Blame it on neoliberalism: the fix

In the final installment of this two-part series, Nick Fillmore argues that journalists and community groups must develop larger independent and alternative Canadian media outlets if we want to preserve freedom of expression.

In the final installment of this two-part series, Nick Fillmore argues that journalists and community groups must develop larger independent and alternative Canadian media outlets if we want to preserve freedom of expression.

*Editor’s Note: This is the second of a two-part series. In the first part, which can be accessed on J-Source here, author Nick Fillmore explained why he believes freedom of expression in Canada is threatened because of the way corporate-owned media censor and manipulate the news.

Canada desperately needs to develop both more capable and larger independent and alternative media outlets that will allow journalists to write freely about important topics that tend to be taboo in the mainstream media.

In our popular media, it is shocking that in the 21st Century we still have a system under which corporate overlords – not the journalists and columnists who produce the news and commentary – control the content link to article 1 in key areas such as ideology, economics, politics, etc., to suit the interests of the corporate community.

We need to build awareness among Canadians concerning the dangers of corporate media manipulation, as well as take steps to build and develop independent media outlets that will bring the public news and opinions that  are more balanced and less ideological.

This is not to say that a number of excellent independent and alternative media outlets have not emerged on the Internet in recent years. A wide range of news and opinion appears on many Internet-based sites.

The Tyee, which targets primarily a British Columbia audience, provides an outstanding service with balanced, in-depth reporting and probing columns that are unavailable in mainstream media outlets.

Sites such as such as Straight Goods and provide forums for progressive-minded journalists and bloggers who are denied access to the mainstream media.  

Two sites other sites – the Progressive Economics Forum  and The Mark – carry thoughtful and detailed analysis and commentary on a wide range of issues.

Unfortunately, while independent sites have news and opinion pieces that are informative and challenging, the whole lot together do not come close to matching the audience reached by either The Globe and Mail or CTV News on any given day. Moreover, most of the independent sites lack the resources to do in-depth and investigative journalism.

I doubt very much that we will see greater balance in the news and commentary in the mainstream media in the foreseeable future. However, senior journalists, columnists and editors who are well aware of the problems need to grow some hind legs and begin to make improvements on their own. Where is their sense of pride?

While professionals in areas such as law and medicine have control over their work, mainstream journalists appear to lack the determination, or interest, to fight for the right to control the content of vitally important news that serves as the backbone of our democratic process.

Here’s a long-shot possibility: Perhaps one of the large media organizations, such as the National Post, could be challenged under the Charter of Rights. A particular group of people would have to be able to document that the Post’s coverage in a particular area – say the disabled – is discriminatory and that they, as a group, suffered as a consequence. It is hard to say how far the case would proceed – but even taking up such a case would create greater public awareness of the problem.

Mainstream journalists also need to increase their awareness level concerning their position in society. They need to listen to, and support, the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations because the one per cent that controls our lives is the same one per cent that owns and controls for-profit news organizations. This does not mean that journalists should become advocates in their work for the positions being expressed, but journalists, just like any other group in their private lives, have an obligation to be responsible citizens and support whatever they believe to be good for society.

Advocating for alternatives

The main push for a stronger independent media must come from Canadians who want to see greater balance in journalism in the country.

As a first step, the public needs to be convinced of the great danger of one-sided reporting and censorship. We like to think that Canadian media would never be subjected to strong controls but, if certain political conditions exist, government interference in media can exist anywhere in the world. The current self-censorship and media manipulation we have in the mainstream press in Canada and the United States could turn into something much worse under authoritarian government if we are not vigilant.

The country’s two primary national media associations could play an important role in giving credibility to the fact that our media is being badly manipulated.

Freedom of expression and media diversity are major interests of Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE), while the rights of journalists and ethical issues are high on the agenda
of the Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ). Together or separately, with financial support from the country’s journalists’ unions, they could launch a research project into how damaging corporate control of media is to the public and freedom of expression.

So the public voice can begin to match the power of the corporate voice, what the Canadian public needs most is non-profit, public-owned media. Non-profit media owned and controlled by large and small public-interest organizations would by their very nature provide news and information of interest to a wider spectrum of people.

Last winter I wrote seven articles that, in part, explained what I think could be done to establish more non-profit, independent media outlets in the country. The articles can be read on my blog A Different Point of View.

More small, but likely poorly-funded news sites will no doubt be set up in Canada. But, because such sites have limited ability to reach large number of people, we have to campaign for a new model that would provide an independent media outlet with adequate funding.

Such a project would require some arms-length government funding.  I think that such a vehicle could maintain its independence if it were funded on a one-third model: one-third of the funding would come from public gifts and memberships; one third from advertising; and one-third from arms-length government grants.

I am convinced that this non-profit model has to be the media model at some point in the future – when the public realizes the damage caused by corporate media ownership.

Before this can happen, the public needs to be convinced that it is perfectly acceptable for our government to give money to independent media that will strive to serve the public interest. European governments have been providing massive support to media organizations for many years and, from my observations over the years, the result has been a stronger, more diversified media than we have in Canada.

In Canada, the federal government has a history of subsidizing the distribution of rural newspapers, as well as the publication of cultural literature in small magazines. Of course, Hell will no doubt freeze over before the Harper government would consider putting substantial amounts of money into independent media – why should it when corporate media heavyweights such as The Globe and Mail, the National Post, and the Sun Media chain, as well as others support the Conservatives?
The federal government, of course, funds the CBC to a tune of about $1-billion a year. But the federal Conservatives appear to be trying to build a rationale to ditch at least the TV division of the Mother Corp.

We don’t need to wait for a change of government at the federal level to begin lobbying for support to help set up independent media. Even now, the federal NDP – possibly a government in waiting – can be approached to see if it will add support for funding of independent media to its list of policies.

At the provincial level, some governments already have programs that support media and communications. Perhaps they could gradually be convinced to widen their support to public interest media. In addition, there is no reason why municipalities across the country can’t develop programs that could help independent media.

In the end, when it comes to protecting democracy nothing is more important than making sure the public has access to a diverse body of different opinions. That is the goal we all need to work towards.

Nick Fillmore, an editor and producer with the CBC for more than 20 years, is now a freelance journalist and social activist living in Toronto. He is a founder of both the Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ) and Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE). You can email him , and visit his blog.