Want democratic reform? Let’s start with newspapers.

Posted on in Governance Debates

Rabble.ca – Columnists
October 30, 2015.   By Murray Dobbin

Observing the cathartic effect of the end of the Harper regime reveals just how traumatized millions of Canadians were by nearly 10 years of rule by this paranoid and vindictive prime minister. The analogies and metaphors keep coming: like getting out of jail, like waking up from a nightmare, like the end of an occupation.

This election will provide students, pundits and authors with career-building opportunities to dissect the results. Part of that analysis will, of course, examine the unprecedented assault on democracy carried out by the Conservatives. As it should, because undoing the damage must be the litmus test for the new Liberal government and Parliament.

However, while it is critical to keep track of these efforts, the other democratic institution which needs renewed attention is the media — and in particular, the newspapers in this country. Regrettably, we have adapted to the outrageous concentration of newspaper ownership in Canada, greater than in any other developed Western nation.

But the newspapers perhaps did us a favour in the last week of the campaign with their inane endorsement of the Harper autocracy for yet another four-year term. Post Media — the most recent iteration of the Conrad Black coup in 1999 — and the Globe and Mail without an iota of embarrassment or shame actually managed to write editorials justifying the re-election of a man turfed from office by a tsunami of voter revulsion.

The shamelessness extended without a pause to outright untruths in the Globe and Mail and the National Post editorials — both of which declared their support because of Harper’s economic record. The Globe declared: “The key issue of the election should have been the economy and the financial health of Canadians. On that score, the Conservative Party has a solid record.” And the National Post: “Harper’s commendable record in office cannot be dismissed. Our economy is in good shape…”

These ludicrous declarations are infuriating because the exact opposite was just recently meticulously documented by Unifor economist Jim Stanford who co-wrote an analysis of all the prime ministers back to 1945 using 16 separate indicators. It wasn’t even close: Stephen Harper’s government had by far the worst economic record of any government in 70 years: “For 13 of the 16 indicators, the Stephen Harper Conservative government ranks last or second last among all postwar prime ministers. And its average ranking across all 16 indicators is by far the worst.”

Media for the 1%

But it should come as no surprise that the National Post and the Globe should rank the Harper government as having a “solid” economic record. Like their favoured government, the editorial boards and publishers couldn’t care less about most of the 16 indicators — unemployment, growth, job creation, youth employment, job quality, real personal incomes, inequality, or personal debt.

Those who run the country’s daily newspapers reveal themselves to be as contemptuous of democracy and society as the party they endorsed. They reveal themselves as concerned only about “the economy” but for them this is just a code word for the corporate elite, the 1% — not the economy of ordinary wage and salary earners.

The irony of this endorsement is the endorsers’ fundamental belief that government — and by extension, the voting rabble — should not be interfering in the economy at all. It is something to be clinically separated from the exercise of public policy. Government should simply facilitate economic growth by “getting out of the way” of business by signing “trade” deals, gutting corporate and wealth taxes, and driving down wages.

There was a time when the outrageous concentration of newspaper ownership was an issue, but it has become the new normal. Even when Conrad Black took over most of the dailies in the country in the 1990s, the commentators missed the most important feature of the media coup. While Canadian newspapers had always been pro-business they had never before been strategically harnessed to accomplish a single ideological purpose: to systematically roll back the activist state and the benefits it delivered to ordinary Canadians.

But that is exactly why Black bought (and subsequently gutted) all those papers. He was in lock step with the Reform cum Alliance Party and shared an identical objective.

When we talk of democratic reform, as we will be talking in the months and years ahead as a result of this landmark election, we absolutely must include the reform of the newspaper. There is little point in reforming parliamentary institutions if the instruments of civic literacy have been turned on their heads to produce precisely the opposite result.

Running a newspaper in a democracy should be seen as a privilege as much as it is a right. It is not like running a clothing store or a car wash — it is fundamental to the health of society, to how we decide to live together, to how our values are reflected back to us. When the news media are allowed to betray the public trust with utter impunity, there is something dangerously wrong with the state of human affairs.

Reforming instruments of civic literacy

How do we fix that? It is worth going back in history to two periods when there was an appetite for reform — the 1970 Davey Report and the 1981 Kent Royal Commission on Newspapers — both publicly established federal examinations of media concentration and its impact on Canada. (This overview is a must-read if you want a reminder of a time when genuine public discourse was the norm.) Their recommendations, read in today’s context, sound positively revolutionary. Had they been implemented, the history of the country may well have been altered.

Today we can take some solace in the fact that the same demented “free market” ideology that continues to play havoc with the real Canadian economy (the 99%) is helping to weaken the newspaper industry in Canada. Newspapers that continue to ignore the wave of contempt that swept the Harperium from power will deserve their fate. And indeed they are dying a slow and painful death. Postmedia, the owner of the National Post and 45 other dailies (having swallowed the Sun chain’s English-language papers) recently reported on their steady decline:

“Canada’s largest newspaper chain saw advertising and circulation revenues tumble at a faster pace. The owner of the National Post and numerous major city dailies reported a loss of $140.8 million … in the three months ended May 31.”

Reading the Postmedia papers is a demoralizing experience given that nowhere do you find Canadian values reflected in their reporting or opinion pieces. But when you learn that the National Post’s paid subscribers (2014 numbers) total only 83,671 out of 24 million-plus eligible voters it sort of lifts your spirits (though they do get an additional 100,000 digitally). The Vancouver Sun, another Postmedia paper, manages just over 86,000.

People are going elsewhere for news. Online media experienced a big bump in visits during the election. The Tyee saw a 70 per cent jump in visits to their site during August to October as they ramped up election coverage, and rabble.ca’s increased by 50 per cent — with 880,000 individual readers and close to five million page views — demonstrating voters’ considerable appetite for “fact-based” journalism.

It is also instructive to compare the dailies with the social media sites that engaged in the election. B.C.-based Dogwood Initiative has 184,000 “contactable” supporters, Vancouver’s OpenMedia boasts 300,000-plus supporters and LeadNow, the main strategic voting group, has over 400,000 active supporters.

Of course despite the dailies’ declining subscribers and revenue they still have a major impact on framing the public discourse. One answer to the democratic deficit created by media concentration (and ideological bias) is the idea of publicly subsidized newspapers — not unlike the CBC model and models in Europe. As Ezra Klein of the Washington Post writes: “We have public universities and public centres for disease research and public fire-fighting departments … Why should news be different?” In a democracy, the news is just as important: “What if we could create a funding source that recognized the news’ role as a ‘public good,’ … What if, in other words, we subsidized it?”

Another possible model is a for-profit newspaper owned and operated by a foundation willing to put the profits back into the paper rather than shareholders’ pockets. More on these possibilities in a future column. But when the next Canadian daily approaches its demise, perhaps local citizens and a few enlightened millionaires could buy it up and model it on the assumption that a robust, investigative news department and a variety of provocative commentators are first-order reforms critical to our country’s democracy.

Murray Dobbin has been a journalist, broadcaster, author and social activist for 40 years. He writes rabble’s State of the Nation column, which is also found at The Tyee.

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