Canada's Most Dangerous Media Company
By Marc Edge
New Star Books, 326 pages, $21
If Izzy Asper and his world-bestriding media empire CanWest hadn't existed, Peter C. Newman, long-time poet laureate of Canada's corporate elite (and currently rumoured to be preparing an Asper book) would have had to invent them. The small-town prairie boy who battled his way to the top of Canada's business world and extended his influence both around the globe and into the inner chambers of national political leadership, university journalism schools and media regulators, the colourful rogue entrepreneur who defied anti-Semitism and eastern Canada elitism in a long and litigious career, the politically engaged and conservative patriarch who built a family empire - all are made to order for Newman's fascination with Canada's corporate elites.
But Marc Edge, a self-described "disillusioned former journalist," has already provided a comprehensive if partisan account of "Canada's most dangerous media company" in Asper Nation. Edge traces the rise of the Asper empire from Izzy's 1932 birth in small-town Manitoba to his firm's dazzlingly financed (if somewhat questionable in terms of foreign-ownership rules) takeover of production giant Alliance Atlantis in 2007, under his son Leonard.
The scope of that empire is described on the company website: Holdings include TV stations reaching nearly 100 per cent of English-speaking Canadian viewers, specialty channels that reach 30.1 per cent of those viewers and newspapers that reach 4.8 million readers in Canada. Since its purchase of Conrad Black's Southam holdings in 2000, CanWest has controlled a significant share of print and electronic media across Canada, as well as in Europe, Asia, Australia, New Zealand and the United States.
All very impressive, but not without its dangers, Edge says. The former Vancouver Province reporter argues that the CanWest empire represents a threat to journalistic independence. The bulk of his unabashed polemic is devoted to accounts of writers and editors being fired for failing to toe the Asper line, of byline strikes and resignations by angry writers, of over-compliant government regulators and of media markets dominated by ideologically inflected coverage.
Edge does suggest several modest policy reforms, including "public benefit" payments made during media mergers, to finance critical research and media literacy education. He also advocates restricting any company from controlling more than 50 per cent of any city's media market share, and forbidding cross-ownership of print and electronic news sources in the same city.
Although he is primarily concerned with CanWest, Edge offers little room for self-congratulation by Canada's other major media proprietors, whom he portrays as engaged in similar, if less successful, attempts to dominate and shape local markets through media cross-ownership.
In Vancouver, where this review is written, both daily newspapers and the dominant TV station are CanWest companies, as are almost all community papers in the area. Consequently, news that might cause discomfort in corporate headquarters, such as the recent firing of the veteran publisher of CanWest's Vancouver Courier, Peter Ballard (reportedly for not being "corporate" enough), receive little coverage. The exception to this news blackout was the Courier itself, which ran an affectionate and courageous tribute to the deposed publisher, despite persistent rumours of more firings and a remake of a paper that until now has been seen as relatively independent.
The cone of silence that attended the publisher's firing mirrors a similar silence about company-related events that Edge describes. In 2002, CanWest management fired Ottawa Citizen publisher Russell Mills in a dispute about an editorial he'd run calling for the resignation of scandal-mired PM Jean Chrétien. (Chrétien was then a CanWest favourite, reflecting Liberal connections that went back to Izzy Asper's term as leader of the Manitoba party in the 1970s. Since the founder's death, the next generation of Aspers has taken CanWest into a close embrace with the Harper Conservatives.)
Though Mills's firing drew critical attention in journalistic circles around the world, it was almost invisible in CanWest coverage. "All the news," as they say, "that's fit to print." Indeed!
This book will please critics of CanWest and those Canadians who have watched in dismay for decades as royal commissions and senate committees have called fruitlessly for limits on media concentration. It will be dismissed out of hand, one imagines, by those who value the ongoing Asper legacy of big ownership, cross-media dominance of news markets and an agenda that includes tax reduction, smaller government and uncritical support for Israel and the United States.
Edge does, however, make a compelling argument for reform in media ownership, an argument that deserves discussion across the country. With democracy at least arguably at stake, Asper Nation is a must read for anyone who aspires to active and informed Canadian citizenship.
Tom Sandborn is a Vancouver journalist, poet and critic.