News and thoughts about CanWest

As it continues to lose operations money and to cut journalism jobs, media conglomerate CanWest Global reported a Q4 rise in its net profits, to $197 million from $155 million, said a Canadian Press report. The company — which in some Canadian markets such as on British Columbia’s south coast enjoys a near-monopoly on print and television media — “lost money on operations in its fiscal fourth quarter but ended up with a higher net profit thanks to asset sales,” reported CP.

CanWest announced 200 job cuts in early October at television stations across Canada, most of them in Atlantic Canada. The CP story noted it “has also been making selected staffing cuts to some of its newspaper properties, the former big-city Southam chain of dailies, which stretch from Vancouver to Montreal. There were no details on the job cuts revealed in the conference call and a CanWest spokesperson did not return a call to The Canadian Press Friday afternoon. On Wednesday the publisher of the Montreal Gazette, which is part of the CanWest chain, issued a memo to employees saying the paper wanted to cut newsroom staff.”

Meanwhile CanWest continues to swell in size: a CRTC review is pending on the $2.3 billion acquisition of rival broadcaster Alliance Atlantis
Communications Inc., by CanWest with U.S. partner Goldman Sachs.

IMO, financial reports of giant media companies require some context. So here, in part, is what  a 2006 report by Canada’s (unfortunately toothless) Senate  had to say about media concentration in Canada, under the section “IN DEFENCE OF THE PUBLIC INTEREST:”

Media companies in Canada have a privileged position under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. These companies are quick to make note of their special status when seeking, for example, greater access to information or the protection of sources.
In presentations before this Committee, proprietors and chief executive officers have tended to extend their claim of a special status (that is, independence from government interference in news operations) to a much larger and more contentious claim, that all of their operations should be free from any form of government regulation other than laws of general application (for example, libel, slander, tax and employment law). The Committee believes that this claim goes too far and does not represent an appropriate extension of their Charter protections.
This being said, the Committee accepts the principle that the government has no role in the newsrooms of the nation. Nothing that is proposed in this report should be construed as interfering in the news operations of media organizations. The Committee also agrees that proprietors should run their companies as they see fit, producing products ranging from world class, to mediocre or even terrible. They also are free to espouse whatever political position they choose in their opinion pages.
The media’s right to be free from government interference does not extend, however, to a conclusion that proprietors should be allowed to own an excessive proportion of media holdings in a particular market, let alone the national market. Yet the current regulatory regime in Canada does little to prevent such an outcome.

The Senate report went on to compare Canada’s media concentration to that found elsewhere in the developed world:

The Canadian situation with respect to media mergers or media concentration is atypical among large democracies. French law, for example, restricts the ownership and control of private sector broadcasters. The United Kingdom limits ownership of national newspapers and certain types of broadcast licences. Australia restricts foreign investment, concentration and cross ownership of broadcasting. The United States restricts the number of broadcast stations (radio or television) that a single person or entity can own in a given geographical area. The United States also restricts cross-ownership of multiple media outlets.[28] So does Germany. [29]

All this raises some questions: do few journalists speak out on the crucial issue of media concentration — and its implications for Canada’s democracy and quality Canadian journalism — because with so few potential employers any criticism is a career-killer?

Does Canada’s constitutional guarantees of freedom of expression ever extend to for-profit corporations, especially corporations whose owners have demonstrated that they will use their holdings to pursue their own viewpoints and shed themselves of employees who are divergent thinkers? (Regarding CanWest, see here, herehere, this rather angry here, or just Google “media concentration.”

(Disclosure: I’m a former member of the editorial board at the
Vancouver Sun, which is now owned by CanWest. I am happily employed
elsewhere, as an independent by choice.)