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If we'd heeded Tom Kent in 1981, our democracy would be healthier today

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Tom Kent

Today we mark the passage of Tom Kent, the man who got it right about the state of Canada's news media and was ignored to the country's great disservice.

Kent -- who had a distinguished career as a journalist, code-breaker, senior civil servant, Liberal Party activist, adviser to prime ministers, businessman and academic -- was asked in 1980 by the government of prime minister Pierre Trudeau to lead an inquiry into what was then so clearly going wrong with the Canadian newspaper industry, and by extension the rest of the media.

The Royal Commission on Newspapers, which began its work in 1981 under Kent's chairmanship, was created in response to the moves by powerful corporate special interests to dominate and control the flow of news essential to our democracy through the concentration of media ownership.

It seems faintly quaint today that the event the sparked the inquiry was the sudden closing of two venerable daily newspapers -- the Ottawa Journal and the Winnipeg Tribune -- in a sleazy deal worked out between their two corporate owners to allow each company to totally dominate the then highly profitable print advertising business in one of the two cities. No one would blink an eye if something similar happened today.

But where things were then was much different -- and much healthier -- than they are today, with our mass media in an advanced state of decay and corporate domination and only the chaotic threads of the Internet offering any succour to the democratic necessity for freedom of information and expression.

"Where we are is, in the Commission's opinion, entirely unacceptable for a democratic society," the final report of the Royal Commission stated in July 1981. "Too much power is in too few hands; and it is power without accountability. Whether the power is in practice well used or ill used or not used at all is beside the point. The point is that how it is used is subject to the indifference or to the whim of a few individuals, whether hidden or not in a faceless corporation."

Since those words were written we have seen how that power has been used, and has been abused for malign purposes, for 30 years. Today, as we know and are powerless to change except for our pinprick efforts on the Internet, the situation is infinitely worse and more sinister than it was then.

Indeed, as this lament is written, despite claims to the contrary, our Conservative government in Ottawa is preparing to destroy the CBC -- pretty much the last remaining major news media organization in operation in Canada not entirely devoted to the corporatist line. That said, plenty of fault can be found in the CBC's coverage in this regard as it seeks to ingratiate itself with the government to save itself from the depredations of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's neo-Con ideology.

We can say this about the government's intentions toward the CBC with reasonable certainty because, as has been noted in this space before, we are able to observe and understand the behaviour of the prime minister's well-disciplined spear-carriers in the ranks of his Alberta caucus. So when you hear the likes of Brent Rathgeber, the MP for Edmonton-St. Albert, assailing the CBC as he did during the May 2011 election campaign or advocating its significant de-funding as he did on his taxpayer-financed MP's blog earlier this month, you can be confident that something is in the wind.

This time Rathgeber, who claims he actually likes the CBC, proposes restructuring the network along the lines of the Public Broadcasting Service in the United States. "I favour continuation of the CBC, but on a charitable model rather than on a perpetual subsidized basis," Rathgeber wrote. "Rather than compelling every taxpayer to pay $69 towards the CBC, viewers could contribute whatever amount they like voluntarily and get a tax receipt for so doing. This certainly works well south of the border for its Public Broadcaster (PBS), which continues to produce great documentaries, while promoting American culture." (Emphasis added.)

"There was a time when, given Canada's large geography and sparse population, it was not commercially viable for private broadcasters to reach the remote north or even much of the rural west," Rathgeber went on, echoing the points he made during the election campaign. "The advent of satellite dishes has certainly remedied that. So in 2011, seventy-five years after its inception, the role and efficacy of the CBC must be critically addressed."

It would be a fair observation that Rathgeber is not a politician who steps out of the Conservative message box very far or very often. And it would be reasonable to assume on that basis that his remarks provide a reasonable indicator of where the Harper Government intends to go to emasculate and if possible destroy the CBC.

Alas, no $69-dollar-a-year calculation will ever be done to account for the cost of tax breaks and special favours for Harper's CBC-hating rooting section and echo chamber at Sun Media, which is rapidly becoming the Conservative Party's semi-official version of Pravda.

That said, perhaps there is some merit to the idea of assigning all of our taxes on a charitable basis, as Rathgeber proposes for the CBC. He might be surprised what Canadians, given the choice, would opt to fund, and not to fund.

Regardless, if we had listened to Kent's suggestions three decades ago, we would not be in the fix we find ourselves in today. Indeed, from this troubled vantage point, he looks like a prophet.

The Royal Commission's recommendations included prohibitions on further concentration of media ownership, which was far less severe then than now, tax incentives for wider media ownership and tax breaks to newspapers that devoted more space to local news coverage. Under the legislation proposed by the commission, no budding Conrad Black would have been allowed to own more than five newspapers, and each of those would have had to be more than 500 kilometres from any other.

Alas, these principles were only half-heartedly endorsed by the Trudeau Government, and they were quickly discarded by prime minister Brian Mulroney. Like that of the United States after President Ronald Reagan, when limits on media ownership concentration were eliminated, Canadian media ownership was soon almost entirely controlled by a handful of corporate owners with little interest in the needs or prevailing views of the communities in which their papers were published. Our democracy has suffered accordingly.

Needless to say, in their reports on his death, media (including the CBC) passed very lightly over the Royal Commission and its recommendations, if they mentioned them at all.

Kent was 89 when he died on Tuesday. He will be missed.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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