Conrad Black’s credo: ‘All the news that’s fit to own’

“The great fear is that, at a time when we may need them most, newspapers have been captured by vested interests who see information as a power or as a commodity by which to generate great profits rather than as the very fuel of our democracy, a public forum of information and opinion so vital to our well-being…”
                                                                                  —Professor John Miller

Vancouver Courier
November 8, 1998

To appreciate how sick this country is, you need look no further than the daily newspaper—in more ways than one. Every day seems to bring reports of yet another big-business merger or proposed merger.

These mergers—as opposed to small-scale mergers in a competitive market—lead to our collective impoverishment. As power is concentrated in fewer and larger hands, the less freely and independently the markets operate.

Fortunately for Canadians, business doesn’t run the country, at least not yet. Politicians, elected and appointed, are still the guardians of the public interest. The Senate banking committee and the Liberal caucus task force, for example, acquitted themselves admirably by rejecting the chartered banks’ self-serving arguments for mergers. “There is no evidence that the mergers are necessary under present circumstances, nor would they be beneficial,” the caucus report concluded.

Alas, the merger criteria of necessity and benefit don’t apply where the public’s interest is most vulnerable—newspapers. For some inexplicable reason, Conrad Black has been allowed to accumulate 58 of Canada’s 105 daily newspapers. In fact, Canada has the highest concentration of ownership in the G7. France, for example, doesn’t permit more than 30 per cent ownership by any one group and only 10 per cent if it holds significant broadcast holdings.

Through his Hollinger/Southam conglomerate, Black has a virtual monopoly in some regions, including Vancouver. His new National Post merely exacerbates what Professor John Miller calls “the Southamization” of our newspaper industry.

During a talk last month at the Sing Tao School of Journalism, the former editor and reporter said Canada had 117 daily papers in 1980. The following table reveals a partial list of owners:

Southam 14
Independent 28
Sterling (Hollinger) 11

In 1998, the number of papers fell to 105 with the following partial breakdown: 

Sun Media Corp. 14
Independent 8
Thomson 7

Concentration of ownership is only one of the themes Miller touched on here and in his book Yesterday’s News—Why Canada’s Daily Newspapers are Failing Us. However, ownership may be the most serious. Improving the quality of reporting, motivating staff and building ties to communities are academic if the ultimate decision-makers are more interested in counting desks and wringing every last cent out of the bottom line.

Moreover, as Miller shows, such monopoly ownership invites legitimate concerns about editorial conformity and the freedom of reporters, columnists and the public to have dissenting views published.

In 1981, Tom Kent, who headed the Royal Commission on Newspapers, reported that corporations owned 77 per cent of national circulation, a proportion which he said was “clearly and directly” contrary to the public interest. “For the heads of such organizations to justify their positions by appealing to the principle of freedom of the press is offensive to intellectual honesty,” he wrote.

Today, Miller says the proportion is 93 per cent, most of it under Black’s control.

So the question becomes, why does Canada allow such concentrated ownership? There oughta be a law! Ironically, Miller disagrees. He fears that the concentration of newspaper ownership is irreversible and dismisses the Council of Canadians’ attempts to compel Black to divest. “How do you force a capitalist to divest?” he asked the audience.

Instead, Miller puts his faith in a code of conduct and diversity-rich “peoples’ commissions” to be guardians of journalistic integrity. Such a Pollyanna-ish conclusion is most disappointing. He said there’s no stomach in Ottawa for taking on Black.

Whether his objection to legislated divestiture was born of principle, resignation or both was unclear, but without a legislated breakup, these virtuous commissions won’t accomplish Jack Squat.

Miller should remember that the U.S. Congress forced John D. Rockefeller to break up his Standard Oil monopoly. If the Canadian government can determine that higher concentration in the banking industry is not in the public interest, surely it can say the same about newspapers.