For as long as newspapers have been in circulation, the mass population has looked to them for information. Newspapers provide the population with a vehicle in which they can get all the information they need in one issue. This is the main reason why newspapers became such an integral part of society. Since the inception of Canada?s first newspaper in 1752, Canadians have turned to newspapers for their information. Even with the introduction of new information mediums into Canadian society, newspapers still have their prominent place within society because they are relatively inexpensive and easy to access. As a result of their prominent and influential nature, the newspaper?s content should be closely monitored to ensure this country?s democratic right of free speech is upheld. Recently throughout the world and within Canada, concern has been expressed over the quality of the content in newspapers. This concern has stemmed from the increasing trend of concentrating the ownership of more newspapers into fewer and fewer hands. Many people fear that certain companies or individuals own too many newspapers. As a result of their ownership, owners are restricting opinions that they do not agree with or are trying to push their own personal agenda and political views through the newspaper?s content and editorials. This essay will acknowledge the concerns of ownership concentration within the newspaper industry. However, this essay will also prove that these concerns are unwarranted. This paper will use Canada?s leading “press baron”, Conrad Black, as an example of how conglomerate ownership of newspapers is not detrimental to the quality of content within newspapers, and that concentration of ownership in newspapers is not the evil monster that interest groups have made it out to be.
“Freedom of the press is not a property right of ownership. It is a right of the people. It is a part of their right to free expression, inseparable from their right to inform themselves.” This quote comes from the first three lines of the 1980 “Royal Commission on Newspapers” which was appointed by the Canadian government. This commission was brought about by, “the series of take-overs, mergers, agreements and closings”, of newspaper publishing companies within Canada. However, perhaps the closing of the Winnipeg Tribune and the Ottawa Journal on August 27th , 1980 acted as the greatest catalyst for the appointment of the Commission. The closing of these two papers caused an uproar in their respective communities because it reduced the amount of competition and increased company profits within both areas. It was believed that the two closings were co-ordinated by the two respective ownership chains, Southam and Thomson. However, the two companies claim that the decision to shutdown the newspapers was arrived at, “independently.” The closings of these two newspapers brought the question of media ownership to the forefront, however, newspaper ownership has long been an issue within Canada.
As early as the 1860?s, Canadian newspaper owners have been expanding their empires. Montreal businessman John Dougall, who owned the Montreal Daily Witness, and Toronto businessman George Brown, who owned the Toronto Globe, were expanding their publishing interests into other communities by purchasing small independent newspapers. This growing interest in the accumulation of newspapers led to the development of newspaper chains. A “chain”, as defined by the Royal Commission of Newspapers is, “the ownership of two or more daily newspapers in different urban communities by a single firm.” Therefore, using this as a basic definition for the meaning of newspaper chains, the first newspaper chain in Canada was started by William Southam in 1877. It was at this time that Southam acquired half interest in the Hamilton Spectator. Southam continued in 1897 by acquiring The Ottawa Citizen. These two papers started the , “nucleus” of his chain. He continued by adding the Calgary Herald in 1908, The Edmonton Journal in 1912, The Winnipeg Tribune in 1920, and The Vancouver Province in 1923. This trend in ownership continued. For example, just before World War One, there were 138 daily newspapers within Canada. These 138 newspapers were published by 135 different publishers. However, by comparison in 1995, only 11 publishers published 95 out of Canada?s 106 daily newspapers. This resulted in 90% of all daily newspapers being, “involved in some form of common or concentrated ownership.”
Another chain which established predominance for an extended period of time in Canada was Thomson. The Thomson empire was established when founder Roy Thomson placed a $200 down payment on a Timmins, Ontario newspaper in 1934. Thomson owed the rest of the $5,800 in promissory notes. In 1944 Thomson continued to expand his newspaper ownership. He purchased an additional four Ontario newspapers located in Galt, Sarnia, Welland, and Woodstock. The Thomson chain still continued to grow well into the 1950?s gaining, “momentum and continued unabated for nearly four decades.” Up until 1995 the Thomson chain owned, “the largest number of daily newspapers in both Canada and the United States.” However, it was within the last couple of years in Canada that concentration of ownership has really come into the forefront; lead by a man sometimes referred to as, “God Conrad.”
Conrad Black is today Canada?s greatest, “press baron.” However, Mr. Black did not start his newspaper empire in Canada. In 1986, Black started his newspaper empire with Hollinger International Company. He started by buying into the London Daily Telegraph and the Jerusalem Post in 1989. Black continued in 1991 by purchasing 15% of the Australian newspaper entitled Fairfax, and in 1994 by completely buying out the Chicago Sun Times. Finally Black and his Hollinger company broke into the mainstream Canadian newspaper market by acquiring control of the Southam newspaper chain in December of 1996. Today, Hollinger has 58.6% of Southam?s outstanding common shares.
Based on the statistics presented it is easy to acknowledge that Conrad Black and his Hollinger company are a major force in the Canadian newspaper industry. Apart from controlling Southam Newspapers, Hollinger also controls or owns Sterling Newspapers, Unimedia, Armadale Company and the Burgoyne Group and their affiliated newspapers. At the start of 1997 Black?s Canadian holdings published an average of 2,150,063 newspapers per publishing day. That number translated into a 41.4% share of the average number of copies sold per publishing day. However, out of the 41.4%, 31.8% of the newspapers were formerly owned by Southam. Many critics of today?s newspaper industry cite Hollinger as an example of how one newspaper chain can control too many newspapers within one country. Therefore, this type of ownership trend, and the closing of the Winnipeg Tribune and Ottawa Journal that brought the Federal government to call a Royal Commission on Newspapers, which was chaired by Tom Kent.
The “Kent Commission”, as it was later referred to, was established to, “look at the industry (newspapers) as a whole; to suggest? a better course for newspapers in Canada.” The Commission recognised ownership and concentration trends within the Canadian newspaper industry long before Hollinger acquired such a large majority within Canada. The Commission stated that even between 1970 and 1980 the number of independent newspapers within Canada was declining. According to the report, between 1970 and 1980 independent titles decreased from 45 to 29, and consequently the number of newspapers controlled by chains rose from 60 to 89. Newspaper chains accounted for 77% of all the copies of daily newspapers published in Canada as of September 1980; an increase of 58% from only ten years previous. Out of the 117 newspapers at that time, 88 were owned by chains, 28 were published independently, and one, the Toronto Star, “was by itself as a daily but part of a public company with extensive other interests.” Eventually, the Commission publicised their findings and came up with suggestions for the industry to follow.
When the findings of the Royal Commission on Newspapers were released in 1981, there was no question on how the Commission felt on the concentration of ownership within the newspaper industry. The Commission?s view was bluntly stated in one sentence; “The concentration of ownership in chains is, in the Commission?s view, bad.” The Commission also felt that, “Newspaper competition, of the kind that used to be, is virtually dead in Canada.” It also goes on to say that concentration of ownership should be, “accordingly blamed by many people as the killer of competition,” within the newspaper industry. These are bold statements. However, the Commission developed a way to ameliorate the ownership issue within Canada. To rectify and improve the situation the Commission proposed to create the “Canada Newspaper Act”.
According to the Commission, the Act would, “establish a set of guidelines within which newspapers could fulfill their responsibility with legitimacy and credibility. It would in no way interfere with the freedom of newspapers to publish what they think is best, to have whatever content they wish.” To be able to monitor the industry, the Commission proposed a, “Press Rights Panel within the Canadian Human Rights Commission.” The panel would consist of a chairman and two other members that would report to the Parliament through the Minister of Justice. The Press Rights Panel would perform a number of functions. It would provide guidance to the advisory committees of newspapers and it would receive from all newspapers reports of the proceedings of their advisory committees. The panel would also receive notice of intended closings. In the event an owner fails to arrange the satisfactory sale of a newspaper that it wishes to discontinue, the Panel would determine whether a sale of physical assets is necessary to make the sale legitimate. If the Panel found otherwise it would prohibit the sale of the assets. However, perhaps the most important aspect of the Press Rights Panel is how it would control ownership. Out of the fifteen proposed responsibilities for the Panel, six dealt with newspaper chains and or ownership. These six functions included actions that would; involve receiving confirmations of intent regarding divestment, and ruling against ?conglomerate? acquisitions of divested newspapers. The Panel could also reserve the right to rule on acquisitions of newspapers that involve small or independent publishers and be able to be more lenient with them. The Panel?s greatest and most powerful function is outlined in suggestion six. In suggestion six the Panel reserves the right to, “make a final determination whether?divestment is required in situations of cross media ownership of daily newspapers with other media.” This implies that if the Newspaper Act was passed by the government, the Panel could then tell media chains to sell off some of their newspaper assets. However, the Newspaper Act proposed by the Royal Commission was never passed in Parliament. The growth of the newspaper chains continued throughout the 1980?s and into the 1990?s. This trend of conglomerate ownership and the publicity generated by the Commission opened the eyes of many Canadians, and started a new campaign to fight against the concentration of ownership in the newspaper business.
One of the organisations that has taken up the fight against ownership concentration is The Council of Canadians. The Council of Canadians describe themselves as being, “on the frontlines challenging government policy and corporate power.” The Council is led by the outspoken Maude Barlow. Although the Council criticises numerous aspects, it has paid particular attention to the concentration of ownership in newspapers, especially on Conrad Black and Hollinger. The 1996 Hollinger take-over of Southam Newspapers spurred Barlow to write a number of articles against Black and his company. Barlow writes, “When one company (Hollinger) controls more than half the newspapers in all of Canada, the diversity of news and information will be increasingly narrowed.” Barlow even criticises the Federal government for allowing the take-over to take place. When the Council applied to the Federal Court of Canada to review and overturn the decision of the Competition Bureau granting approval of the Hollinger take-over of Southam, Barlow commented, “We (Council of Canadians) believe the Federal government has failed to protect the basic democratic rights of Canadian citizens to speak and be heard by allowing this merger to go ahead.”
Barlow?s main concern is editorial content. She and the Council feel Black will influence the editorial and journalistic content within the newspapers he controls. She states that, “since his (Black) take-over, right wing pundits? have become regular fixtures on the pages of newspapers.” Barlow has even gone as far as making personal attacks on Conrad Black to de-legitimise his newspapers. She writes, “Given the influence of newspaper?s on our daily lives, any single owner with this much power is troubling. The fact that Conrad Black is the owner is downright scary.” Although Maude Barlow and the Council of Canadians do have the right to free speech in this country, are their attacks on newspaper ownership, Hollinger Incorporated and on Conrad Black justified?
In my opinion, the attacks on newspaper ownership, and on Conrad Black are unjustified. The concerns expressed over extreme right wing views and declining editorial content made by Barlow and the Council are unfounded. For example, Jim McKenzie, from the School of Journalism and Communications of the University of Regina, conducted a study on the content of the Leader Post, a Regina newspaper. The study compared the difference between the newspaper under the former Armadale ownership and the present Hollinger ownership. The McKenzie study was, “part of a study I?ve (McKenzie) undertaken for the Council of Canadians.” There were many concerns that the Hollinger company would install their own editor in the Leader Post and, “turn the newspaper into a right-wing mouthpiece.” In fact, Black did appoint a new editor in Bob Calvert. According to McKenzie, “Bob Clavert, the paper?s Hollinger appointed publisher and top local executive, has shown no inclination to put his stamp on the ?L-P?s? editorial position pieces on the Viewpoints page.” McKenzie continues by adding that it does not seem that Calvert is, “putting his views or Black?s views in editorials,” and that it ,”doesn?t seem to be a priority.” Jim McKenzie also added that, “the editorial stance of the Leader Post has not changed since Hollinger took over.” He comments that, “There?s been no diatribe to eliminate the capital gains tax, no ranting about the out of control welfare state, no drive to sell out our country to the Yankees.”
McKenzie continues his report by stating that even the content of the Leader Post has not changed. He writes, “The Leader Post remains staid and small c conservative in it?s opinions, very much as it was under the Armadale ownership. The paper hasn?t moved to an aggressive pro-right or anti-left stance. It hasn?t adopted Black?s forthright and spirited tone.” McKenzie states that, “in fact the paper seemed to generally support what Roy Romanov and his NDP government are doing in Saskatchewan.” Also, McKenzie comments that ,”by and large, the paper seemed to support the Federal Liberal government.” Therefore, based on the study conducted by Jim McKenzie on the Leader Post, there is no evidence that the change in ownership to Conrad Black?s Hollinger company has changed the newspaper?s editorial or journalistic content.
As for the attacks on Conrad Black?s personal character and his effect on newspaper content under his control, they are also unfounded. In Black?s response to a , “smear job” ,conducted by the CBC?s National program, he voices his opinions on the attacks made against him. Black comments that the belief that Hollinger would turn Southam newspapers into, “propagators of extreme right wing and annexationist views,” are an, “absurdity.” Black continues by addressing the concerns expressed by the program that, “we (Hollinger) are so extremely conservative in our views, so overbearing in our methods, and so commercially avaricious, that we will cause our newspapers to come precipitately down market as they assault the readers with extreme opinions.” He replies to these concerns by stating that himself and his associates, “have never held such opinions.”
In conclusion, one could understand why some members of society would be concerned with the trend of concentration of ownership in newspapers within Canada. This reality seems very frightening to people. However, I believe that their concern comes more from a political standpoint rather than a social conscience standpoint. During the process of researching this essay it has come to my attention that most, if not all, voices showing ownership concern have come from the left side from the political spectrum. This is understandable, seeing how most, if not all, ownership chains come from the right side of the political spectrum. This raises a hypothetical question. What if the big ownership chains in Canada?s newspaper industry were coming from the left side of the political spectrum, and not the right? Would the primarily leftist organisations who complain about newspaper ownership still be concerned and criticise newspaper ownership in Canada? Would they still express their discomfort with the supposed shrinking editorial content and alleged, “right wing” agenda of newspapers owned by chains? Personally, I do not think so. I believe that the main reason why organisations like The Council Of Canadians and others are so apprehensive and so outspoken about newspaper ownership is because they feel threatened. They feel that alleged right wing ownership chains like Hollinger would express anti-left views. In response to that sentiment which is continually expressed by Maude Barlow, Hollinger?s President and Chief Operations Officer and Director responded, ” It would be dumb business to do what she (Barlow) suggested and we?re not dumb businessmen. You?ve got to be relevant in the community. Let?s assume we eliminated any liberal thought. We?d pay a terrible price. People would stop reading it.” However, this concern expressed by Barlow and the Council is not a bad thing. I believe that it is their right and duty as responsible Canadians to express their concerns about society and the country we live in. But, I feel that organisations like the Council should take a closer look at such companies like Hollinger Incorporated, and not concentrate on the superficial details of the company. They should refrain from exclusively publishing articles based on their belief that big newspaper chains are ruining and polarising newspapers toward the right side of the political spectrum. They should also publish articles on how newspaper chains have kept the newspaper industry alive in Canada. Chains like Hollinger provide vast resources and capital to improve newspaper quality. Author Arthur Siegel discusses this view in his book Politics and the Media in Canada. He writes,
Chains have numerous advantages over independent publishers. They have vast resources for modernizing and automating; they are in a better position to absorb temporary losses from strikes or other economic problems; and they can afford to hire financial and administrative skills that are often in short supply in small publishing enterprises.
In addition, the Royal Commission on Newspapers added that, ” Several editors and publishers of smaller dailies told the Commission?s researchers that chain ownership had increased the editorial independence of their newspaper by making it easier for them to resist pressures from local power structures.” Therefore, the vast amount of resources available to newspaper chains have kept the industry alive in Canada. Independent newspapers which were losing money within their communities have been bought out by companies like Hollinger and have been able to continue to provide the community with service, instead of shutting down and providing the community with no newspaper whatsoever. Therefore, I believe that concentration of newspaper ownership is not as negative as some make it out to be. Ultimately, I believe that newspaper chains like Hollinger and others are not a negative force within Canada. Their resource base and business know how allow them to service communities and cities within Canada with newspapers that would not be able to survive under independent
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