The Fake Issue

Taming the Watchdogs of Media Concentration

Although the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have shown that media conglomerates limit the diversity of views, subvert democracy and stymie journalistic integrity, media regulators continue to let them expand. As each of these three countries enters another round of media convergence, their federal media watchdogs appear to be looking the other way.

When Australia's Rupert Murdoch threw his support behind the Iraq War, so did the 175 media outlets he owns as part of News Corp. When Canada's CanWest Global Communications justified the Afghanistan invasion, so did its eleven daily newspapers and 16 television stations. And when the major US media conglomerates signed off on the Bush administration's invasion of Iraq, American journalists lined up right behind them. In a recent interview on PBS's Bill Moyers Report, former CBS Evening News anchorman Dan Rather explained why journalists were so afraid to question the war.

"Fear is in every newsroom in the country . . . particularly in [the] networks," said Rather. "They've become huge international conglomerates. They have big needs, legislative needs, regulatory needs in Washington. Nobody has to send you a memo to tell you that that's the case – you know. And that puts a seed in your mind of well, 'If you stick your neck out, if you take the risk of going against the grain with your reporting, is anybody going to back you up?'"

Although the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have shown that media conglomerates limit the diversity of views, subvert democracy and stymie journalistic integrity, Canada, America and Australia's media regulators continue to let them expand. In fact, over the past decade, media regulators have gone out of their way to help facilitate consolidation or have refused to speak up against it – all to the detriment of the public's interest. As each of these three countries enters another round of media convergence, their federal media watchdogs appear to be looking the other way.

three major media mergers are awaiting approval from the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) as of Adbusters' press deadline – mergers that could erase some of the last remaining borders on the country's media ownership map. Over the course of the past year, CTVglobemedia spent $1.4 billion to acquire CHUM Limited, which would give the country's highest-rated broadcaster control over the third-highest; media monolith CanWest Global Communications announced it was swallowing specialty broadcaster Alliance Atlantis Communications in a $2.3 billion deal; and Astral Media Incorporated announced it had spent $1.2 billion to acquire Standard Broadcasting, transforming it into the largest radio broadcaster in the country.

If Canada had an effective media regulator, it would be virtually impossible to get these deals approved. Not only do they dramatically reshape the country's media landscape by concentrating it in fewer hands, two of the deals blatantly contravene Canada's Broadcasting Act. The ctvglobemedia deal breaks CRTC regulations by giving it two television stations in five major cities, and since US investment firm Goldman Sachs is bankrolling the CanWest deal, it infringes upon the CRTC's foreign-ownership rule. But while CRTC commissioners acted tough when grilling ctvglobemedia about the merits of the deal at a public hearing last April, the commission appears to be predictably getting out of the way – CRTC chairman Konrad von Finckenstein commented that the commission is "not in the business of killing deals."

The one benefit of the acquisitions is that they appear to have finally awakened the CRTC to the growing problem of consolidation. Whereas in previous years it has only been concerned with the levels of Canadian content and competition rules, for the first time in its history the CRTC will hold broader public hearings this fall on media diversity. But for many critics, this delayed revelation is too little, too late. The CRTC was originally supposed to hold media diversity hearings in the spring to coincide with the three proposed mergers, but pushed them back to a later date in order to give each of the conglomerates "procedural fairness." Some have complained that this is about as useful as closing the barn door after the horses have stampeded out.

Catherine Murray, an associate professor at Simon Fraser University's School of Communication, says the decision to postpone the diversity hearings until the fall is "extremely unfortunate and adhockery" since the CRTC is about to rule on three mergers that will have a major impact on news sharing and local news operations in Canada. What's worse is that the CRTC doesn't give the public any real opportunity to debate the consequences of the proposed conquests.

"We are in a completely lopsided environment where citizens groups and concerned individuals aren't able to . . . oppose the dominant powers before the CRTC, and nothing is being done about it," says Murray. "The day of assuming the CRTC would automatically be a trustee of the public interest is long gone."

CRTC spokesperson Denis Carmel says the public hearings are needed in order to create "clear rules that govern media concentration" and its impact on the diversity of voices in the broadcasting system. But the discussion will be moot if the CRTC approves the three mega-mergers, since there won't be much media left over to fight for. While the CRTC now pretends to be concerned about the impact of consolidation, the reality is that it has to take responsibility for putting Canada's media in this mess in the first place. Over the past decade the CRTC has repeatedly bowed to the demands of the country's media empires and aided and abetted their attempts to consolidate the industry.

The commission allowed media corporations to expand the number of radio and television stations they own across the country and enabled them to own more than one television station in a single market. Its most egregious decision, however, was in 2001 when it sanctioned the controversial practice of convergence and allowed the conglomerates to combine their television and print operations – a decision that was condemned by the International Federation of Journalists for degrading the quality of reporting.

The CRTC's ineffectiveness as a watchdog goes beyond its role in facilitating consolidation. While it continues to let corporations take a stranglehold over the media landscape, the CRTC has failed to ensure that the airwaves remain open to the public. For more than 30 years, the CRTC has done nothing when public interest groups are denied access to commercial airtime. Over the past ten years, Adbusters Media Foundation has attempted to have its commercials air on Canada's largest public and private broadcasters, but the ads have consistently been rejected because they go against the grain of "commercial broadcasting." The CRTC's only response to the infringement has been to order the networks to write Adbusters a letter explaining their decision. In 2004, Adbusters launched a lawsuit against six Canadian broadcasters for refusing to run its ads and is now attempting to add the CRTC to its application.

"Our position is that the CRTC and the Canadian government as a whole have failed to do what the Charter [of Rights and Freedoms] requires that they do; to protect the rights of Canadians to access the airwaves," says Ryan Dalziel, a lawyer with Bull, Housser & Tupper LLP, which represents Adbusters.

where the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) has been deathly silent to the country's growing media consolidation problem, the failings and faults of its national media regulators are nearly identical to those of Canada. In a country that gave birth to Rupert Murdoch's media empire, the ACMA has only helped it grow and flourish. When Australia's Conservative government passed a series of media reform laws last year that removed some of the final barriers to complete media convergence, the ACMA was nowhere to be seen. Australia already has one of the highest concentrations of media ownership in the western world with two families, the Murdochs and Packers, controlling the country's newspaper and television markets. The government's new media laws lifted the 20 year old ban on cross-ownership and now allows each corporation to operate in two out of three media sectors – print, television or radio.

Since Australia's media reform laws were passed, there has been a dizzying amount of convergence activity. Murdoch's News Corp., the country's largest newspaper publisher, bought and then sold a portion of Fairfax Media, the country's second largest newspaper chain, which in turn, purchased Rural Press, the country's third largest newspaper chain, for $2.3 billion. Seven Network, the country's top-rated television network, bought a small share of Fairfax and increased its share of West Australian Newspaper, giving it more control over the country's fourth largest publisher and opening the door for a complete takeover. Packer has also gotten into the mix by selling a controlling stake in Channel Nine and then buying nbn Network. With media companies now able to dip in and out of new mediums, there has also been a flurry of speculation on further sales and acquisitions.

Jock Given, a media expert at Swinburne University of Technology's Institute for Social Research, says Australia's already heavily consolidated media already has a strong bias toward John Howard's Conservative government at the expense of any opposition. He says the new media laws are only going to have a negative impact by consolidating the limited range of opinions into even fewer hands and wiping out some of the last remaining independent voices. While the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) has at least expressed some concern about the mergers (albeit in strictly business terms), the ACMA has said nothing about this media manipulation.

When the Howard government brought its media reform laws before the ACMA, it was only for the organization to determine how it was going to enforce the new rules and not to review whether they would be detrimental to the public's interest. Although the ACMA's website says its official vision is to be "forward-looking, proactive and flexible" and that it encourages a "vibrant communications sector," the reality is anything but. While Canada's media regulator at least pretends to be defending the public perspective in the face of media consolidation, the ACMA doesn't even bother.

"When it comes down to it, the [ACMA's] interest is not in the level of diversity needed for democracy. Their focus is on the business competition," says Glenys Stradijot, campaign manager for Friends of abc, a public interest group that defends the country's public broadcaster. "The reality is they're not going to protect media diversity to the extent that's really needed."

In all fairness to the ACMA and the CRTC, their hands are tied behind their back since neither country's government has afforded them the opportunity to be a proper watchdog. Each media regulator only has as much power as its legislation gives them. In Australia and Canada that means they are kept on a very short leash. It also doesn't look like it will get better anytime soon. While Howard has talked about loosening media ownership rules for a decade, Canada's new Conservative government has said it wants to scrap the CRTC altogether. When Canada's Senate completed an extensive study last year that proposed large mergers be automatically reviewed by the government, Heritage Minister Bev Oda brushed off the report, saying that " . . . convergence has become an essential business strategy for media organizations to stay competitive."

giant media conglomerates like General Electric and Time Warner have tightly wrapped themselves around every aspect of media distribution. But while Canada and Australia suffer from toothless media regulators too weak and ineffectual to stop these monsters, the US has a media regulator that is aggressively pursuing to dismantle its own regulations. After being rebuked by Congress and the courts in 2003 for trying to remove caps on the number of stations a company can own and allow it to own both newspapers and television, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is once again holding a series of public hearings across the country about weakening convergence laws.

There are a few media companies in the US that were grandfathered by the FCC's cross-ownership restriction and allowed to keep their television, radio and newspaper assets. One such corporation is the Tribune Company, which owns television stations and newspapers in a number of major markets, including Chicago and Los Angeles, and was recently purchased by Sam Zell for $8.2 billion. But instead of Tribune immediately losing its grandfathered status and being forced to sell off some of its assets, FCC commissioners are trying to find a way for Zell to also receive an exemption. Tribune has already become famous for mastering the controversial art of convergence over the past two decades, cutting costs to the detriment of local reporting by using television and newspaper journalists in both mediums.

Although the FCC's own internal studies have shown that media consolidation hurts diversity, cuts out minorities from ownership and ignores local issues, the commission has suppressed these reports and continued to promote the convergence agenda instead. The FCC's structure is unique in that it has five commissioners appointed by government: three by the White House and two by the opposition. But instead of keeping each other in check on media issues, both parties have a history of promoting consolidation and ignoring public input. FCC commissioners are viewed as being corrupted by media companies since they have often accepted free flights and dinners from them and usually go on to work in the media industry when they leave the commission.

"They certainly haven't been [an effective watchdog]," says Craig Aaron, communications director with Free Press, a public advocacy group. "I think it's possible that the FCC could become an effective watchdog and certainly certain members of the FCC have started to take their job seriously by actually representing American people and not the big companies. But by and large the recent history of the FCC has been absolutely the opposite. At every turn they've tried to give more and more away to big media companies."

The next few months are crucial to the future of media democracy in Canada, America and Australia. Recently, there has been another major burst of consolidation activity that may see News Corp. take over the Wall Street Journal empire, Canada's Thompson Corp. buy Reuters, and Microsoft and Yahoo merge into some kind of online Frankenstein. The fact that the Australian government has already enacted laws that will allow the country's media landscape to be scrambled beyond recognition may mean it's too late, but the FCC and CRTC's public hearings give Americans and Canadians a real opportunity to voice their concerns about the dangers of media consolidation.

With major issues like the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and climate change still on the horizon, the public today, more than ever, needs a diverse media that can allow them to make informed decisions. But if a handful of corporations control the flow of information, they control the debate: blinded by short-term profits and bound by powerful lobbyists, they are content to leave the majority of people in the dark. A diverse media is crucial to a healthy and just society. The civil rights movement, women's suffrage and child labor laws were all changes brought about by renegade voices in the media, and it's precisely these kinds of voices that media consolidation is threatening to stifle. It's time for people to speak out against consolidation and demand their media watchdogs be strengthened, or else it may be time to put them down.