In what turned out to be the last year of his life, Rafe Mair was working on Politically Incorrect: How Canada Lost Its Way and The Simple Path Home. The book, which argues Canadian democracy is no longer working and offers a solution, has now been published by Watershed Sentinel Books and can be ordered here. This excerpt, edited for length, offers Mair’s analysis of the media’s role in democracy’s decline
While this is a book about reform of our parliament, I deal with the state of the media as well in this book simply because without the resuscitation of the media, we can reform the House of Commons all we like but it will be all for naught.
I define the press in modern terms — the distribution of information in a manner consistent with long accepted principles of journalism, by any legal means…
Thomas Jefferson is often quoted, by newspapers, as saying that if he had to choose between government and newspapers, he would take newspapers. I suspect that the following, also attributed to him, is closer to the mark: “The man who reads nothing at all is better educated than the man who reads nothing but newspapers.”
Apart from disseminating the general news to the public at large, the media plays a much bigger role in our society — at least that’s the official version — which has always conferred upon it a very substantial responsibility. As it provides the information and is one of the principal forums for public debate of public issues, it has the solemn obligation to take great pains to ensure the accuracy of that information.
Put simply, it holds the powerful to strict account, which includes avoiding any conflicting activity itself, which is to say it must not be part of the debate upon which it’s reporting. It also moves in a very important way from strict adherence to fact by publishing opinion as well, giving the reader a further assist in forming her own.
This is not a minor matter, for many aspects of daily life depend upon the media to — for want of a better expression — keep it honest. The justice system, the principles of democracy that bind us, the education system, the honesty of the marketplace, the political systems, to name a few, must be under constant surveillance by honest and vigilant journalism. For our purposes here, the media, without fear or favour, must, free of self-interest, keep our governments fair, honest and competent.
Though it has long maintained the very opposite with accompanying piety, the media has never been close to perfection any more than any individual or institution has. It must be said, however, that when it’s not doing its best the public is at risk, and that is precisely what Canadians face today.
The most influential world presence, more for bad than good, I would argue, is clearly the fossil fuel industry. Given the substantial concerns for environmental matters, climate change, pipelines, air quality, general health, integrity of our water supply as well as our lakes and oceans, and our economy generally, nothing in our midst has the impact of this all-pervasive industry.
Indeed, I would argue that what little ethical and moral foundation the country has is deeply threatened by the crumbling discipline of a fossil fuel based economy and the politics it spawns. Nothing requires government supervision in so many areas (and nothing has anything like the influence on government) as this industry. It follows that no other industry remotely requires the amount and kind of honest, wary media surveillance this one does.
What has the media, especially but hardly exclusively the print media, done in response to this immense challenge?
It’s joined fortunes with the petroleum industry. And a very large part of it has done so in print and in public. The facts are that the rest of the media have not raised a peep of protest at this unholiest of alliances and that governments contentedly and smugly pretend all that favourable coverage they get proves their efficiency — not that the fix is in and they’re part of that fix.
Let me just comment that the difference from 1972 to 2017 in the media’s dealing with governments and politics takes the breath away!
The stage was well and truly set by Douglas Kelly, then publisher of Postmedia’s National Post. (This story was originally published by the independent online National Observer.)
Back in June of 2013, Mr. Kelly observed:
“From its inception, the National Post has been one of the country’s leading voices on the importance of energy to Canada’s business competitiveness internationally and our economic well-being in general. We will work with CAPP [Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers] to amplify our energy mandate and to be a part of the solution to keep Canada competitive in the global marketplace. The National Post will undertake to leverage all means editorially, technically and creatively to further this critical conversation.”
A Postmedia presentation said:
“Postmedia and CAPP will bring energy to the forefront of our national conversation. Together, we will engage executives, the business community and the Canadian public to underscore the ways in which the energy sector powers Canada.”
This is the formula guiding Postmedia as they hold the oil industry’s feet to the fire!
Thus, the largest Canadian newspaper chain has a deal with the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, the industry shill, which guarantees that the former will support the latter at every turn. I’ve called the pact, indelicately but I think accurately, a mutual masturbation agreement.
What does this deal mean in the real world?
Surely we can all agree that this is a fair and reasonable statement of the basic code by which journalism should be judged: “The core purpose of a journalist is to research, document, write, and present the news in an honest, ethical, and unbiased way.”
Clearly, failure to meet those elementary standards would be to fail the principles of democracy…
When a newspaper or a chain makes a back-scratching deal with the fossil fuel industry, it surely can be taken, without further ado, as producing a “bias” contrary to the principles of journalism, and thus undemocratic. Res ipsa loquitur.
What if a Postmedia newspaper, say the Province, were to make a deal with a company promoting a liquefied natural gas (LNG) refinery, Woodfibre LNG, highly controversial in the community of Squamish? Would that not also take away the journalistic independence so necessary to democracy? How could it possibly report on Woodfibre LNG in an honest, ethical and unbiased way?
Well, the Province is a formal, legal partner with Resource Works whose raison d’être is to promote resource extraction, including the Woodfibre LNG project. Read their website. It’s all there.
How the hell can a newspaper justify becoming partners with part of the industrial community when it is their duty to report fairly, independently, fearlessly, and accurately on that industry to the public at large?
“Resource Works communicates with British Columbians about the importance of the province’s resource sectors to their personal well-being,” the lobby group says. “It demonstrates how responsible development of British Columbia’s resources creates jobs and incomes throughout the province, both directly and indirectly, while maintaining a clean and healthy environment. Resource Works explores the long-term economic future of British Columbia as a place that depends on the responsible development, extraction and transportation of the province’s resources.”
Upon that self-serving drivel a major part of the MSM assures you that when reading Postmedia about Resource Works you can safely assume the highest of journalistic ethics.
Of course you can! Only a raw cynic might ask “how much news adverse to the production of LNG in Howe Sound, or anywhere else, do you suppose the Province or any Postmedia company is going to print? How about the downsides of LNG itself, fracking, pipelines, tanker traffic?”
And there’s the rub — it’s difficult enough to know whether or not what is printed is valid, but when media outlets simply don’t print anything on a notorious subject, it’s impossible to know what news they avoided…
In 2002, the Campbell government took the making of new power away from BC Hydro and decreed it all, excepting the Site C dam, be produced by Independent Power Producers (IPPs).
I, among others, from the outset raised the Independent Power Producers/BC Hydro issue, warning the BC Liberals publicly that this policy would not only ruin many rivers but would be the financial ruination of BC Hydro. None doubted that had the NDP brought in such a deadly policy there would have been hell to pay in the Vancouver Sun and Province, but Campbell and Christy Clark got a free pass. Not a peep. Huge political donations to the BC Liberals were made by these “lucky” IPP corporations yet the Sun and the Provincesomehow didn’t notice…
That is by no means the only BC Liberal catastrophe Postmedia has avoided raising.
As this is written, we just had an election yet the colossal misdeeds of the BC Liberal government continued to get a very soft ride. The Liberals’ social services record was appalling; BC Hydro is in financial tatters; the public debt has more than doubled; the so-called “balanced budgets” are as phoney as a $3 bill; Liberal party fundraising is an ongoing international scandal; and now we learn that affairs of the Insurance Corporation of BC (ICBC) have been mangled by endemic Liberal mismanagement and the Crown corporation is in deep trouble.
How remarkable that a “business-oriented” government could lose bundles, even with monopolies on power and on car insurance, and get away with it in the Postmedia newspapers.
At this writing, the MSM is claiming unfair financial ruination and is claiming that our democracy depends upon its financial health, demanding to be bailed out by someone…
It’s interesting to note that one of the great principles traditionally supported by the MSM is competition in the marketplace. Strange to note, then, that at a time Postmedia is in trouble, the Globe and Mail, its only real competitor, far from taking advantage, is being as sweet as pie and they’re all working together on the good old Canadian game of finding someone else to pay…
On Jan. 27, the Public Policy Forum released a report call the The Shattered Mirror, dealing with the state of Canada’s media. And who quarterbacked the undertaking and wrote the report (flourish of trumpets please!)? Why, none other than Edward Greenspon, best remembered as a former editor of the Globe and Mail. How much more unbiased and independent can you get, I ask you…?
The recommendations make clear that the essence of the report is getting more money to the news media as it exists by taxing digital providers on the Internet. Sort of reminds me of that jingle, “Don’t tax you, don’t tax me — tax that man behind the tree!”
It’s clear that The Shattered Mirror has nothing to do with democracy and good journalism and everything to do with bailing out an industry that’s facing obsolescence, just as workers faced in the industrial revolution when the cotton gin was invented. The electronic media has the same advantages the cotton gin had, being much cheaper and much more productive.
What came through to me loud and clear was that if the current media industry were to get financial relief at the expense of the new digital media, it’s a defiance of history where the machine smashers get to keep their jobs — where the cost of failure to keep up with the times is visited on the consumers and taxpayers.
So, do we just let them go broke?
If they do, history teaches us that while there will be pain aplenty at the beginning, the void will be filled. But keeping them alive with government subsidies is a slippery slope to disaster. Instead of a news industry in thrall to big business generally and the fossil fuel industry specifically, they will no more wish to offend the government than they now do the fossil fuel industry — and guess what? Big business and especially the fossil fuel industry plus the government will be there, for, never forget, now they’re partners of the government too.
Here, then, is where Canadians find themselves.
They have a government system that totally neuters the political choices of the people with the exception of the constituency that elects the prime minister. That government is strongly supported by the fossil fuel industry. In turn, the government presents legislation and policies that favour the fossil fuel industry.
The media is a non-factor in “holding government’s feet to the fire.” In fact, they support the government without noticeable exception. And by yet another Canadian amazing coincidence, the media is in partnership with the fossil fuel industry…!
As the old lawyer in me rises once more, I REST MY CASE.