix] Ewens, Michael, et al. Local Journalism under Private Equity Ownership, National Bureau of Economic Research, Feb. 2022, https://www.nber.org/system/files/working_papers/w29743/w29743.pdf.
[x] Ewens, Michael, et al. Local Journalism under Private Equity Ownership, National Bureau of Economic Research, Feb. 2022, https://www.nber.org/system/files/working_papers/w29743/w29743.pdf.
[xi] Canadian Newsroom Diversity Survey, Canadian Association of Journalists, 2022, https://caj.ca/wp-content/uploads/Canadian-Newsroom-Diversity-Survey-2022.pdf.
[xii] McElroy, Justin. “Here are all the newspapers in B.C. that shut down this decade,” Global News, 1 Feb. 2016, https://globalnews.ca/news/2488301/here-are-all-the-newspapers-in-b-c-that-have-shut-down-this-decade/.
[xiii] Demorest, Julie A. “Corporate Interests and Their Impact on News Coverage,” The Institute for Applied and Professional Ethics Archives, Ohio University, 27 Jul. 2009, https://www.ohio.edu/ethics/2001-conferences/corporate-interests-and-their-impact-on-news-coverage/.
[xiv] Demorest, Julie A. “Corporate Interests and Their Impact on News Coverage,” The Institute for Applied and Professional Ethics Archives, Ohio University, 27 Jul. 2009, https://www.ohio.edu/ethics/2001-conferences/corporate-interests-and-their-impact-on-news-coverage/.
xv “Local Journalism Initiative,” Canada.ca, Government of Canada, 24 Oct. 2022, https://www.canada.ca/en/canadian-heritage/services/funding/local-journalism-initiative.html.