INDEPENDENT MEDIA by Steve Anderson
It was just over two years ago that, along with a network of organizations and individuals, I launched what would be the first of many public campaigns to keep Canada’s media open and democratic.
The “Stop the Big Media Takeover” campaign was focused on the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission’s (CRTC) media ownership hearing “Diversity of Voices.” The danger was that, despite a slew of big media mergers, the CRTC was poised to weaken cross-ownership and basic media market concentration rules. In the end, the CRTC actually strengthened the rules and agreed to look into funding for community TV.
This appeared to be a victory for people across Canada, however, in reality, the rules did not go far enough to safeguard diversity of voices in local broadcast markets. Nor did it require any divestment on the part of Canadian media companies.
That the CRTC’s new rules seemed to be deliberately crafted to avoid challenging the current level of media ownership concentration in Canada was of little surprise. During the CRTC’s deliberation over ownership rules, it approved the Canwest Global/Goldman Sachs $2.3-billion takeover of Alliance Atlantis. Clearly, these decisions, coupled with the CRTC’s general propensity to favour big industry players over the public interest, are at the heart of the current crisis in traditional media. Recent news of Canwest’s insolvency is further evidence of the effects of bad public policy combined with the greed of big media.
On October 6, Canwest filed for Companies’ Creditors Arrangement Act (CCAA) protection for some of its operations. Canwest’s broadcasting assets, including Global Television, along with the National Post, have been awarded court protection from their creditors under the CCAA. The company has missed interest payments to bond holders and is said to have a debt load of nearly $4 billion.
Certainly, big media’s profit-first model was bound to lead to a crisis in journalism and media production. But the CRTC could have kept many media workers and consumers safe from big media’s race to the bottom had it actually taken serious action to maintain a “diversity of voices.”
The Canwest takeover of Alliance Atlantis in 2007 was based on debt and equity financing from Goldman Sachs. Canwest must earn enough profit on its existing media businesses and the AAC specialty channels by 2011 in order to take a controlling equity interest in the merged company. If not, foreign investor Goldman Sachs will own the lion’s share of the company. The danger now is that Canwest’s debt crisis could be used for a government bailout of some sort, or worse, that policy makers could lift foreign ownership rules in order to keep Canwest afloat.
Lifting foreign ownership rules will surely make a bad situation worse. Instead of having to deal with an unaccountable Canadian big media conglomerate, we’ll have an international big media conglomerate with even less democratic responsibility.
The good news is that journalism and media production in general are not unsustainable; it’s the big media model that is unsustainable. In looking at Canwest’s job losses, the blame can be placed squarely on corporate mismanagement. The question is who is going to fill the vacuum where big media once was?
The crisis in the traditional media industry, combined with the proliferation of the most open medium in history, the Internet, has produced an historic opportunity to make media and journalism serve our communities once again. We should seize this opportunity before the same big media that got us into this crisis have the opportunity to re-establish their concentration of journalism and media resources.
Now, more than ever, we need to support independent, community and public media so they can step into the void left by big media. We need creative and independent experiments with both journalism practice and finance.
On November 7, Vancouverites will discuss how to make a new media system at the Media Democracy Day event. Visit www.mediademocracyday.org/vancouver
Steve Anderson is the national coordinator for the Campaign for Democratic Media. He contributed to Censored 2008 and Battleground: The Media, and has written for The Tyee, Toronto Star, Epoch Times and Adbusters. Reach him at: