These two new books about the Asper and Rogers media empires won’t get anywhere near as much attention as the new memoirs from Jean Chrétien and Brian Mulroney or Naomi Klein’s latest work. However, they are important looks at a topic that has a more direct effect on the lives of Canadians than the rose-coloured musings of retired politicians or even Klein’s “shock doctrine.“
It is not alarmist to say that media concentration in Canada has reached – or possibly even surpassed – the critical stage. A handful of companies – CTVglobemedia, CanWest Global, Quebecor, Torstar, and Rogers, to name the primary players – have rapidly increased their control over the country’s top news and entertainment outlets, with little public debate about the consequences.
The Rogers story, as told in journalist Caroline Van Hasselt’s exhaustively reported High Wire Act, is more focused on the means of distribution than the content. Rogers, who co-operated with Van Hasselt, is portrayed as a technophile, driven to emerge from the long shadow of his father, who founded CFRB, one of Toronto’s first private radio stations.
Van Hasselt recounts how Rogers, beginning while he was still in law school, built his substantial media empire by being on the cutting edge of technology. From FM radio to cable TV to wireless networks, Rogers always positioned himself at the forefront of these now-ubiquitous technologies, even though he had to go into considerable debt to do so.
The book leaves the distinct impression that Rogers isn’t particularly concerned about the content on his media outlets – including Maclean’s magazine, Rogers Sportsnet, and, very soon, CityTV. Van Hasselt even reports that Rogers, who owns the Blue Jays, is not a baseball fan (which, based on the empty seats at the Rogers Centre, is one trait he seems to share with most Torontonians). The danger of such apparently uninterested ownership, whether in media or professional sports, is that the bottom line will trump all other concerns.
That, however, does not earn Rogers the title of Canada’s most dangerous media company. Communications professor Marc Edge convincingly bestows that ignominious crown on CanWest Global. His book, Asper Nation, is a very readable account of CanWest Global’s rise from a profitable purveyor of American prime time TV shows to a media conglomerate that has added newspapers, radio stations, cable TV outlets, and even an American magazine, The New Republic, to its roster of holdings.
CanWest’s general disregard for content was a joke back when Global was derisively known as the Love Boat network, but matters took a more sinister turn when the company acquired Conrad Black’s Southam newspaper chain in 2001. Edge’s thorough retelling of the Aspers’ mismanagement of their newspaper properties would be comical were the stakes not so high. CanWest’s misguided decision to force all its papers to run the same national editorials, David Asper’s infamous op-ed in the National Post calling on that paper’s reporters to effectively stop investigating allegations of corruption against Chrétien, and the controversy that led to the departure of Ottawa Citizen publisher Russell Mills made for a tumultuous and disastrous few months in 2001 and 2002. (I was working for the National Post and the Vancouver Sun during part of this period, and continue to do freelance work for both.)
Although these issues have largely disappeared from mainstream public debate, CanWest’s poisonous mode of partisan-minded editorial interference and ruthless pursuit of profit at the expense of producing a quality newspaper continues unabated. Even as Asper Nation was hitting bookstores, Edge’s argument was being confirmed by reports that CanWest was planning to cut more newspaper jobs and centralize more of its newspaper operations.
Neither of these books is flawless. High Wire Act could use more critical perspective, and Asper Nation needs more content and textual analyses to strengthen the claims of political bias. Still, both books need to be read as part of a long-overdue national conversation about media ownership.