News Item, January 11, 2012:
“Shaw Media announced Wednesday that it has filed an application to the CRTC for a 24/7 regional, all-news channel for the province.
“The channel is set to launch this summer, pending approval from the CRTC, which is the country’s broadcasting regulator. The new channel will include B.C.-focused information in both video and data format, live-event coverage and in-depth reporting around the clock…”
I see this as an inappropriate and unhealthy development. In Canada, our news sources are already concentrated in the hands of too few national conglomerates that are mouthpieces for big business and care more about quarterly profit reports than professional journalism. Presumably, we will have opportunity to mount formal opposition with the CRTC if sufficient people are so motivated.
I think it is timely to repeat an earlier Northern Insights article, first published November 2010.
Always a champion of the powerless, Jack Webster defined journalism in our region. If he were here today, we’d hear unkind words about the foundation that honors his name. First, he would complain that most trustees of the namesake group sit in offices with very tall windows and pretty ocean views on at least two sides. Then, he would argue that unworthy recipients degrade the Lifetime Achievement Award named in honor of Bruce Hutchison. Its presentation should go only to accomplished masters and not every year presents worthy candidates. As a result, the foundation has occasionally used career longevity as its main award qualifier.
And, if you think that was apparent in the last two years, just wait. In Webster’s day, news publishers, both print and broadcast, staffed busy and well resourced newsrooms with troops of talented and original people. Those who rose above the herd moved to the forefront, becoming star columnists, commentators and editors. Most every opinion maker earned a platform through diligence, distinction and discernment. Pretty faces didn’t count.
There was a ‘Chinese wall’ between editorial and advertising departments. At least, the wall existed to protect hard news sections. Real estate, automotive, fashion, sports and investor pages seldom bothered with the pretense. Today, perhaps only oldtimers understand that reporters owned by ad sales are copywriters, not journalists. Harvey Oberfeld, retired now but once part of an admirable BCTV news operation, has written about muddying the bounds between advertorial and editorial.
The need to reduce capabilities of news gathering is usually attributed to financial pressures forcing reluctant managers to eliminate resources. However, cutbacks were not to ensure survival of media operations, they were aimed at preserving media owners. Cost cutting was part of the quest to maximize shareholder value and higher profits were needed to pay the debts of reckless growth. Errors of the boardroom left profitable businesses vulnerable to insolvency.
Canwest Global entered bankruptcy protection in 2009. In June 2010, the company sold its publishing arm to new investors using the name Postmedia Network. In October, the Shaw Family’s cable empire, made rich by government regulation of lucrative monopolies, took over the failing company’s broadcasting assets. As the dispersals were being negotiated, Canwest Global reported results for its quarter ended May 31, 2010. Operating profits had doubled from the same quarter a year previous to $150 million. Publishing contributed about one one third with the remainder from broadcasting. The new owners took over profitable media businesses at a substantial discount but continued cutting operating budgets.
Old values of public service journalism, now more or less extinct, are replaced by ethically bankrupt concepts that emphasize return on assets and conformity with corporate culture. Can the situation get worse? Unfortunately, yes. Vulture capitalists, global robber barons and foreign investors fronting for illicit fortunes are seeking media control not for profit as much as for influence. It is what author James Squires, former Editor of the Chicago Tribune, called journalism’s “dirty little secret.”
Squires says that traditional media claim the right of near exclusive access to government — courtrooms, records, politicians, etc.:
“. . . on the basis that it is an institution exercising the people’s right to know. Never does it claim the right to such access on the basis that it is in the business of delivering advertising information for profit.”
We have seen that right exercised by media with encouragement of the British Columbia Government. The Shaw Family’s Corus Radio and Global TV operate as quasi-official voices of the BC Liberal Party, providing uncritical platforms for candidates, policy announcements and public relations, in return for access advantages and advertising plums.
The Supreme Court of British Columbia accredits journalists who are then allowed to use recording devices and attend special briefings and lockups to receive advance copies of public releases, along with exclusive information backgrounders from court officials. Few outside a tight circle find it appropriate that three journalists employed by Postmedia (formerly Canwest) determine who may be “accredited.” Of course, this provides a major competitive advantage to none other than Postmedia journalists. The price paid is through voluntary censorship of politically sensitive material, such as that we experienced in the BC Rail, Basi/Virk near-trial farce.
Consider how acceptable close relationships between government and media would be if Vancouver’s newspapers are next owned by criminals or a Russian Oligarch, as are four in Britain now. Or, perhaps by Chinese interests such as those interested in buying Newsweek Magazine from present owner The Washington Post Company. For the right payment, WAPO could deliver both Newsweek and a new attitude toward China in the pages of this influential newspaper.
Seeing a risk to democracy, many of us lament the loss of what James Squires remembers as:
“The hard-boiled, chain-smoking editors of old, out to lynch any business or government agency guilty of treading on the public welfare. . .”
Jack Webster was one of those, schooled on the streets. His memory is ill served by non-smoking, white wine sipping, copywriting hacks of today’s banal mainstream media.