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Is Bigger Better?

Jun 16, 2001

Radio-Television News Directors Association, Hyatt Hotel, Calgary

Remarks by Ian Morrison
Spokesperson
Friends of Canadian Broadcasting

When the CRTC invited comments from the public on the group licence renewals of CTV and CanWest Global earlier this year, the Commission addressed today’s topic.  Referring to the CanWest takeover of most of Hollinger’s newspapers, including a 50% interest in The National Post, and BCE’s acquisition of a majority interest in The Globe and Mail, the CRTC said:

“Both situations raise similar issues regarding the diversity of voices and editorial plurality on a national market level.  Global’s acquisition of a series of local newspapers raises similar cross-media issues on a more local level, particularly in the Vancouver/ Victoria market.”

The Commission asked the public to respond to two questions:

“Is it necessary for steps to be taken to address autonomy and editorial independence between the applicants’ broadcast and print media interests?”

and

“If so, what safeguards can be put in place to keep the information gathering functions separate within the various newsrooms, on both the local and national levels?”

Anyone who follows CRTC public notices will tell you that this is a rather direct signal that the issue of cross-media ownership by mega-media companies is front row centre on the Commission’s radar scope.

What we saw at the April public hearing was a clash between the business interests of the holding companies and the public interest, with the CRTC as a referee. The stakes are big – financial “synergies” (doesn’t that sound nice?) for the cross-media owners – and diversity of sources of news and information for the citizen readers and viewers.

When these big players feel the pressure, they throw resources at the problem.  They commission people like former employees who have chaired journalism schools to write papers that suggest that media cross-ownership isn’t any longer a problem because of the Internet.  Or they obtain interventions from journalism schools to which they have recently contributed public benefits as a result of CRTC decisions, and so on.  They even commission friendly public opinion polls from Liberal party pollsters, and other studies.

Let me take you to Vancouver.  I’d like to quote one of the largest non-Asper print media in that city.  I’m sure you’ve heard of it, The Vancouver Westender.  In its March 15th edition, under the headline “Converge, schmonverge”, The Westender wrote:

“When Global TV guru Izzy Asper took the podium last spring to declare his purchase of an online portal and Southam newspapers including The Vancouver Sun, the public oohed and aahed over the mysterious word, “convergence”.  The convergence promise: a content-partnership between Internet, print and broadcast news that lets the combined media integrate, grow and develop information for all news junkies out there.

“The convergence reality: The Sun prints a light feature series on men’s vanity, body image and marketing last week.  And whaddaya know: BCTV, another Asper jewel, broadcasts a series of features on the exact same topic, with little new information.

“When print and broadcast outlets share stories, sources, and news angles, the so-called ideal of ‘convergence’ shapes up to be nothing more than imitation and heavy borrowing.  The more things change.…”

Neither CTV nor Global has addressed the problem of cross-media ownership by mega-media companies in any adequate fashion.  And obviously, they have a conflict of interest.  Global, for example, says it will “maintain policies of editorial integrity…by maintaining clear and distinct editorial management structures for each medium.” 

If only one journalist is sent to cover an event, or if a print and a broadcast journalist collaborate on a story, it will not matter to the public how many clear and distinct management structures there may be.  Diversity of voices will dissipate in that community.  Which communities are those? 

Victoria, Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Saskatoon, Regina, Toronto, Ottawa, and Montreal, to name a few.

A good description of the problem has been supplied by one of the principals of CanWest/Global.  Addressing the Canadian Club of Winnipeg on January 16th, 2001, Leonard Asper said:

“In the future, journalists will wake up, write a story for the web, write a column, take their camera, cover an event and do a report for TV and file a video clip for the web.  What we have acquired is a quantum leap in the product we offer advertisers and a massive, creative, content generation machine.”

When I first read that pearl of wisdom, I wondered whether young Mr. Asper had forgotten to require that journalist to sweep the floor before leaving the building.

When she opened the recent public hearing in Montreal to consider Quebecor’s application to control Videotron and TVA  in March, CRTC Vice-Chair Andrée Wylie said: “The CRTC does not regulate print media.” Then she posed a question:

“Are there grounds, however, for the CRTC to establish safeguards, in the form of conditions of licence or other means related to its broadcasting jurisdiction, to help promote the diversity of voices in Quebec?”

These words were not said casually.  They were in Ms. Wylie’s prepared opening remarks for the Montreal hearing.

Behind these words lies the Broadcasting Act’s mandate to the CRTC:

“The programming provided by the Canadian broadcasting system should be varied and comprehensive…”

and

“provide a reasonable opportunity for the public to be exposed to the expression of differing views on matters of public concern.…”

At the recent CRTC public hearing, FRIENDS recommended that the Commission focus on maintaining the independence of news gathering by CTV and Global.  We told the Commission that the so-called “Statement of principles and practices” that CTV and Global colluded to present at the hearing on April 23 failed that test. 

We asked the CRTC to insist, as a condition of licence, that CTV and CanWest Global be required to ensure the independence of news gathering by their television stations by adding the words:

“The licensees shall ensure that their television newsrooms gather information independently from the newsrooms of newspapers in which they have an interest.”

I get the sense that our advice may be encountering some resistance from the applicants.  Here’s what Trina McQueen, CTV’s President, wrote to the Commission:

“We believe that our principles of combining news-gathering, while separating news presentation, will provide Canadian viewers and readers with both diversity and quality in news reporting.  Accordingly, we submit that further regulation of the journalistic reporting within Bell Globemedia’s news platforms is unnecessary.”

Well, that might be fine for CTV’s and The Globe and Mail’s Beijing bureaus, but it’s quite another thing on Parliament Hill, in Vancouver or in Calgary.

As you may know, there’s a very powerful newspaper group in the United States known as Gannett.  It controls 10% of daily circulation south of the border.  That’s the largest share of daily circulation in the USA.  In this country, CanWest Global now controls more than 40% of English-language daily circulation.

Enough already!  Any further concentration of media power by integrating television and print newsrooms is just not on.