Making the links

INDEPENDENT MEDIA by Steve Anderson

Whether you are concerned with issues pertaining to health, the economy or the environment, the current democratic deficit in media limits opportunities for social change. If open public discussion is the oxygen of social change and progress; undemocratic media systems suffocate that oxygen. As Nicholas Johnson, a former US Federal Communications commissioner put it, “Whatever your first issue of concern, media had better be your second, because without change in the media, progress in your primary area is far less likely.”

illustration © Shanti Hadioetomo

Media ownership in Canada is more concentrated than almost anywhere else in the industrialized world. In June 2006, the Standing Senate Committee on Transport and Communications’ Report on the Canadian News Mediaconcluded there are “…areas where the concentration of ownership has reached levels that few other countries would consider acceptable.” Since that report, we’ve seen several major media mergers including Rogers Communcations’ purchase of CHUM, Quebecor’s purchase of the Osprey newspaper chain and Canwest Global and New York investment bank Goldman Sachs’ purchase of Alliance Atlantis.

Making matters worse, as the focus of governments and policy makers has shifted toward strengthening commercial media, public broadcasters have been defunded or privatized. The CBC, for example, now receives half of what it used to get from Parliament 20 years ago on a per capita basis, and Canada ranks 16th out of 18 industrialized countries in terms of public financing for public broadcasting. The community media sector – a vibrant site of domestic programming and public participation in some countries – remains relatively weak and independent media continues to struggle to find the support it needs to effectively compete with big media.

The current transition from analog to digital media provides important opportunities to increase the diversity of media. While a lack of financial support continues to haunt independent media projects, the relatively cheap media distribution system provided by the Internet makes independent media more viable and accessible. However, looking at the history of other mediums (TV, radio) that could have themselves been utilized as open mediums, we would be wise to not take the openness of the Internet for granted. There is already a battle brewing between big telecom companies and the Canadian public. If the companies win, a small cartel of corporate gatekeepers will control both the cost and access of web-based content (See www.SaveOurNet.ca).

Concentrated media systems reflect and reinforce a narrow frame of public debate and dialogue, diminishing our sense of new possibilities and alternatives for everything from political issues to our everyday lives. But history shows that when confronted with widespread civic engagement around media issues, politicians and policy makers bow to popular pressure. In recounting his successful (1930s) campaign to establish CBC Radio, early media democracy advocate Graham Spry said, “Our greatest ally was undoubtedly, anxious, disturbed and alert Canadian public opinion.”

In 2002, an Ipsos-Reid poll found that 86 percent of Canadians believed that the federal government should do something to alleviate public concerns about media concentration. I hope that this column will help alert and engage this unheard majority.

News: In a move that has disappointed many Canadian high-tech leaders and public interest groups, the CRTC announced on November 20 that it will not force Bell Canada to stop its controversial Internet throttling practices. The CRTC is abdicating its responsibility to Canadian people and putting us on a path towards a more closed Internet defined by the interests of big telecom companies. (Learn more at www.democraticmedia.ca)

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 TyeeToronto Star, Epoch Times and Adbusters. Reach him at: 
steve@democraticmedia.ca
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www.SteveOnTwitter.com

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