It’s the day before the election and you think you have a solid idea of who to vote for. You get your local newspaper, the Penticton Herald, from the front porch, and staring you in the face is an ad that covers the entire front page. The words “Voting Liberal Will Cost You” are printed in bold, black letters on the familiar background of Elections-Canada yellow.
This particular ad’s hijacking of the normally impartial Elections-Canada imagery was tasteless enough, but unfortunately this scenario was not confined to just a single newspaper. Instead, on that day, that ad appeared on the front page of 15 of the 25 largest community newspapers across the country, from the Vancouver Sun to the National Post.
Each one of these 15 newspapers, as well as over 100 others across Canada, are owned by the same company: PostMedia. If it wasn’t already abundantly clear where PostMedia lies on the political spectrum, every single one of PostMedia’s major newspapers have endorsed the Conservative Party, in every election, for the last decade.
The sorry state of newspaper ownership is reflective of a greater problem in Canadian media. Increasingly, media ownership is becoming concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer parties. Companies like Bell and Shaw hold a duopoly on the television industry, while others such as PostMedia dominate print news. While this problem is not unique to Canada, we are one of the worst countries in the world when it comes to media ownership consolidation. In 1990, a respectable 17.3% of Canadian daily newspapers were independently owned—that number is now below 1%. This problem is particularly acute in some areas, like New Brunswick, where the Irving business empire owns every single English-language newspaper—a situation described by a Senate report  as “not found anywhere else in the developed world.”
We’ve already seen how some companies can abuse their dominant position in the media market to promote political propaganda, which is one of the most serious effects of concentrated market power. In addition, the lack of diversity in media ownership and lack of competition in certain markets severely limits media quality. As the number of media outlets decreases, journalists have fewer and fewer choices in terms of full- and part-time employment. Furthermore, according to media ownership concentration expert Dwayne Winseck, as media companies consolidate, more and more companies are now saddled with debt . Faced with the decision of paying the banks or paying the journalists, many media companies have chosen to pay the banks. As Winseck puts it, “The production of things—and here we are talking about the production of culture, news, knowledge, insight, entertainment, fun—is being sacrificed.”
The solution to this problem is twofold. Firstly, any future consolidations must be reviewed more thoroughly before approval. While government reviews already occur before all corporate mergers, these current efforts evidently haven’t been enough to prevent the dominance of certain media companies. Special attention must be given to companies with a history of political bias or inaccurate reporting. Previous senate reports have suggested that media companies’ market share be limited at 35%, which is fairly reasonable given that similar laws exist for other industries and in other countries. This threshold is currently surpassed by several conglomerates, including the aforementioned Irving family empire, which should be broken up and their media outlets returned to independent ownership.
The other part of the solution is to increase funding and support for public media institutions like the CBC, which currently has a lowly 15% market share, half of what it had a decade ago. While the CBC may not be entirely objective or impartial, it is a great deal better than most privately owned news sources. Many may not be happy with spending their hard-earned tax dollars on something as seemingly non-essential as news media, but there are very few causes more important in maintaining a healthy democracy. We Canadians routinely condemn foreign dictators who monopolize what their citizens see, read, and hear—but many of us already live in such a reality without realizing it.
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