The News We Deserve
By Marc Edge. New Star, 224 pp, softcover
Sometimes, the best nonfiction books are written with palpable anger at the injustice of the world. Readers can sense when there’s a fiery passion driving the author’s desire to tell a story. These books don’t tiptoe around unpleasant realities; rather, they stare them in the face with an honesty that can border on recklessness.
Richmond author Marc Edge’s The News We Deserve: The Transformation of Canada’s Media Landscape meets this standard. The professor of media and communication at University Canada West in Vancouver is an old hand at dissecting the woes of Canadian daily newspapers.
Three of his previous books addressed the greedy and sometimes seedy ways in which newspaper monopolists have played readers for schmucks. The first, Pacific Press: The Unauthorized Story of Vancouver’s Newspaper Monopoly, exposed the inner workings of a company that employed him for nearly 20 years as a journalist.
His second book on the media, Asper Nation: Canada’s Most Dangerous Media Company, described how a Winnipeg-based family turned a national chain of newspapers into a mouthpiece for their favourite political causes, including the state of Israel and bashing the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, while silencing those of different viewpoints.
A more recent book, Greatly Exaggerated: The Myth of the Death of Newspapers, revealed how publishing barons across North America exploited bankruptcy laws to generate great returns on their investments while pleading poverty.
Edge’s newest book, The News We Deserve, might be his most ambitious undertaking. Building on his previous work on the financialization of the newspaper industry, it shows how media companies have expanded their dominance and undermined Canadian journalism through takeovers that have led to the disappearance of thousands of jobs.
This happened under the eyes of Canadian regulators and federal politicians who steadfastly ignored how other countries, such as New Zealand and Australia, were preventing media moguls from doing the same thing.
So why were Canadian politicians so willing to allow corporate behemoths like Bell, Quebecor, Postmedia, and Rogers to gobble up smaller players? Edge reveals a complicated story linked to Stephen Harper’s rise to the office of prime minister, a weak-kneed Competition Bureau, the marginalization of a report by a Commons committee chaired by former Liberal MP Clifford Lincoln, and savvy tactics employed by media giants to get their takeovers approved.
According to Edge, an important factor was “greenmail endowments”, also known as public-benefits packages, which are supposed to represent about 10 percent of the purchase price. At least 85 percent of these payments “should support” Canadian programming, according to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission.
Corporations offered these to the federal broadcast regulator in return for being permitted to take over smaller companies like CHUM and Alliance Atlantis.
On the surface, this seemed like a good deal for Canadians: hand over a big chunk of change in return for being allowed to buy radio and television stations. However, Edge documents how these public benefits have also financed the Canadian Media Research Consortium—which conducts research into economic, technical, and cultural aspects of media—and university journalism schools, whose faculty might otherwise have blown the whistle on the dangers of corporate concentration in the media.
Lo and behold, some of these faculty—such as the founding director of the UBC graduate school of journalism and president of the CMRC, Donna Logan—became public advocates for “media convergence”. In The News We Deserve, Edge reproduces a letter that Logan wrote to the CRTC saying it’s a “myth” and “ludicrous” that media mergers result in fewer voices.
It’s one of many examples cited by Edge to advance his argument that postsecondary journalism education has been captured by corporations. In one of the book’s most fascinating sections, Edge also explores the concept of “regulatory capture”.
“According to media scholar Robert Horwitz, this occurs when a regulatory agency ‘systematically favors the private interests of regulated parties and systematically ignores the public interest’,” Edge writes. “The public interest becomes ‘perverted’ as a regulator matures through several phases.”
Throughout his career as a journalist and as a scholar, Edge has proven that he’s not susceptible to being captured by anyone. And his incendiary and subversive research should be of particular interest to residents of Western Canada, where three-quarters of daily newspaper circulation is controlled by one company, Postmedia, mostly owned by U.S hedge funds.
The News We Deserve is a timely book, given the Commons Heritage committee's ongoing review of how changes in the media are affecting local communities.
The committee is chaired by Vancouver Centre Liberal MP Hedy Fry, who receives an acknowledgement from Edge.
After praising his publisher, editor, professional colleagues, and friends, Edge closes his book with this sentence: "Finally, thanks to Hedy Fry for taking the problem of Canada's news media seriously enough to get it on the front burner of the new federal government's agenda."
It remains to be seen whether her committee's report will meet the same fate that the Lincoln report encountered in 2003.