There is a high level of media concentration in Canada today – an issue the Council of Canadians was drawing attention to twenty years ago.
In April 2015, Postmedia Network Canada Corp. bought 175 newspapers and digital publications from Quebecor Inc., including the Sun chain of papers in Calgary, Edmonton, Toronto, Ottawa and Winnipeg, plus The London Free Press. At that time, The Globe and Mail reported, “The acquisition signals an unprecedented concentration of the country’s newspapers and digital news sites. Postmedia takes ownership of both major dailies in three big cities: The Sun and Herald in Calgary, the Sun and Journal in Edmonton and the Sun and Citizen in Ottawa.”
In 2008, just four companies – Canwest, Quebecor, Torstar and Power Corp./Gesca Media – owned three-quarters of the newspaper market.
Earlier this year, the Canadian Press reported, “Keith Davey’s Special Committee on Mass Media declared [in 1970] that ‘this country should no longer tolerate a situation where the public interest in so vital a field as information [is] dependent on the greed or goodwill of an extremely privileged group of businessmen.’ …Media concentration has only intensified since then – the idea of limiting a company to owning only five newspapers seems almost quaint. …The 149-year-old Guelph Mercury shuttered its print edition [in January], the Postmedia chain has laid off dozens of reporters across the country [and could go bankrupt], and the [Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission] has warned that half of local TV newsrooms are in peril.”
The Council of Canadians has long been concerned about this issue.
Maude Barlow remembers, “In the spring of 1995, the Competition Bureau, which administers the Competition Act, gave Conrad Black’s Hollinger Inc. the right to take over the entire Southam newspaper chain (59 of Canada’s 109 daily newspapers) without even a public hearing. I held a press conference with several other national groups to call on the federal Liberals to place a moratorium on the takeover and hold public hearings on what effect it would have on communities and diversity of views.”
She adds, “When the government refused to intervene, we decided to launch a court challenge based on the argument that Canadians’ Charter rights to freedom of expression were violated by this level of media concentration. But by the time we got the financial commitment to launch the case, a three-month deadline for challenges to the Competition Bureau’s ruling had passed. The case as to whether we would go to trial was heard in Toronto on December 9, 1996, and we lost. The judge said that even if we hadn’t missed the deadline, there really was no provision for groups like ours in the process.”
Barlow then notes, “We appealed; we were heard again on April 9, 1997, in Ottawa. I felt the judges didn’t listen to one word of our argument; their minds were made up ahead of time. So we lost here as well and were order to pay the other side’s costs. My heart almost stopped beating. Peter Bleyer, our executive director, had been worried about just such a scenario. I took his hand for the four or five minutes the three justices took to determine the amount we owed and apologized for destroying the organization. Our penalty, however, was a slap on the wrist – $1,000.”
She recalls, “On May 27, 1997, we decided to take our message to Hollinger’s annual meeting at the Stock Exchange on Toronto’s Bay Street. We had a cheque for Mr. Black – from the ‘Bank for Greedy Corporations’ made out to ‘He Who Has So Much But Still Wants More’ – and held a ‘street benefit’ to raise the money.”
Under the Trudeau government, the House of Commons Standing Committee on Heritage committed to study media concentration in this country, notably “how Canadians, and especially local communities, are informed about local and regional experiences through news, broadcasting, digital and print media”.
Earlier this month, the Canadian Press reported, “A parliamentary committee studying Canada’s slumping media industry is struggling to finalize a long-awaited report [and that] the 10-member panel had yet to reach consensus on details of some of the key recommendations expected to be included in their report.”