American transfusion can improve newspaper circulation

Vancouver Courier
May 21, 2000

Soon after media giants Hollinger and Thomson announced plans to sell the majority of their newspaper holdings—in Thomson’s case everything but the Globe and Mail—Heritage Minister Sheila Copps had an epiphany: Canada has to do something about the concentration of ownership, and reform the rules governing foreign newspaper investment.

At present, the limit on non-Canadian ownership is 25 per cent, which means that the only buyers who can afford to bid for the dozens of dailies and non-dailies collectively up for grabs are, you guessed it, other Canadian media giants—Torstar and Quebecor, to be precise.

Hollinger’s Borg-like assimilation of the Southam chain and the Financial Post was bad enough, but now the Canadian ownership gene pool threatens to become even smaller. What took Copps so long to react to the problem is a mystery, but at least now the federal government realizes that Canada’s newspaper industry needs a massive infusion of new blood. More owners means more competition, and more competition, hopefully, will engender a greater variety of editorial opinion.

However, there’s the sovereignty argument. Those opposed to Copps’ plan bridle at the thought of Americans owning the tribunes of our culture. The feeling is entirely understandable—foreigners, principally Americans, own so much of Canada’s industry that national economic policy is little more than a polite fiction. In this instance, though, the opposition to American investment is unwarranted, because it’s beside the point.

Both Hollinger and Thomson are headquartered in the eastern U.S., so their Canadianness is already more façade than fact. Moreover, Canada has no reason other than bloody-mindedness  to restrict U.S. ownership. For example, “Canadian” Hollinger owns the Chicago Sun-Times outright, so by what logic or economic principle does Canada deny Americans the same rights of ownership and investment?

I realize that arguing for greater U.S. ownership of a Canadian industry seems odd, but I’m concerned less with which country owns a newspaper than with the quality and variety of that newspaper’s reporting and commentary. All things being equal, I’d like my papers to be owned and operated by Canadians, but things aren’t equal. There just aren’t enough buyers.

The other reason why the cultural nationalists are wrong has to do with the state of politics in this country. As I understand the argument, American owners would gradually impose American ideas on our newspapers to the point where Canadian attitudes and perspectives on the news would disappear. Problem is, it’s already happening, so fretting about American ownership now is moot.

A good example can be found in various commentaries on or by the Renamed Reform (RR) party—as I shall henceforth refer to the Canadian Alliance—concerning the nature of conservatism.

On May 9, the Vancouver Sun ran an essay by Queens University political studies doctoral candidate Eli Schuster, who argued that Canada’s Tory governments were never “conservative,” because they were insufficiently right-wing.

Yeah, so? Right-wing ideology was never a dominant feature of Canadian conservatism, until possibly the Mulroney years. Sir John A. Macdonald’s Conservatives gave Canada the National Policy, high tariffs and the fight against reciprocity (free trade) with the U.S. It was the Liberals under Sir Wilfrid Laurier who pushed for economic liberalization.

Canadian conservatives acknowledge the economic role of government; on the other hand, American neo-conservatives worship private business like a god, and consider government intervention of any sort to be evil. Clearly, Schuster fits the latter category, thus rendering much of his essay anachronistic, absurd and frankly unscholarly. With writing like this, odds are he doesn’t get his degree.

It’s hard to believe that Schuster ever studied conservatism, since the spirit of Macdonald, Benjamin Disraeli or Alexander Hamilton is nowhere to be found in his piece. He claims to have read Edmund Burke, but seems to be unaware of the great Irishman’s famous adage: “Government is a contrivance of human wisdom to provide for human wants. Men have a right that these rights should be provided for by this wisdom.”

Clearly, wisdom plays no role in Schuster’s simplistic moral universe, yet the sort of radical individualism and economic selfishness he espouses are front and centre in the attitudes of the RR party, which (big surprise!) he cites approvingly.

For the American angle, I give you the disturbed Cold War-like mind of Jacob G. Hornberger, founder and president of something called The Future of Freedom Foundation in Virginia. (Don’t you just love these self-serving grandiose titles?)

In a recent on-line rant mistitled What is a Conservative? Hornberger frothed: “Mention repeal of Social Security, and conservatives have as big a fit as the most ardent leftist. The conservative buzzword of today is ‘reform,’ as if a morally and economically bankrupt socialist program were capable of being reformed...

“It is impossible to find a better example of socialistic central planning than public schooling. A central board of elected or appointed commissars, whether at a national, state, or local level, plans, in a top-down fashion, the educational decisions of thousands or millions of children. Attendance is coercive. People are forced to fund the system through taxation. Students are required to listen to state-approved doctrine from state-approved schoolteachers using state-approved textbooks.”

Social security is morally bankrupt, and public education is a communist bureaucracy—this is not conservative thought. It’s subversive hysteria.

Canada may not be as far gone as the U.S. in its disrespect for public goods—health care, education and politics—and worship of radical Christianity and unenlightened self-interest, but Canadian newspapers are full of such stories. It wouldn’t make any difference if Gannett or Times-Mirror bought a substantial interest in Canada’s dailies.

They might even prove to be better owners.