Anything But Digital: Politics, Elections and Four ‘Traditional Media’ Issues
It’s fine to talk about the Internet and all things digital. There’s no shortage of fundamental issues whose resolution in the near future will set things on a fairly fixed path for a long time to come. Nonetheless, it’s important to keep our eye on ‘traditional media’, too, and in the context of the current Canadian federal election, four such issues stand out in particular. They are in no special order of importance:
(1) the Broadcast Consortium consisting of CTV, Global and TVA and CBC/Radio-Canada — that sets the terms for the leadership debates. Their capacity to set the rules of debate arguably has a strong influence on national elections.
The exclusion of Elizabeth May on the basis of electoral seats held (none) makes some sense from a technical and procedural view of representative democracy; from a broader view of her significance as the embodiment of important stream in the political culture of Canada, the decision to exclude her is a no-brainer.
There is strong evidence of media concentration in Canada (see here). That less than a handful of the dominant players, and this applies just as much to the CBC as to the commercial media organizations, are able to set the terms of debate from their position at the centre of the media universe is problematic.
Off the top of my hat, I would suggest two things might help to turn things around: first, that the Broadcast Consortium be revamped as a “Network Media Consortium” (NWC) consisting of a wider array of players of a more diverse type. This might include, for example, significant online websites such as the Tyee, for example, prominent Canadian blogs, web journalists, a facebook page, etc. The structural diversity of the “NWC” is meant to better represent the structural diversity of the media environment, and the political culture of the country.
Next, we need new rules of engagement that fit our times. A couple of academics from, say, the Canadian Media Research Consortium, a political science, sociology or philosophy professor or two, and a couple of Internet-savvy people who know the politics of digital media well might all contribute to such a make-over. Among the latter, I’m thinking that someone such as Ron Diebert of the Citizen Lab at the UofT might fit the bill (as would many others).
Diebert and his colleague are experts on the worldwide political conditions of the Internet and their most recent book, Access Controlled: The Shaping of Power, Rights, and Rule in Cyberspace has been widely praised. The ultra conservative, cyber-libertarian Technology Liberation Front called it “one of the 10 best info-tech policy books of the year” and “. . . essential reading for anyone interested in studying the methods governments are using globally to stifle online expression and dissent”. That not the way I see it, but fine. The broad appeal of Diebert’s expertise would make him or others like him ideal candidates to help steer efforts to create a revamped Network Media Consortium.
(2) The second big issue that is near the surface in this election is the future of the CBC. In my last post, I indicated that the Conservative Party election platform is mum on the CBC and that could be construed as a good or bad thing.
This might be a good thing because at least it is not singled out to have its budget, or further yet, remit and even right to exist, slashed. Things could have been a lot worse. Just this week, as my good friend Peter Thompson at the University of Wellington tells me, the New Zealand Government announced that its closing down NZTV 7. The equivalent in Canada would be eliminating the CBC News Network — not the main channel, but one that supplements its offerings in light of changes in the media environment, but a move disparaged by the commercial players as encroaching on their turf.
Maybe this is just a smokescreen, though. Launching a scorched earth policy for the CBC would be too contentious during an election. Is holding back on just such a move part of Harpen’s ‘hidden agenda’?
Besides just staying-the-course or slashing and burning, however, there’s a third option: a strong commitment to a strong role for the CBC as a public service media provider that is central to the digital media ecology, morphing in line with changes in the overall environment in which it and our culture more generally are situated. Perhaps it could start by offering a more expansive digital archive of television programs along the lines already being pursued by the National Film Board (NFB) in Canada and by the BBC through its iPlayer service in the UK — both of which have had very considerable success.
(3) the third big issue stems from the volley of charges that the CBC is the hand-maiden of the Liberal Party. The claims have been trumpeted loudest by various arms of the Quebecor Media group (TVA, Sun TV, Sun Newspapers, Le Journal de Quebec, Le Journal de Montreal, etc.) — the mouthpiece of the Harper Government in Quebec.
Quebecor’s charges look like a more apt description of itself than the CBC. Its board of directors provides a comfortable perch for former Prime Minister Mulroney as well as the former Conservative appointed CRTC Commissioners (Francoise Bertrand). The sprawling, bloated, debt addled media conglomerate is ruled with an iron fist by the marxist-cum-media oligarch Karl Pierre Péladeau. The company is far closer to the reigning centre of political power than the CBC would (and should) ever be.
Its current attempt to revamp its money-losing Sun TV in Toronto into a viable national cable and satellite TV ‘brand’ is being spearheaded by none other than PM Harper’s recent spin doctor, Kory Teneycke. The outfit proudly styles itself as FNN (Fox News North).
This does not necessarily mean that the sky is falling, but it does mean that Quebecor’s charges are a better reflection of itself than the CBC. As for its claims to representing a kind of working class populism, before we buy into that line we might want to ask the workers at the Le Journal de Quebec and Le Journal de Montreal, respectively, who were locked-out (illegally) and ultimately cut loose over the past five or so years just so something that looks like a contract could be obtained.
(4) News Consumption and its not all doom and gloom (but some of it is). Two important studies came out this week, each pointing in somewhat opposite directions. One by the Media Research Consortium found that Canadians are over-whelmingly not agreeable to paying for news. As the authors state, “Canadians are more willing to pay for music, games, movies, e-books and even ringtones online than they are to pay for news . . . ” (p. 2). If news is vital to democracy, that doesn’t sound very hopeful.
The annual NADbank readership study also came out. However, it presented a rosier view when it comes to readership and the press. More people are reading more newspapers. You have to follow their logic carefully to reach their conclusion, but it is safe to say that, at least in terms of ‘attention to news’, there is no ‘crisis’ per se. This could be good for democracy.
Obviously, there is a ton to say on each of these things. For the time being, though, I thought it was time to put a few things on the map that are out there, but perhaps not quite drawn altogether as they might be.