The recent dramatic cuts in newsrooms by BellMedia must give all Canadians who value a free and diverse flow of information as a bedrock of an informed democracy reason to pause and reflect. Bell cut over 200 news jobs and shuttered the newsrooms of its radio stations in the major markets of Montreal and Toronto. News stations that were anchors for their communities such as CJAD and CFRB can no longer be called by the public for information or with breaking news. And Bell did it after admitting to having received $122 million in wage supports for its media operations since the pandemic began.
This is more than a human tragedy of journalists who devoted decades of their lives now being out on the street. This is an urgent public policy question of whether we as Canadians value the importance of being properly and independently informed or will submit to conglomerates controlling the content and quantity of information we receive. For Bell, and its cohorts, are not independent broadcasters and owners. In most markets they maintain vertical control owning television and radio stations in many major markets.
For most of our history, this was not even legally possible. We now live in a time where oligopoly, not independence, characterizes our media. The treasured ideal of a “free press” cannot long survive when the very data that is as the air we breathe is constricted by the drastic reduction in journalists and outlets.
Arthur Miller once wrote that, A dictatorship of data rather than jackboots is no less a dictatorship.” And Canada understood that. Regardless of party. In the 1930s we established the Canadian Radio Broadcast Commission (now the Canadian Radio and Television Commission) in the style of the US Federal Communications Commission. Both Commissions regulated broadcasters — first in radio and then in television in the 1950s. And both demanded a minimum of news broadcasting every day.
In fact, in 1970, Canada was so alarmed that 85% of media assets were controlled by only 15 companies that the federal government organized the Davey Commission on Media Concentration. In 1981, with little improvement, we had the Kent Commission on the same issue. Today, with 85% of media assets in the hands of 5 companies we raise no alarms.
The danger of these oligopolies is not just that data — information we need — is in a few hands and its dissemination can be controlled. It is that the journalists that are still working will be too cautious in what they write so as not to upset their corporate owners.
We are by no means suggesting government intervention into what media says or does. We are suggesting that opening the doors again to more competition is vital for the health of our country. It is reasonable to start asking ourselves why the old rules were abandoned. Just 25 years ago ownership of media assets in individual markets would never allow for control of multiple media assets in the same spheres in one market by the same company.
Today more than ever, independent and independently-owned media outlets — whether press, radio or television — are the guardians of our nation. They hold power to account. And it is time that the federal government not only permanently insure their health and independence, but that the government reinstates the old rules and produces legislation directing the CRTC to enforce them and split up media and communications oligopolies much as the United States did some twenty years ago.
Canada has already been called a “controlled democracy” due to the power over our elected representatives held by party leaders. We don’t need to see more control by unrestrained agglomeration of news for profit and not for people. That kind of power would dwarf the control party leaders have.
Constrictions of information flow and of information sources, compromise the sovereignty of an informed electorate over its government. A sovereignty that is our only surety for the national culture of conscience we all seek to build. Not a corporatist culture. We cannot allow that to continue in this country. If we don’t act, we may soon not recognize ourselves — or our country at all.