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Love of newspapers, radio and television drew some 400 media pundits to analyze big questions at a recent McGill Institute for the Study of Canada conference. From February 14 to 15, passive to vitriolic speakers debated the subject du jour: "Who Controls Canada's Media?"
While few concrete answers emerged, the smash-hit conference will be remembered as a defining moment when Canada's academics and journalists united to examine the state of our news providers. "Our goal is to ask the important questions, not necessarily provide all the answers," explained MISC director Antonia Maioni.
The media powwow commenced with a stellar keynote by Adrienne Clarkson, Canada's Governor-General and a former journalist. Aware that the attendees were a who's who of Canadian journalism and politics -- from CBC anchor Peter Mansbridge and Gazette Publisher Larry Smith to Senator Joan Fraser and Canadian Industry Minister Allan Rock. Clarkson encouraged media empires to provide differing points of view. Media concentration, she said, "will have an effect on democracy and the pluralism on which democracy is based."
There's already too much cynicism about Canada's media, she said. "The line between news and editorial is becoming increasingly blurred."
Clarkson, an immigrant herself, implored the media to better reflect first-generation Canadians in their newscasts. Current reporting, she said, "is based on an old idea of Canada."
"We are a multi-racial, multi-faith immigrant population on an Aboriginal base," she continued, adding that reporters are crucial in reflecting this new citizenry. "I believe that what you do as journalists is as important and critical as public education."
While subsequent presenters agreed media influences the public, speakers often clashed on ideologies. At a session called "The Proprietors: Do Too Few Control Too Much?" a business professor at the Université du Québec à Montréal critiqued media mergers. "Concentration is bad for shareholders," said Yves Rabeau, stressing that corporate marriages, especially between Time-Warner to AOL and Vivendi to Universal, have have led to dwindling stock prices.
André Préfontaine, president of Transcontinental Media, clamoured for more media unions. "There are five major Canadian players: Bell Globemedia, CanWest, Quebecor, Osprey Media and Transcontinental," he said. "Not one of those Canadian media corporations is part of the ten largest in the world."
So what countered Arnold Amber, president of Canadian Journalists for Free Expression. "It concerns me not one iota that Canada's media companies are not among the ten largest in the world. What we need is diversity. Media companies need not to be in the top ten; what we need is ten companies."
Convergence has been bad for journalists, Amber added, "since there are now fewer reporters on the street."
McGill law professor Julius Grey said media provide a public service on par with health and education. That's why governments need to get involved. He stressed, "special property regulation is essential."
Terence Corcoran, editor-in-chief of the Financial Post, lambasted that notion during a session called, "What Are the Limits of Government Control?" Canada needs less government control, not more, he said. Corcoran even called for the obliteration of the government-funded CBC and Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission. "The government wishes to extend control of electronic media to print," he claimed.
Senator Joan Fraser refuted that hypothesis: "We believe the state has no business looking in the newsrooms of the nation."
Robert Rabinovitch, CBC president and chair of McGill's Board of Governors, noted the CBC might not be perfect. "But we are almost 100 percent Canadian, we tell Canadian stories, stories that would not be there if not for the CBC," he stressed.
Alain Gourde, a vice-president at Bell Globemedia, owner of CTV and the Globe and Mail, said company newsrooms remained independent after converging. "Why mess with credibility?" he asked. He did not mention that in Montreal, at least, the Globe, CTV National News and CFCF News now share a newsroom.
Russ Mills, the former publisher of the Ottawa Citizen who was fired by parent company CanWest over dissenting editorial policies (i.e., unfavourable coverage of Canada's prime minister), took part in a session called, "Have the Journalists Lost Control?" "News media are a public trust in private hands," he said. "A good media company must protect editors from pressure."
Gordon Fisher, CanWest president of news and information, said his company's top brass is too busy running the company to exert undue control over editorial policies. "If you want to find the bogeymen in Canada's newsrooms, with rare exceptions, it's the unions," he said, to groans from the audience.
Private broadcaster Trina McQueen, recapping in a final session, said convergence sometimes has benefits. "If it wasn't for CTV buying the Globe and Mail and CanWest acquiring the National Post -- each company using its deep pockets to [stanch] the red ink both properties are gushing -- one of those papers would most certainly have ceased to exist."