Canadian media consolidation within the last ten years has caused concern.
Katy Anderson/the Gauntlet

Local media and democracy

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Nationally, 75 per cent of newspapers are owned by three companies.

Media Democracy Day was Thu., Oct. 18. Although events were held in Vancouver and Toronto it went virtually unnoticed throughout the rest of the country.

"Having a free and independent media is one of the basic building blocks of society," said Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom national co-ordinator David Robinson. "It's the media that helps keep government accountable, that helps inform people so they can make informed decisions about what policy choices that are most appropriate. It's a way of engaging citizens within the democratic process."

The CPBF is a coalition of journalists, public interest groups as well as viewers, readers and listeners concerned about the impact of media concentration on the range and diversity of views that we receive. The organization was established in the mid-'90s when the Southam newspaper chain was bought out by Conrad Black, which led to near monopoly markets in the newspaper sector within major cities, explained Robinson.

"Things have gotten worse since then," he said. "After[ward], CanWest then bought out Black's share of the Southam chain. Now we have situations where it's not just consolidation within newspapers or consolidation within television or radio but it's cross-media ownership consolidation. We have some markets now like Vancouver where CanWest owns the newspapers, has a radio station, has television stations and it has lead to increasing levels of concentration.

CPBF essentially acts as a lobby group, he explained. They have been campaigning for the federal government to bring in a form of limits or restrictions on media ownership.

"The [Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission] right now is holding hearings looking at this issue of media ownership concentration," said Robinson. "They're looking at different kinds of formulas so we're quite hopeful that there may actually be something coming forward."

However, Robinson did note his hope was sprinkled with pessimism because of the federal minority government that currently exists.

"I am heartened to see that, for the first time, in the CRTC hearings there is serious consideration being given to looking at how we control the issue of cross media ownership," he said. "First of all they have recognized it is a problem and second of all they are floating some proposals to deal with it."

"If you look at the United States--which is a bastion of free markets--its levels of media ownership concentration pale in comparison to the situation in Canada, where essentially three newspaper companies control 75 per cent of circulation," continued Robinson.

The CRTC is currently conducting public hearings to examine policies concerning what they call 'diversity of voices.' CRTC spokesperson Denis Carmel explained a decision could be made by the end of the year--however, policies would not be retroactive.

"We need to ensure that there is many editorial voices in any given market so we can have the best coverage available, that being said, [the problem] is how to translate that into regulations and policies," he said.

Currently, only two regulations exist, no two conventional TV stations can exist within a single market. The other regulation is that within a market of eight radio stations or more you cannot have more than two stations per band--two AM and two FM stations.

"[The inquiry] was to provide more certainty because all the rest of the applications would be looked at on a case-to-case basis," said Carmel. "We wanted to have a clear set of rules."

Carmel explained having separate voices is not only one of the objectives of the act, but one of the principal elements of democracy.

"We're living in a media landscape which is dominated by a few players," said Albertaviews associate editor Peter Norman. "You get something like CanWest or the Sun papers and they're these big blocks that control so much of the news that we take in and then they also own other outlets like radio stations and TV stations and as much as these large consolidated blocks tend to protest that they're not influencing the editorial content of their specific reporters and writers there are a lot of people who feel otherwise. As things get bigger and more centralized it's really important that we have some diverse voices on the ground that aren't just plugged into these larger systems."

Norman explained Albertaviews magazine was created by Jackie Flanagan in the '90s when the mainstream news media seemed not to be sounding the alarm about happenings within Ralph Klein's government.

"A lot of Albertans felt the government was doing things they didn't support or understand and they didn't hear any voices that were crying out against that, and that's where there was a real hunger for something like Albertaviews to come along and present alternate viewpoints."