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Canada’s media: A crisis that cries out for a public inquiry

In 1969, back in the first Trudeau era, the government appointed the Davey Commission to probe the media. In 1981 came another media inquiry under Pierre Trudeau, it being the Kent Commission. In 2006, a Senate committee delivered a comprehensive report on the state of the media.

Today, we have a crisis in the journalism industry unprecedented in scope. A media implosion. Newspapers being reduced to digital editions, large numbers losing their jobs, circulation falling, ad revenues plunging, near monopoly ownership of big-city dailies, the old business model in a state of collapse.

The business is in a hellishly worse condition than at the time of the other probes. But you don't hear any calls for an inquiry to examine the deterioration and what can be done to halt it. The idea, it seems, is to let the descent of journalism, the so-called lifeblood of democracy, proceed ad hoc.

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Gerald Butts, the savvy principal secretary to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, sounded a note of no grave concern in a weekend tweet, "Newspapers running endless stories about newspapers is unfortunately not going to sell a lot of newspapers." From Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly, I got the sense that while the government is committed to reinvesting in the CBC, the fourth estate's broader malaise is barely on the radar screen. "Journalism plays a central role in a healthy democracy," she said. "We acknowledge that newspapers are facing industry-wide challenges …"

Given that the country's print media is so dominated by conservative Paul Godfrey's Postmedia empire, the Liberals' attitude is surprising. Mr. Godfrey, whose company is principally owned by New York hedge funds, is hardly a hands-off player. In the weekend prior to the last election, he shamelessly served up the entire front page of his major papers to the Harper government for advertisements.

For Postmedia, Ottawa allowed for the type of thing the Kent and Davey commissions warned against. Rather than ensure ownership diversity, regulators found reason to roll over as foreign money gobbled up print properties, thus giving Postmedia unprecedented concentration of ownership. And just as critics feared, Postmedia has been merging newsrooms and dumping journalists and shrinking coverage.

This company is in such dire straits that the Liberals are probably thinking it will shrivel up and die. But the broader issue of the plight of the media is what needs to be addressed. It is a public-policy issue. It is about one of our primary democratic institutions. The Liberals have correctly placed high priority, given what's happened in the past decade, on restoring the integrity of such institutions. Justin Trudeau's openness, as exemplified by his agreeing to the CBC's innovative idea of having ordinary Canadians interview him, stands in stark contrast to Stephen Harper's control-freak kingdom.

But it's a joke to think a healthy democracy can be restored given the continuing depletion of the one industry that holds business and government to account.

As someone who was a strong critic of abuse of power in both the Jean Chrétien and Harper governments, I'll readily attest to that. Since 2008, thousands of journalists have lost their jobs. How many important stories, controversies, scandals have gone uncovered and will go uncovered as a result?

If traditional print journalism cannot be sustained, what fills the void? Is there a larger role for the public sector? In Nordic countries, subsidies extend not only to broadcast journalism but to print as well – and with apparently good results.

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Media organizations shy away from examining one another to avoid internecine hissing matches. Public commissions of inquiry are hardly looked upon with favour. Recommendations, as we've seen with media inquiries past, are usually ignored.

Nonetheless, the crisis in journalism is too important to be left to a laissez-faire approach. The Trudeau government has been preoccupied with the far less pressing matter of bringing in a new voting system. What good is a new voting system if the voters don't have the information on which to make an informed decision?

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