May 5 2004
Cathy Dorn Member Services Coordinator E-mail: email@example.com
Dear Cathy Dorn, please forward to Ms. Kothwala:
Dear Ms. Anne Kothawala
Re your article on World Press Freedom Day - Press freedom: our issue, too (RM archive copy)
I think it is good that you take the opportunity during World Press Freedom Day to discuss freedom of the press in Canada, as it is indeed one of the basic necessities for a free and democratic society. I do believe, however, that in Canada there are not too many concerns around "freedom", at least of the press - yes, there are some worrying signs, the RCMP raid on the Ottawa reporter, various FOI acts being observed often as much in the breach and the "white"outs and unnecessarily long delays as the observance, and the increasing desire of the government to secrecy under supposed "national security" excuses - but all in all, you are not seriously prevented in any way from commenting on such things to your heart's desire, as far as I can see - we don't need to be ringing any panic alarms yet concerning "freedom" of the press in Canada.
However - "freedom" is good and necessary for our press or any press - but "freedom" is not a sufficient condition for most things if there is not a substantial amount of "responsibility" to go along with such freedom, and from this perspective, one can advance an argument that there are still some fairly serious shortcomings with the press in Canada, which led me to the following reflections after reading your commentary.
I believe that an equally important area concerning the Canadian press is not receiving anywhere near the amount of attention it ought to be - it doesn't even seem to have a name, actually, so I shall coin one, for the nonce - how about "Responsibility of the Press" in a free and democratic society?? That's a bit wordy for a catchy slogan, but call it what you will, this seems to get quite a lot less attention in our "free" press - there seems to be some sort of "understanding" or assumption that a "free" press will just sort of naturally behave responsibly, that diligently digging for government financial misdeeds or exposing other wrongdoings that reporters and news editors deem newsworthy constitutes the totality of what we need in the media in terms of their "freedom" - but I think that assumption is not warranted. It may have been different many years ago, when newspapers were less expensive to publish, and operated in smaller markets, and there were many, many more of them, or at least many, many more independent owners and publishers, speaking with a myriad of voices that more or less ensured most things the public needed to know would be published by someone at least - but today, where there are but a handful of owners, there are many fewer voices, and increasingly those voices are singing more or less the same tune - which raises the bar considerably concerning the responsibility of these papers to the people they are supposed to be "serving".
Let me explain, briefly.
To begin with, by "responsibility", I mean the responsibility of the press in a democratic society to present a full spectrum of news and commentary and whatever other information is necessary for the citizens of the country to know and understand the issues of the day, including many and various perspectives on any given issue.
There is a very, very strong argument to be made, Ms. Kothawala, that this responsibility is not being met here in Canada, all the freedom that the press enjoys notwithstanding - that the Canadian press, rather than impartially giving Canadians the information they need to make informed decisions about what is happening in Canada and the world, actually presents the news and commentary in a way rather more intended to actually shape and guide the decisions Canadians make on such things - that is, rather than acting as a more or less impartial presenter of news and commentary, the Canadian media is actually a PR organ, a "spin" doctor in modern parlance, for certain vested interests (corporate owners and "investors", to put a face on the accusation), and, as such, regularly spins news and commentary to favor those interests, while marginalizing or even ignoring news or perspectives or interpretations of that news it does not wish the people to be considering at any given time or that reflect negatively on the corporate gatekeepers themselves - and to this end, while not entirely ignoring alternative perspectives, that would be a bit obvious and is not necessary (as in Vegas, fixed games are not necessary, a "house edge" ensures a satisfactory outcome), heavily loads its op-ed pages with commentary from one side of the political spectrum. Anything but "impartial" in actuality - and thus failing seriously if judged on its degree of responsible behaviour, in its duty to present ALL the news the citizens need to be aware of, with a balanced offering of commentary from all relevant perspectives. Indeed, going yet another step, the evidence points rather strongly to the notion that the Canadian media is much more involved with trying to shape Canadian public opinion than doing its rightful job of providing a forum and the necessary information through which Canadians independently arrive at their OWN opinions of how things are, and what ought to be done.
I could give many, many examples of such behaviour on the part of our media in action over the last year or two, or decade or two for that matter, but shall limit myself to two of the more telling and important - not to mention obvious - examples of how the Canadian media compartmentalises the debate into a certain framework, ignoring important facts/options or steering opinion, in this short letter - the ongoing budgetary problems in the country, and the way Canadian political options are presented to the people who will be voting.
First, the ongoing financial problems every government seems to be dealing with these days, in the news every day, from Newfoundland to Ottawa to BC - always complaining about a lack of money, and looking for ways to cut expenses - usually by reducing services that Canadian taxpayers are paying quite a large amount of money to be receiving - or new consumer taxes-user fees to levy on the people least able to afford such things. And the press parrots their lamentations endlessly, with a GREAT deal of commentary about how we are going to have to face the idea of reduced public entitlements in various ways, because we certainly must NOT ever even consider the idea of returning income taxes on corporations to previous levels which helped sustain those programs.
And that is fine, as far as it goes - the people saying these things, government spokespersons or pundits or editors, have a right to their ideas, and to put forward into the public debate things they desire as policy for the country or province. But there is a very important element missing to this story - and a press that was truly responsible to the people of Canada rather than their corporate owners would be talking about it a great deal more, and questioning the position of the government and right-wing pundits on this, since it would be of great benefit to the people.
To put it as simply and clearly as possible: currently every government in the country (except Alberta with their oil wealth) is paying approximately 25% of their entire budget on "debt service" charges - all in all, something like one hundred billion dollars a year of all taxes collected in Canada, federally and provincially, goes into these "service charges" - read that figure slowly, put it in context - one hundred Billion per Year - by FAR the largest single budgetary item in the country, the major expense of almost every budget. And yet there is next to no commentary on this quite amazing fact, during the budget debates or news coverage, or in commentary afterwards - don't you find that a bit strange??? Politicians and pundits are constantly suggesting ways to reduce spending on health care, or the environment, or everything else, or raising revenue through new fines or consumer taxes or user fees on once-free government services that the taxes SHOULD be paying for, and so on - but NEVER any commentary on this HUGE sum, drained year after year after year from the budgets of the country, and if there is any way, any option we might find, to reduce this major expenditure. I myself find that quite striking.
It is even more striking and puzzling when one considers that there is quite a strong argument to be made that this entire expenditure has been and is quite unnecessary - a political decision was made many years ago to begin the incursion of this debt with the resultant service charges, and that path followed in later years - but different decisions could have been made in the past. This huge debt accumulated because the government of Canada (we'll stick to the Federal government here for now, as the discussion ultimately centers here) has, for the last 30 years or so, when it faced a budgetary shortfall, rather than issuing at least a substantial part of the necessary money through the Bank of Canada, which it is not only entitled to do but previously used to for a large percentage of its needs, gone to private banks and lenders, and borrowed that money from them, at prime rates of interest - and over a period of 10-15 years, created the HUGE National Debt that still (and has for years) eats up this HUGE chunk of our tax money every year - around, as I said, 25% of the entire national income - would you be shocked to learn that the federal government over the last 25 years has paid out something like one TRILLION dollars in "service" charges - a Trillion dollars of taxpayers' money that might have been spent on other things, had the government exercised its - that is to say, "our" - sovereign right of creating and controlling the Canadian money supply rather than turning a substantial part of that right over to private interests, for private profit??
Imagine - just imagine!!! - what the government budgets might be like if that constant 25% of taxes collected was not being turned straight over to banks or other "investors", in terms of taking care of the people of Canada who paid those tax dollars!!!! Imagine the federal government with an additional $40 billion this year!! McGuinty's Ontario government with an additional $6-8 billion!!! (and not only this year, but for years in the past and on into the future!!)
I know what's in your head - the "received wisdom" that governments printing their own money leads to terrible inflation, and must be avoided. But ask yourself two questions about this. First - is it really true? And second - what is so great about the alternative policy that has been followed instead, that has resulted in these huge debts that have for years been eating up this constant 25% of our budgets, right off the top, and will into the foreseeable future??? Might a different policy of responsible, government-issued, debt-free money resulted in a better situation today?
The "hyperinflation" bogeyman assumes governments printing huge scads of money irresponsibly, like kids with a printing press buying candy or toys - but why would a modern, responsible government do that? Why would we not assume that such a government would create just a small amount, calculated by responsible, intelligent people, created more or less to match the expected growth in the economy? Think about it - as the economy grows, new money is required to pay for new labour, new goods and services - and that money has to come from somewhere - if it is ok for the government to ask the banks to create a billion dollars which it will then borrow from them to inject into the economy, and this is not considered inflationary - why then is it not ok for the government to instruct the Bank of Canada to create that same billion dollars - with the single major difference that by doing so it does not stick the country with draining interest payments into the foreseeable future? I can provide you with many more references for this if you wish (i.e. start with COMER - the Committee on Monetary Reform, or PROSPERITY, or look up a most illuminating book by a writer called Michael Rowbotham titled "The Grip of Death") - but suffice it to say - had the government been using the Bank of Canada for its constitutionally mandated role in the late 70s and early 80s, this whole national debt we all suffer under now - would not exist!!! Not be eating 25 cents of every dollar we pay in taxes! - and we could hardly have suffered worse inflation that we did in the early 1980s, if you'll recall, with the central bank setting interest rates of up to 20% on debt! Less than $100 billion of the accumulated national debt was borrowed for programs - most of the current $500+ billion of national debt, PLUS all the interest we have paid over the years, was borrowed for interest payments, and interest on the interest, compounded into the stratosphere - which would not have been necessary through the nominal interest the Bank of Canada would require.
But not to delve into ancient history, a story that needs to be told and explored much further in terms of possible criminal conspiracy and fraud on an unbelievable scale, but such is not the point of this short letter - we could even today take major steps to reduce the Canadian national and provincial debts by the same means - when debt came due, rather than rolling it over again with private banks and lenders and new bond issues or whatnot, have the Bank of Canada provide the money to retire the commercial debt, and keep the loan on the books more or less interest free (a nominal service charge to cover administrative expenses is normal - a fraction of 1%) - and all the money thus saved in commercial debt service would then be available for programs for the people who paid the taxes, rather than turning those tax dollars over to "investors" of various types, and the great bulk of the debt retired in a very few years! - and since the Bank of Canada is our bank, We the People of Canada, most of that debt can slowly be written down with no deleterious effects on the economy.
Well, I won't go on with this - there are many permutations to this discussion - but that is the point! - There IS no discussion in the national media about this! None whatsoever - I do not recall seeing ANY article about this ever, although I admittedly do not read every newspaper every day. But as a possible solution to the largest single expenditure of EVERY Canadian government - and a 100% useless expenditure at that, in terms of value received for the taxpayers - at a time when all governments are facing serious financial problems, it should receive some attention, one would think. The arguments about inflation are somewhere between seriously overblown and non-existent, the arguments about irresponsibility equally invalid - and it certainly seems like it could well be a way out of our financial problems, at the very least easing them considerably. But not a word in the press. One can but speculate as to why - but the same wealthy people who own the papers and other media in the country are undoubtedly the same people who are gobbling up the lion's share of that hundred billion in "service charges" the Canadian taxpayers are forking out every year, and thus have pretty large and obvious reasons to keep this discussion from happening.
The second thing I would like to point out that one might be excused for feeling indicates a Canadian press that is somewhat less responsible to "We the People" it purports to be serving than to its owners is the way the various political options in Canada are presented over time - that is, day after day after month after month after year after year - are any patterns evident? Can the Canadian press be accused of giving more attention, and more positive attention, to political parties that support the interests of the corporate-big business lobby, and marginalizing parties that favor policies less favourable to the same Big Business-corporate nexus but that would benefit the people of Canada more?
I think a pretty strong argument can be made to answer that question in the affirmative - indicating that there are some pretty serious issues concerning the "responsibility" of the Canadian press to the people of Canada not being met.
Now, if one was to say that the NDP get a lot less press attention than the Liberals or the new party led by Stephen Harper (I hesitate very much to call them "Conservative" in the Canadian sense of the term, as any real Conservative of the past from Sir John to ol Dief would have cast our Stephen forcefully from the party, if not the country - the New Canadian Republican Party would be a much more accurate appellation, and I think the press should demand a little more honesty in the labelling of such things, but I'll leave that sidetrack too for another time), it is a standard response to say that the press reflects the views of Canadians, and since the Liberals and Harper's party are supported by more Canadians than the NDP, they naturally get more press than the NDP. Again, the "received wisdom" and/or stock answer to such criticisms - which, again, does not stand up to a bit of analysis.
To begin, and make a certain point, let us try a small thought-experiment - let us assume two brand new parties start up in Canada at the same time. Party A has a lot of money to organize and gets a lot of press attention virtually every day through all the things that money can buy and through having good friends at many papers and "friends help friends" stuff happening, while Party B has very little money and gets very little press attention, also having very few friends in newspaper offices. Over the next year or two or three, which party is more likely to become known by people and consequently gather support? This is, in a way, a version of the old chicken-egg question - if a certain party gets a lot of press attention so that more Canadians know of it, will that party get more support than a party that gets very little attention from the press? Which comes first? Press attention or voter attention?
Thus with today's NDP - are they low in the polls, and thus supposedly getting little press attention, because Canadians don't support their policies? Or - would it be more accurate to say that Canadians don't support the NDP a lot because they hear a lot more about other parties in the media? In today's television-driven consumer culture, where "brand-name recognition" is central to consumer choice and so important in product success or failure (if it's not, one might wonder why the big companies spend hundreds of billions yearly on establishing and maintaining such recognition), this kind of thing, over a long period of time, given the continuous entrance into the "political market" of new "consumers" every month, every year, on and on, thus creating a substantial cumulative effect, a very strong argument can be advanced that such coverage is quite central to the degree of support shown to any political party in the country. And again cumulatively, come the election call, will a party that has been receiving regular press attention, and thus is "known and familiar" to the voters, be more apt to attract support, or a party that the media seems to only recognize once the election is called, whose people and policies the voters know little about, and who thus have only a shallow "credibility profile", if I might coin a term?
It would be most interesting to see a study actually done on this by some academic institution, because I think that it would show that the NDP gets much less coverage even on this kind of reckoning (i.e. out of say 100 column inches of political coverage, how many go to which parties, on a long-term basis? - if the NDP have 12% support, do they get 12% of the coverage?? I would wager a substantial amount of money they get substantially less!! - and equally that Harper's New Republican Conservatives have gotten a HUGE amount more than the 20% or so "support" they have from Canadians overall), and has for years - but I have an even more telling idea.
One question throws a bright light on what is going on, in terms of political coverage in Canada, and whether the media "reflects" Canadians' views, or indeed tries to steer them. We all know from poll after poll after poll that the great majority of Canadians strongly support a strong health care system, everything important covered, fully funded by the government, all users treated the same, all across Canada, and are quite willing to pay for this, and even forego corporate tax breaks if called upon to make such a sacrifice. We all know that the Liberals have been gutting funding for the health care system for years, and downloading responsibility to the provinces who cannot afford it so have been cutting corners and reducing services as much as possible creating the unsustainable lineup and people being turned away from emergency rooms etc etc situations, until it is on the edge of collapse, and Harper's gang want to privatise as much of it as possible to allow them to cut taxes to the wealthy as much as possible, and Canadians are not happy with either of these approaches to their health care system - the NDP is the ONLY well-known national party that fully supports the Romanov report, as again do a strong majority of Canadians, and promises to maintain and strengthen the health care system.
Thus - if the press actually reflected the views of Canadians, it would be pushing the NDP and their health care policies much MORE than the other parties, because the NDP is speaking for most Canadians when it wants to maintain the health care system. And yet - as is the pattern overall, we see or hear very little about the NDP in the papers, on the health care issue or any other, yet it is a rare day goes by when we don't hear of some new scheme put forward by one of the other parties or some "think tank" like the Fraser Institute to privatise more of the health care system.
QED, as they say in Latin.
Not arguable - the great majority of the press of Canada, rather than siding with the NDP and the majority of Canadians, and prodding the governments to follow the wishes of Canadians and get their acts together and make the health care system strong once again through necessary funding, are ignoring the NDP and the citizens, but carrying a constant stream of stories and commentaries trying to convince Canadians that they will have to do with less and less health care in the future, and start paying for some variety of two-tier health care - very much against their wishes. Whether or not this is practical is debatable - it would depend on redoing finances as well, as I talked about at the first - but that is not the point - the point it that it does point out very clearly where the media are on this issue, and that they cannot use the argument of "reflecting the views of Canadians" in their coverage of this particular issue, which makes the claim dubious at best when raised for other issues.
One could mention any number of other issues and examine them under the same light - the new American "Missile Defence" shield, reducing corporate taxes, environmental protection, strengthening democracy through increased citizen input - the NDP speaks with the same voice as most Canadians on these issues, while the Libs and Harper people speak for a minority of views - and yet the NDP gets marginalized in the press, and the Libs and Harper people get their policies debated and promoted day after day after day, and the op-ed pages are dominated with similar POV-pieces, which most Canadians, according to most reliable polls ("reliable" does NOT include right-wing think-tanks such as the Fraser/Howe/etc Institutes), do not agree with.
It would be most interesting indeed to see what would happen to NDP support (and other small parties, for that matter) if they got the same amount of press coverage as the "mainstream" parties whose policies are more supported by the people who own the media. I am not holding my breath waiting for that to happen, however!
I am sure, in defence of the status quo, you could start going into details about how the NDP does get "some" coverage, and alternative points of view are printed "sometimes" - and these are the kinds of arguments presented when somebody wants to show how we have a great free press in Canada - but I would suggest to you that on balance, as I have explained above, if looked at impartially, it is at the end of the day pretty hard to deny that overall (there are notable exceptions who present a "centrist" viewpoint at times, that is to say carry both sides of an issue, such as the CBC and Toronto Star, but noone else - and these two organisations are but a small section of the overall Canadian media) the Canadian press is NOT an impartial press at all, but it has an agenda - a neocon agenda - that it promotes and pushes on the Canadian people - trying, that is, to shape the opinions of the citizens of Canada, rather than, as a true impartial media ought to do, being a national vehicle through which Canadians could truly become informed of all sides of any given issue, and debate the pros and cons of every side of an issue, giving everyone the information required to come to a fair and balanced decision about that issue.
Well, I see I have gone on a bit longer than expected, but these are important issues, and do not really lend themselves to soundbites, and I shall not apologise for being a concerned citizen. I do hope you will give some consideration to the points I have raised - and maybe sometime in the near future the Canadian Newspaper Association can sponsor a new Canadian Press "Responsibility" Day, in which such things might get examined a bit. While we get an "A" in freedom of the press in this country, I fear that in terms of responsibility, the overall mark of the Canadian press would be somewhat closer to "D", at best.