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Canadian media bias: A sketch from the 1980s to today (Part Two)

By Mark Wegierski
web posted January 15, 2007

It can often be seen that the root-beliefs of much of the Canadian media, at their most basic level, perceive our society as one where a handful of saintly liberal progressives ("the true believers") must forever hold the forces of "blackest reaction" (i.e., "conservatives" and "right-wingers") at bay, lest society fall back into some horrible, hypothetical "Dark Ages". Ironically, the Canadian media frequently have a very "nineteenth-century" view of our contemporary society, as one where earnest liberal "reformers" in the mold of Toronto's George Brown or Egerton Ryerson are in constant struggle against awful, very powerful, conservative oligarchies.

The media also never seem to cease in evoking the spectres of "fascism" or "Nazism" or "racism" or "bigotry" (of various sorts), as a way of effectively delegitimizing "politically-incorrect" positions of any type. The supposed "extremism" and "bigotry" of the "official conservative" parties and "small-c conservatives" exist almost entirely in the overheated imaginations of the politically-correct members of the media. It should also be pointed out that it was greatly in the interests of many in the Canadian media in the 1980s and 1990s to play up a tiny number of obvious fanatics like Ernst Zundel, Jim Keegstra, and the so-called Heritage Front -- as so-called "right-wingers". It could be argued that those persons were indeed given extensive media coverage mainly for the purpose of trying to discredit the entire right-wing "option", making it look as unsavoury and unpalatable to the public as possible; and also, incidentally, to offer incontrovertible "proof" of the media's supposed fairness and objectivity (because such extensive coverage was being given to those people).

The media generally refuses to offer some kind of acknowledgment of the issue that it is the media itself which might well be one of the most dominant powers in our society, rather than some hypothetical, horrible "conservative-capitalist oligarchy".

The question of private ownership of large sectors of the media, as it constitutes the crux of the left-wing argument, should be looked at. It seems that many of the privately-owned networks and newspapers, although managed financially by corporations considered as bastions of conservatism by the left, scarcely differ in the line which they offer from the so-called public (i.e., taxpayer-funded) networks and media. Corporate owners, it must be stressed, generally-speaking play virtually NO role in the formulation of editorial policy. (This is indeed one of the cardinal "rules of the game".) Their main concern is in the making of money, and their infrequent "interventions" into the media -- over which the media makes such a huge fuss -- are usually over rather petty personal or material issues, and can scarcely have any great impact on the media's over-all tendencies and biases. It must also be pointed out that there is nothing inherently conservative about running a media outlet with an eye to the bottom line. After all, the TORSTAR group is one of Canada's most successful and most profitable corporations, which is not to say that the Toronto Star is any less "progressive" a paper. Some years ago, the Toronto Star modernized its presses and moved its production facilities to the suburbs, something which, when done by the newspaper barons in Britain was seen as a virtual apocalypse for the press unions.

Conrad Black is frequently mentioned as a salient example of an "interventionist" press-baron. For example, in a long article, "Citizen Black", in the Globe and Mail of July 25, 1997, p. D8, the following passage appears:

"...just what kind of press lord can we expect Mr. Black to be? A benign and enlightened helmsman content to hire good people and leave editorial matters to them, or a heavy-handed ideologue determined to cram his rightist philosophy down his staffs' and readers' throats, in the process adding yet another caricature - Citizen Black - to the gallery?"

The implicit definition in this passage of what constitutes "good people" is rather curious. In any event, for all his legendary quotations about "establishing a National Review-type magazine in Canada" (and other "notorious" statements that are regularly trotted out in pieces about him), what was remarkable -- at least until the mid-1990s -- is how little Conrad Black had done for the broader Right in Canada, not how much.

Over the years, Conrad Black had indeed managed to assemble a large media empire in Canada. His takeover of Southam, and the launching of the National Post was indeed a major change on the Canadian scene -- and it is not a coincidence that the fortunes of "small-c conservatives" everywhere in Canada have been somewhat buoyed in the last few years. However, in the end Conrad Black had sold off his carefully built up Canadian media empire to Izzy Asper (who had been well-identified with the Liberal Party), and then fell into a huge financial scandal whose mainspring appeared to be his own cupidity.

The Toronto Sun group of papers is also sometimes considered notoriously right-wing. This is presumably because it has a number of prominent right-wing columnists -- but there are probably still more liberal-leaning columnists there than conservatives! For example, the Sunday Sun book review section remained for many years under the control of the ultra-left Heather Mallick. In the 1987 provincial election the Toronto Sun endorsed the Liberals. The "sacking" of Peter Worthington from its editorship in 1984, presumably because of his overly forthright views, was probably symptomatic of a desire for a more centre to centre-left editorial policy. The Sun is also a tabloid-format paper, with neither the putative authority of the Globe and Mail or National Post, nor the high circulation of the Star. It is often suggested that most persons buying the Sun concentrate on the Sunshine Girl/Boy and the sports pages; the Sun's political content, therefore, is probably rather moot.

It should be pointed out that all the large corporations, as purely functional, economic entities, exist within, and derive certain tangible benefits -- advertising, consumerism, the cult of conspicuous consumption -- from the social, cultural, and political milieu engendered by the media. One might well ask how much have magnatial families such as the Eatons, Bassetts, or Bronfmans, contributed to advancing the cause of conservatism in Canada? According to classical left-wing arguments, the superrich should have a vested interest in supporting conservatism, and would be funding a cornucopia of right-wing foundations, institutes, "think-tanks", publications, radio and television programs, etc. This does not appear to be the case in Canada.

It is not enough to say, as the left often does, that corporate structures (or structures of any sort) are, in and of themselves, conservative. A left-liberal-dominated structure could also be very despotic and "authoritarian" in relation to those it sees as its ideological enemies (for example, conservatives, right-wingers) however it chooses to define them. Some degree of structure is doubtless inevitable in any society -- but the point is to look at the ideational content which suffuses the structures and institutions of a given society.

In more recent years, the issue of minority "non-representation" has been raised as a left-wing critique of a supposedly conservative media. One might well wonder which epoch these persons are living in. In the 1990s and especially today, flicking on the television will instantly show numerous actors, newscasters, and program hosts, from multifarious minorities. From the 1990s onward, a careful, objective analysis of the Canadian media would almost certainly show that women in "approved" role-models, and the appropriate minority groups, are significantly over-represented.

Secondly, as the CBC is interminably unable to realize, shows or documentaries with heroes like "radical lesbians of colour" are not going to usually appeal to the majority of the population. It might be pointed out that the comparatively respectful remake of Anne of Green Gables was one of the CBC's greatest hits ever.

To summarize, there is NO sinister conspiracy to exclude minorities from the media. Far from it.

Another ancillary point to be made is that persons with a conservative-looking image can be fervent liberals or left-wingers, in the same way that newspapers known (or formerly known) for their conservative format (such as The Globe and Mail) can also be quite politically liberal. Someone being a middle-aged white male who wears a suit and tie and has short hair may mean exactly nothing about his politics. What also often happens is that some publication may combine social liberalism and so-called fiscal or economic conservatism (or maybe just has a large section devoted to business issues), and thereby is frequently conventionally considered in Canada as "right-wing".

The left-wing arguments about corporate control and lack of minority representation are chimeras. The basic picture remains unchanged. Indeed, the situation emerging in our society today may be analogous to that of contemporary Sweden, which although often considered as a "model social democracy" might well be the first example of a socially-totalitarian, thoroughly "politically-correct" society, and maybe even a precursor of Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World", in all essential, not technical, aspects. (See Roland Huntford, The New Totalitarians, New York: Scarborough Books, 1980.) This chilling description of Sweden's thoroughgoing social totalitarianism makes the Soviets' crude techniques of violent coercion look clumsy and amateurish. After the Fall of the Soviet Union, it seemed that religion, family life, and a sense of cultural and social continuity were far stronger among all the nations and peoples of the former Eastern Bloc, than in a place such as Sweden.

To make the argument in its most pointed form, the media is essentially a massive societal entity which, utilizing mass communications technology, has arrogated to itself not only the powers of a final arbiter on almost every social question, but increasingly attempts to define the entire social environment in its own fashion. It might be argued that those few individuals at the decision-making levels in the Canadian media, who are known not to share its root-beliefs and value-orientations, are quickly consigned to unimportant or marginal roles, or discredited. Indeed, it could be argued that the media is a court from which there is no appeal. It is, perhaps, an example of a modern form of despotism, which is ostensibly exercised in the name of "progress", "liberalism", and "humanity". The success of the media is predicated on the phrase from Aldous Huxley's prophetic novel, Brave New World:

"ONE THOUSAND REPETITIONS MAKE ONE TRUTH".

As the media is largely at constant war with the "official conservative" parties and "small-c conservative"groupings, most persons in those parties and groupings, must know how far removed the various media images often are from the real social landscapes of our time, of how life is actually and practically lived today.

Nevertheless, today's social, political, and cultural environment is one where the media is virtually ubiquitous. The emergence of the Internet after 1995 may indeed offer a certain potential for challenging the various established media, but it should also be remembered that this new technology emerged only after three to four decades of truly massive saturation by those earlier, deeply entrenched media.

It must be said that all that is really being asked of the Canadian media is that they at least somewhat temper their bias, and actually make a better effort to fulfill their legal, statutory, professional, and, indeed, moral obligations to society:

"The programming provided by the Canadian broadcasting system should be varied and comprehensive, and should provide reasonable, balanced opportunity for the expression of differing views on matter of public concern." (Section 3(d) Canadian Broadcasting Act, 1968.)

The volume called Journalistic Policy formulates the following Corporate Objectives for the CBC:

  • the air belongs to the people, who are entitled to hear all of the principal points of views on all questions of importance;
  • the air must not fall under the control of any individuals or groups influential because of their special position;
  • the full interchange of opinion is one of the principle safeguards of free institutions.

Would it be too bold to call for some real diversity of thought, pluralism of ideas, and genuine democracy in the realm of the Canadian media! ESR

Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.

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