Monday, January 25, 2016

The Tyee Asks, "Will Trudeau Stop the Madness?"

The madness is the collapse of Canada's syphilitic, corporate newspaper cabal. It's a nasty, diseased thing wobbling along in its death throes.

Writing in The Tyee, Marc Edge says if we're looking for a villain, we need look no further than Canada's Competition Bureau.

...don't blame Postmedia Network. It's just doing what comes naturally to a bottom-line corporation that is mostly owned by U.S. hedge funds that are bleeding it (and Canadian journalism) dry with high-interest loans, which they also largely hold. Postmedia is just trying to do what it thinks it can get away with to fatten the bottom line and feed its rapacious owners.

If you want to point fingers, look no farther than the federal Competition Bureau, the regulatory body that keeps letting them get away with it. The bureau, according to its website, is ''an independent law enforcement agency'' that is supposed to ensure that ''Canadian businesses and consumers prosper in a competitive and innovative marketplace.''

It is knee-deep in complicity when it comes to the sorry state of Canada's news media, in particular for ''foolishly'' rubber-stamping Postmedia's $316-million purchase of 175 Sun Media newspapers last year without even the need for hearings. This was effectively the takeover of the country's second-largest newspaper chain by its largest (seller Quebecor retained three French-language tabloids), yet it was adjudicated in secret by the Competition Bureau. Not only that, but after it announced that its economic analysis absurdly concluded that the two newspapers Postmedia now owns in Calgary, Edmonton, and Ottawa didn't compete anyway, the bureau refused my request for a copy of this taxpayer-funded research.

...When the Vancouver Sun and theDaily Province formed a partnership in 1957, the Competition Bureau's predecessor, the Restrictive Trade Practices Commission, held hearings in both Ottawa and Vancouver.

As I document in my 2001 book Pacific Press: The Unauthorized Story of Vancouver's Newspaper Monopoly, the RTPC declared the merger an illegal combination between competitors. The Sun and Province argued that if they weren't allowed to go into business together, under the peculiar economics of the industry there would eventually be only one newspaper left in Vancouver. That ignored the fact there were then three, but Pacific Press bought the morning Herald from Thomson Newspapers and quickly folded it. Oh, all right then, responded the RTPC, go ahead and merge, but make sure you keep separate newsrooms forever and ever.

...A Special Senate Committee on Mass Media held hearings and published three thick volumes a decade later. ''There are only five cities in the country where genuine competition between newspapers exists,'' it noted in fruitlessly recommending a Press Ownership Review Board to slow consolidation.

A decade after that, when dailies folded in Ottawa and Winnipeg on the same day, the first Prime Minister Trudeau quickly convened a Royal Commission on Newspapers to investigate. It held hearings across the country and published a report that was accompanied by no fewer than eight book-length research studies. ''Newspaper competition, of the kind that used to be, is virtually dead in Canada,'' its report noted. ''This ought not to have been allowed to happen.'' It recommended limiting newspaper ownership to five dailies per chain, but a proposed Canada Newspaper Act was never tabled in Parliament as the government changed from Liberal to Progressive Conservative.

A 2006 Senate report on Canadian news media was sharply critical of the Competition Bureau, which succeeded the RTPC in the mid-1980s, for failing to prevent our stratospheric level of press ownership concentration. It accused the Competition Bureau of nothing short of ''neglect'' for failing to halt press consolidation. ''One challenge is the complete absence of a review mechanism to consider the public interest in news media mergers,'' it noted. ''The result has been extremely high levels of news media concentration in particular cities or regions.''

It recommended a new section for the Competition Act to deal with news media mergers and prevent corporate dominance in any market. As the Competition Bureau was unlikely to have the expertise to deal with such mergers, it recommended an expert panel conduct the review. Election of an ardently deregulationist Harper government that year, however, doomed the recommendations.

Edge clearly favours forced divestiture - the janitorial approach to PostMedia - rather than the funereal approach that we have today.


Owen Gray said...

The death of local newspapers will suit the corporatists just fine, Mound.

The Mound of Sound said...

I'm not sure they would fight forced divestiture at this point, Owen. While they're still earning a decent return on revenue it falls far short of what's needed to deal with their enormous structural debt problem. Southam - Black - CanWest - PostMedia, it's been a painful and long decline.

I'm far from convinced that well run, well written newspapers are a thing of the past. Then again it's been a long time since we had any.