Questions of media control

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McGill Reporter
January 30, 2003 - Volume 35 Number 09
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Home > McGill Reporter > Volume 35: 2002-2003 > January 30, 2003 > Questions of media control

Questions of media control

Michael Goldbloom has worn a variety of hats in his working life: lawyer, director of the YMCA, publisher of Montreal's The Gazette and now visiting scholar at the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada (MISC).

Caption follows MISC visiting scholar Michael Goldbloom
PHOTO: Michael Goldbloom

It wasn't so much of a jump to the last job: Goldbloom's primary responsibility was to write a report on the feasibility of establishing a centre on media ethics and public policy at McGill. His second task was to organize the MISC's annual conference, which this year is titled "Who Controls Canada's Media?"

"After I left The Gazette I wanted to work on media and public affairs. I felt I could take what I observed there and try to examine it in a broader context," explained Goldbloom.

"We, as a country, have invested a lot in the training of journalists. We have a number of journalism schools across the country, but we don't have very many people looking at how the media affects the political process," he said. "What we would do here is very different than what a journalism school would be mandated to do."

There are centres in the U.S. that examine the relationship of the press to the public policy process -- Goldbloom pointed to Harvard's Shorenstein Centre. "They're very good at bringing together working journalists, civil servants, politicians and policy makers," he said.

But why study it at all?

"Pick up the newspaper on any given day -- it's almost common wisdom that how the Canadian media covers the Middle Eastern conflict and Kyoto helps shape how readers and the politicians respond," he said.

With the media in Canada being controlled by fewer and fewer owners, it is unlikely we will see the sorts of questions Goldbloom wants to ask in the pages of our local dailies. In fact, equipping journalists with the tools to ask these questions is what a neutral, academic media centre could do, tailoring courses for reporters in specialized beats.

"At The Gazette -- certainly while I was there -- we were not very good at continuing education for journalists," he said.

"The courses would need to be no more than two weeks long; from my experience it would be very difficult to convince an editor to let a reporter go for any longer than that, but you could impart an enormous amount of information," he said.

The proposed centre is just that: proposed. Goldbloom tabled his report on the concept some time ago. The conference he helped organize represents his vision of what this kind of centre could do.

The media landscape has changed drastically over the last decade, especially in Canada. In addition to the technical developments of the internet and 24-hour news networks, the Canadian government repealed its restrictions on "cross ownership," i.e. different kinds of media outlets owned by the same company. Right now in Canada, cable giant Rogers owns the MacLean-Hunter magazine properties, television broadcaster CanWest Global owns the Southam papers, and Bell Canada Enterprises owns CTV and The Globe and Mail.

While the media empires are getting bigger, their audiences are getting smaller, as more people turn to specialized information sources like the internet for their information.

The upcoming conference looks at all of these issues.

"It's very timely. Certainly we will address the question of whether the convergence model will be successful. The companies that were promoting it a few years back don't even want to use the word anymore."

Goldbloom pointed out that there's a Senate committee on media ownership on the horizon, and a Quebec commission on the subject will soon release its report. "Bringing together these people while the government is discussing the issue has a real possibility to inform the debate," he said.

"These people" include Governor General Adrienne Clarkson, a former journalist who will be giving the opening address, CBC National anchor Peter Mansbridge, National Post columnist Andrew Coyne, Torstar president Robert Prichard and number of other media professionals, academics and policy makers. Unfortun-ately, Gold-bloom said that space and time considerations precluded inviting representatives from independent media outlets.

In English Canada, the most prominent example of media concentration is the CanWest/ Southam merger. The company has made headlines in the last two years for trying to control editorial policy at its member papers. As a former Southam publisher, Goldbloom is diplomatic in his assessment of CanWest decisions.

"I'm certainly concerned about some of the developments. I think it is important that newspapers have autonomy over their voices and reflect the communities of which they are a part," he said.

"This phenomenon of cross-ownership is very new in Canada. The culture of running a private broadcaster is very different than the culture of running a national newspaper chain. I hope the Aspers have learned and have a better appreciation of what makes newspapers unique and the importance of maintaining local editorial autonomy."

MISC director Antonia Maioni said that the themes of the conference fit in well with the institute's mandate of public education of engaged citizens.

"We would hope people come away from this conference with a better understanding of how the media works -- and how it doesn't -- and of influences affecting the media's capacity to tell stories and shape the news in today's complex world. We want people to come away better informed about the medium through which they themselves receive their information," she explained.

Maioni echoed Goldbloom's observation that the changing media environment is a hot topic in recent years.

"We have chosen an admittedly provocative title, but we did not design the conference with a pre-set agenda. We do intend, however, that this conference contribute to agenda-setting in public policy terms on the future of the media in Canada, and to engage citizens to better influence public policy on these issues."

"Who controls Canada's media?" February 13 to 15, Omni Mont-Royal Hotel, 150 Sherbrooke Street West. $50 students, $150 individuals, $200 professionals (who can bill their employer). Registration fee includes meals.

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