corporate and think-tank researcher

Donald Gutstein

20 Oct '05

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The evening after the British Columbia government introduced legislation imposing a contract on the province’s teachers, Michael Smyth interviewed British Columbia Teachers’ Federation president Jinny Sims and Labour Minister Mike de Jong on his CKNW Nightline BC radio show. Smyth was argumentative and surly with Sims. He accused her of not being straight with the public. When he interviewed de Jong, Smyth was respectful and attentive. He sought de Jong’s opinion; he disputed Sims’s opinion. Smyth ended the segment with a promo for his next-day column in the Province.

The column continued his attack on teachers. Smyth accused Sims of displaying “predictable moral outrage”, as if it had been fabricated for the cameras and tape recorders. He lambasted the union for its “militancy” and the NDP for its predictably “snuggly relations” with the teachers.

As for the government, Smyth informed us, Premier Gordon Campbell had to bring down the hammer because “the hammer…is the only thing the BCTF understands.” The kindly but firm father applied the punishment he knew would hurt but would be good for his unruly children.

Several days later, his column and radio show spread some of the blame for the impasse to the government. Both sides were at fault, Smyth said and wrote. Government was responsible for provoking and baiting the teachers, among other factors.

It’s as if he’s creating his own echo chamber. He shouts “teachers are militant” or “government provoked the teachers” in one direction. He shouts it again in another. It bounces back from somewhere else, as other media pundits join in. Soon the message surrounds us and we don’t know any more where it originated. The message seems to have always been out there, so it must be true.

Smyth is not alone in appearing on supposedly rival news outlets. Vancouver Sun political columnist Vaughn Palmer appears every morning on CKNW’s Morning News With Philip Till. Palmer also hosts the Voice of BC show weekly on Shaw Cable 4. Keith Baldrey, Global TV’s legislative bureau chief, is a weekly radio commentator on the “Cutting Edge of the Ledge” segment of the Bill Good Show on CKNW.

CKNW is one of 50 radio stations across Canada owned by Corus Entertainment, including four in Vancouver. Both Corus, which also owns 10 cable channels, and Shaw Cable-the second-largest cable system in the country-are controlled by the Shaw family of Calgary, whose net worth last year was $635 million.

Global TV, the Vancouver Sun, and the Province are owned by the Asper family of Winnipeg. The Aspers own major newspapers across Canada, the Global Television Network, eight cable channels, and the Web sites. This family was worth $1.09 billion in 2004.

When the Senate Communications Committee came to town earlier this year to study media concentration, it heard loudly and clearly that CanWest holds too much of the Vancouver English-language media market. The inevitable consequence, many presenters told the committee, is a reduced diversity of news and opinion available to citizens.

Now CanWest is sharing its people with Shaw and Corus. Reduce, reuse, and recycle are excellent concepts when applied to the environment; they are dangerous when practised by news media.

CTV, CHUM, and the Globe and Mail are small players in the Vancouver market. CBC radio and television are the only news organizations equal in size and scope to the giants. But after its recent labour troubles, the public broadcaster may be permanently weakened. That leaves industry leaders the Vancouver Sun, the Province, Global TV, and CKNW, and they’re increasingly speaking with one voice.

Some of the connections between CanWest and Shaw-Corus are long-standing. The premier’s brother, Michael Campbell, has had his Money Talks show on CKNW for years, and his Vancouver Sun business column is tired news. Vaughn Palmer has been doing his Voice of BC show for several years.

Others are more recent. Global TV anchor Jill Krop often hosts CKNW’s The World Today. Weatherman Phil Reimer does the weather for the Sun and CKNW.

In January 2005, CKNW began airing Adler on Line, hosted by right-wing broadcaster Charles Adler from Winnipeg. Adler does a TV segment each night on Global Winnipeg, known as “Adler on Global”, and he hosted CanWest’s Global Sunday program in Calgary for several years.

CanWest News columnist Jonathan Manthorpe is a regular guest with John McComb’s CKNW afternoon show discussing international affairs. Shell Busey writes a Sunday Homes column in the Province and hosts two weekend radio shows on CKNW.

If these exchanges were happening within one company, it would be called convergence. The late Izzy Asper once said his model in building his company was the Chicago Tribune. In the mid-’90s, the paper constructed a cable-television studio in the middle of its fourth-floor newsroom. Reporters who wrote stories in the day’s paper would be interviewed in the evening about the story and add elements not included in the print version-at no extra pay, of course. Convergence was supposed to increase revenues and reduce costs.

But the exchanges are happening between separate companies. And not only are they sharing their human resources, they’re writing and talking about each other.

On September 29, the Province ran a picture of CKNW reporter Leanne Yuzwa, who is noteworthy, perhaps, because she’s a boxer.

On September 7, Fanny Kiefer returned to work as the ubiquitous host of Shaw Cable’s Studio 4. The next day, the Province put her picture on the front page and ran a story and another picture inside. The Sun provided a long article.

A Province story about the epidemic of drug-overdose deaths in the Downtown Eastside near the end of August quoted just two sources: a police constable and CKNW. The Province E-Today section of August 12 carried a discussion about Philip Till’s suitability as CKNW’s morning-show host. Several days before that, Pete McMartin’s Sun column discussed an on-air interview he had done with Till.

And that’s just in a two-month period. Are CanWest and Shaw setting the stage for a merger that would create the largest media empire in Canada? Or are two of Canada’s wealthiest families merely obsessed with cost-cutting by laying off staff and sharing whomever is left with the other guys, a kind of contracting-out to the competition?

CanWest’s near-monopoly means that its commentators and columnists are the experts, not because they are most knowledgeable and well- informed but because they have the soapbox and no one else can compete. If another organization wants to be taken seriously, it grabs CanWest’s experts.

These practices may be good for shareholders but they do little for readers and viewers. With so few major news organizations in the city, the pool of experts is shallow. They know each other, they interview each other, and they rarely disagree. The range of opinions is narrowed even further.

Sharing employees creates other concerns for the audience. Can CanWest ever report objectively on Corus or Shaw, or Corus on CanWest, if their most high-profile people are scurrying between the organizations? Can one reporter work simultaneously for two competing media organizations? Can one reporter use the facilities of one newsroom to write for another? Where is the reporter’s loyalty when she obtains a scoop? What ethical issues might arise?

Certainly, the love-in between the two companies today is a far cry from the situation seven years ago when they were bitter rivals vying for the media empire of the late Frank Griffiths. When he died in 1994, Griffiths had assembled in Western International Communications the jewels of B.C. broadcasting: BCTV and CKNW, plus eight other television stations, 11 radio stations, interests in four cable channels, and a 54-percent interest in Canadian Satellite Communications, a satellite TV provider.

In 1997, Izzy Asper and son Leonard sat down opposite J.?R. Shaw and son Jim in a Toronto hotel to divvy up the WIC assets, but no deal was reached. Two years later, after bids, counterbids, and lengthy court challenges, a deal was finally reached-the one that had been before them all along. CanWest got the television stations; Shaw got CanCom and Corus, the radio stations, and the cable channels.

Leonard Asper became CEO of CanWest in 1999, and within a year he transformed the company from a money-spinning second-rate television network into a converged conglomerate with billions of dollars in debt after paying $3.2 billion for Conrad Black’s major city daily newspapers and a half interest in the National Post (later increased to full ownership).

Jim Shaw took over in 1998 and turned his father’s cable firm, the second-largest in Canada, into a diversified media empire of radio stations, cable channels, and Internet holdings, plus the leading Canadian animation house, Nelvana. Unfortunately, his empire was created just before 9/11, when advertising revenues tanked. Corus took several years to climb out of its hole back to profitability.

Corus compensated for lost advertising revenues by laying off as many staff as possible while still being able to run the operation. Less than a week after Corus received CRTC approval to take over the Women’s Television Network, it axed 60 jobs. This followed an earlier company move to eliminate 100 jobs across the country, except for in the radio division. The radio cuts came next: 20 of the 155 full-time employees at the four Vancouver stations and 11 more in Edmonton. With its depleted resources, Corus needs CanWest.

The end game is not yet clear. Both companies seek an end to foreign-ownership restrictions. This would allow them to cash out. But opening Canada’s media to control by people like Rupert Murdoch, who owns sham news service Fox News, is a nonstarter unless Stephen Harper and the Conservatives gain power. The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission wouldn’t necessarily turn them down, because it has become so supportive of what the industry wants.

Leonard Asper and Jim Shaw are probably having too much fun moving the dominoes around the board to want to sell. So they might do a deal.

Telus says the future is friendly, but in media the future is all about controlling content and distribution. CanWest has huge content resources but no electronic distribution systems such as cable or satellite TV to deliver them. Shaw-Corus has the cable and satellites but is light on content. Together they make a world-class powerhouse, at least domestically.

Such a combination would make the Aspers and Shaws even richer. But it would be a black day for Canadians, weakening our rights to receive the information we need to be informed citizens. The echo chamber would be made permanent and we would forever lose our bearings.

Meanwhile, Jim Pattison’s AM600 pulled the plug on Rafe Mair’s talk show last week. Mair ended up on that station after his popular CKNW show was cancelled by Corus several years ago, in part because he was critical on-air of Corus’s cost-cutting measures. Who will tell those stories now?

First published in The Georgia Straight

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