Politics and the Media

Much of what Canadians know about their political leaders, party politics or public policy comes from the media - especially television, radio and newspapers - the primary information link between the Canadian population and the political sphere. The media try to explain the government's goals and policies, helping to mobilize and reinforce public support necessary for effective political action, but they also focus attention on controversial policies, expose corruption and hold politicians accountable to public opinion. In reporting on politics, the media help select the issues that are to receive public attention and help shape the public agenda.

The free flow of a meaningful account of political events and issues is necessary for the public's understanding of politics, the formation of PUBLIC OPINION and the public's participation in the political process. The freedom of the media from political interference; the vitality of the media and the way they conduct their political functions; the way freedom of the media is reconciled with the pressures of the commercial system that finance media institutions; and the openness of the government in providing information all influence the health and vigour of Canadian democracy.

During the 19th century, there were bitter struggles between newspaper editors and political authorities. In 1835 the Joseph HOWE libel trial in Halifax established important precedents about the right of the press to criticize the authorities (see LAW AND THE PRESS; NEWSPAPERS). In the 20th century the importance of free media (print and electronic) and essential instruments of democratic government received strong support from the Supreme Court of Canada long before there were constitutional guarantees for freedom of the press. In the 1938 ALBERTA PRESS ACT REFERENCE the Supreme Court ruled that attempts by the Social Credit government in Alberta to curb press criticism were unconstitutional; in Québec, the PADLOCK ACT was used as an instrument of CENSORSHIP for 20 years until it was ruled unconstitutional in 1957. Censorship was also practised in WWI and WWII and during the OCTOBER CRISIS in 1970.

The role of the media in Canada's democratic armour was strengthened considerably in 1982 in the CANADIAN CHARTER OF RIGHTS AND FREEDOMS, which provided constitutional guarantees for freedom of expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication. This gave formal recognition to a tradition of press freedom that evolved for 150 years, despite occasional setbacks. The constitutional guarantees are not expressed or applied in absolute terms; those are situations when the principle of free press is expected to give way to what the courts perceive as more important, or equally important, interests of society such as the interests of fair trial and freedom of parliament. The courts have played an increasingly visible role as guardians of the free press guarantee and the very meaning of freedom of the press in the Canadian context is in the process of being clarified.

There are restraints on the flow of information about government in every society. Canada's parliamentary process tends to be secretive compared to the congressional system in the US. The public's "right to know" is often sacrificed to the penchant of the government to conduct business away from the glare of publicity. In 1982 Parliament partly corrected this situation with the enactment of the Access to Information Act (see FREEDOM OF INFORMATION) aimed at opening the federal level of government to greater scrutiny by the media and public. A review of the first decade and a half since the legislation took effect indicates that the Access to Information Act has not lived up to expectations; the effectiveness of the access law has been weakened by exemption provisions which in practice have created significant loopholes. At the same time, the existence of freedom of information legislation means that secrecy is under attack and is being eroded.

Economics and Free Press

While Canada's media are part of the machinery of POLITICS, they are generally operated for profit. (The major exception is the CANADIAN BROADCASTING CORPORATION.) Daily newspapers and privately owned broadcast operations have been among the most profitable business enterprises in Canada. The pursuit of profits, however, has led to the growth of newspaper chains and the virtual disappearance of newspaper competition.

Of Canada's 90 newspaper cities, in 1997 only 8 have more than one daily. Of the 105 dailies, 59 are owned by one company, Hollinger Inc, which sells nearly half of the newspapers produced each day; 3 corporations account for 66% of national circulation and 6 corporations for over 90%. Concentration of ownership is equally pervasive in the anglophone and francophone press; one Québec chain, Quebecor, controls nearly half of the French-language circulation. In broadcasting, concentration of ownership is increasing and is equally intense, if not more so, as in the newspaper industry. Some companies own daily newspapers and broadcast stations in the same cities.

The Royal Commission on Newspapers (Kent Commission) reported in 1981 that the extensive concentration of newspaper ownership that exists in Canada was "entirely unacceptable" for a democratic society: "too much power is put in too few hands and it is power without accountability." The commission called for federal government intervention to curb the power of chains and make the operation of newspapers more democratic and responsible. Critics charged that the proposals would increase the potential for political interference in news operations (see MEDIA OWNERSHIP) and the recommendations were not acted upon.

Changing Role of Media in Politics

Canada's press became deeply involved in politics around 1820 when the economies of the British North American colonies could support a competitive newspaper system through advertising, subscriptions and print jobs. By focusing attention on politics, newspapers helped to politicize the population and mobilized public support for democratic institutions, especially RESPONSIBLE GOVERNMENT. In the latter part of the 19th century, press and politics were so entwined that Canada's leading journalists were often politicians.

At the CHARLOTTETOWN CONFERENCE of 1864, which led to Confederation, 23 of the 98 delegates were journalists (see JOURNALISM). Furthermore, newspapers helped spur the growth of political parties, while political patronage helped finance newspapers. In the early 1900s technological changes in newspaper production and the changing interest of advertisers led to a new relationship between press and politics. Newspaper competition declined and there was less party attachment. The introduction of radio in the 1920s and television in the 1950s revolutionized the mass communications industries. Although they compete for audiences and advertising dollars, the print and broadcast media do not operate autonomously; rather, they are interdependent and complementary. In the 1990s, new political and economic realities were being created by the combined effects of technology, market forces and government policies.

One of these new realities is the definition of broadcasting, which has been broadened under the 1991 Broadcasting Act to include "any transmission of programs," regardless of the technology employed. This is creating a more competitive environment: telephone companies plan to deliver television programs into the home in competition with cable companies and direct-to-home satellite services. Furthermore, new attitudes of the Canadian public have changed the environment in which the media operate. Since the mid-1990s, Canadians have spoken up as never before about their relationship with the mass media: there was the great cable revolt in 1995 against the billing practices of the cable industry; newspaper owners were shocked when Canadians purchased fewer newspapers in response to higher prices. Also, Canadians seem to have set limits to the amount of time they are willing to spend in front of their television sets; no inducements such as more choices in programs, VCRs or satellite delivery have brought about increases in viewing time.

By 1997 almost 70% of Canada's 11 million households had 2 or more television sets; more than 80% of households are attached to cable; VCRs and remote controls are nearing saturation levels; there are more radios than there are people. Canadians, who spend about 24 hours a week watching television, regard television as the most important and reliable news medium.

Television has become the great battleground for public opinion in the struggle for political power. The transmission of political electoral information tends to be dictated by the medium, ie, television may have helped expose more Canadians to politics than ever before, but it has done so at the cost of oversimplifying complex issues.

Election campaigns are increasingly run for the news media and there is much less concern with convincing live audiences on the hustings. Political leaders crisscross the country to provide television-filming opportunities in the right places, and great emphasis is placed on the "images" portrayed by the party leaders in formal television debates. Party campaign strategies are aimed at effective use of media. Public opinion surveys are used to help parties decide the acceptable image and to determine party platforms (seePOLITICAL CAMPAIGN).

Media and Nationhood

It is often said that Canada's mass media - especially electronic communication - help build Canada's national identity without erasing the multiple cultural and linguistic dimensions of society. It is for this reason that Canadian governments have played a dynamic role in shaping the broadcast media. Canada has been a world leader in the application and development of new COMMUNICATIONS TECHNOLOGY.

It is possible, however, that technology has not helped to bridge major communication gaps in Canada's heterogeneous society. For example, the French and English media, each carrying its own baggage of history and experience, provide very different accounts of Canadian political developments, reflecting different political cultures, especially in the views on Canadian federalism and constitutional issues. The French-language media have been a support structure of Québec nationalism and have taken on the role of watchdog over the political and cultural interests of Québec vis-à-vis the rest of Canada. The English media, for their part, are closely tied to the American media and broadcast enormous amounts of American TELEVISION PROGRAMMING. To protect itself from inundation by the American cultural industries, Canada has used a whole series of measures including ownership requirements, Canadian-content regulations in radio and television fare, postal subsidies and taxation measures to create a more level playing field.

Canada sought and obtained some protection for its cultural industries in the Canada-US FREE TRADE Agreement and later in the expanded North American Free Trade Agreement. But new technology made it possible to circumvent some of these protective features, especially in the case of magazines. What Canada views as culture, the US views as trade, and the World Trade Organization supported the US position in 1996 when a dispute developed over the practice of Sports Illustrated publishing a Canadian edition carrying American editorial content and Canadian advertising.

There is evidence that Canada has not used technological advances effectively to bolster national interests associated with communications flow; in fact, new technology has usually brought about an increased dependence on the US. In some ways Canada's media have been principal agents of denationalization and have not necessarily contributed in major ways to national identity.