Today's media language a little too much like 1984's Newspeak

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Photo: flickr/digital cat

Newspeak is the fictional language in the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, written by George Orwell. It is a controlled language created by the totalitarian state as a tool to limit freedom of thought and concepts that pose a threat to the regime.


Canada is not Orwell's imaginary society where peoples' every thoughts and ideas are controlled by The Party, but our own powerful elite has pushed our media closer to censorship and a propaganda-feeding machine than I ever imagined possible.

Our elite include the wealthy, corporate executives, private media and the Harper government. As Orwell wrote in his novel, the elite understand that if they have strong influence over media they can limit serious criticism of the tremendous changes they impose on ordinary people.

All but one of Canada's 118 daily newspapers and all four of its private television networks support the business-dominated ideology of the elite and the Harper government. The CBC has some excellent, independent-minded programming, but CBC management is so terrified of Stephen Harper that it doesn't allow the boat to be rocked.

Of course journalists are allowed to write stories that are politely critical of the Harper government, one of the links in the chain of power, but far too often stories focus on the government's strategy to overcome an image problem.

For instance, consider The Globe and Mail's front page treatment on Monday of the demotion of Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino. Instead of talking about how the change will allow the government to improve services for veterans, it dealt entirely with Harper trying to improve the image of the government going into an election.

Worse still, mainstream journalists are censored and not permitted to investigate the powers and activities of the elite, such as executives from energy corporations, banks or multi-national corporations. Even though the world economy is in tatters, mainstream journalists are not permitted to question the weaknesses of capitalism.

On the other hand, journalists don't report favourably on "troublemakers" such as union leaders and environmentalists.

Interestingly, elites and the media establishment have such strong control over the language we use that mainstream journalists are prohibited from writing or uttering the phrase 'neo-liberalism', even though this is the name of the far right-wing ideological system the Harper government has used to change Canada. This is too similar to Orwell's Newspeak, a language in which unacceptable political ideas have been removed.

Our North American elite and our subservient media long ago decided that positive references to socialism and communism -- both forms of politics practiced across Europe -- were unacceptable. In Orwell's 1984, using words that had been officially removed from the dictionary because they were politically incorrect was called Oldspeak.

Our Canadian elite monitor mainstream news and complain to media executives when a story is too critical of one of its members or a favored institution. The servant-like media executive almost always apologizes, and may have a 'conversation' with the offending journalist. Not exactly the media environment described in 1984, but nevertheless such practices have a chilling effect on today's journalism.

Canadian mainstream media wasn't always like this. I remember 20 or 30 years ago when panelists expressed their true opinions, and often argued about whether government was doing a good job of serving the public. The wellbeing of ordinary people was paramount. The key points were often around whether government was ethical, honourable and serving society.

A highpoint were the discussions heard weekly on Peter Gzowski's CBC Radio Morningside, featuring the insightful and heartfelt views of Stephen Lewis (left), Eric Kierans (middle) and Dalton Camp (right). Hundreds-of-thousands of Canadians tuned in to hear these three intellectuals discuss and argue key issues in a way that engaged ordinary folk.

Today, the influence of the elite flows so strongly into the media world that practically all TV and radio panelists and newspaper columnists are censored or self-censored. Two progressive journalists who appear on different CBC panels confidently told me they are careful about what they say for fear of losing their spot on their programs.

Both CTV (Robert Fife's Question Period) and Global (Tom Clark's The West Block) make sure that their politics programs in no way challenge conventional thinking on the Hill or on Bay Street. Over at CBC's News Network Power and Politics, Evan Solomon does the best job of pushing politicians for honest answers, but is careful to stay within the boundaries of what's acceptable to discuss.

The politics program that comes closest to following a Newspeak-type language is CBC's The National Thursday night media program, At Issue. Hosted by CBC Chief News Editor Peter Mansbridge, its' usual panelists are Andrew Coyne of Postmedia/National Post, Toronto Star columnist Chantel Hebert, and the non-journalist member, consultant Bruce Anderson of Abacus Data.

At Issue discussions are very controlled. Panelists don't say anything that will annoy the elite. Although Parliament is the place where tons of legislation is produced that affects the country, this four seldom, if ever, say whether a new program is, or is not, in the public interest.

At Issue never deals with lofty topics. Instead, almost all episodes discuss what strategy XX party will adopt in response to whatever move YY party has made. Strategy and positioning of politicians are the big topics. An entire segment can be eaten up with pompous answers to questions that have very little significance 1,000 yards from Parliament Hill.

During their year-end program, the four discussed Mansbridge's earlier wimpish interview with Harper. Harper adopted a smiling, nice-guy persona for the Mansbridge interview. Harper's polite tone and demeanour -- obviously a PR strategy -- was at odds with the way he has bullied the country for nine years.

Mansbridge's first question to his panel was a perfect example of what's wrong with the program. He asked: "Was there anything new about Stephen Harper or the way he's positioning himself [my emphasis] going into an election year?"

This gave panelists an excellent opportunity to speculate about whether Harper's smiling presence in the Mansbridge interview was for real, or an attempt to control the nature of the interview. But, as though guided by the laws of Newspeak, the three lapped up everything Harper had to say. They were like naïve j-school graduates who had forgotten one of journalism's key laws: Pay attention to what politicians do, not to what they say they will do.

Coyne thought he heard a hint that Harper might do a flip-flop on climate change. [Had he been there, Harper might have said to Coyne: Gee thanks for putting that out there. That should help confuse people].

Hebert said Harper needed the next few months to re-introduce himself to people who voted for him in 2011. [Harper to Hebert: Thanks for the advice. Just what I was thinking.]

Anderson said he thought that Harper's approach of painstakingly explaining his electoral positioning "will work better with most voters who are at least open to the idea of voting Conservative."[Harper to Anderson: Glad you liked my performance].

Toward the end of the program, Mansbridge asked a very important question: He wanted to know whether his panel members thought Harper had accomplished what he said he would do in 2006: Change Canada so much by the time he was through that we wouldn't recognize the country?

There it was: The question on the minds of millions of Canadians. Four of the country's so-called media celebrities had a chance to say how much damage they felt Harper had done.

Speaking in turn, Coyne, Hebert and Anderson did a little tap dance, and then stated that Harper had not changed Canada in any meaningful way.

Hello! Has Harper not altered our tax system to make the rich and corporations even more wealthy, while allowing the middle class to slide into greater debt? Has he not put our national health care system on a path to be financially unstainable? Are there not 1,000 more ways he has tried to destroy the Canada we have known?

This is where mainstream journalism finds itself in 2015. And just like the citizens of Orwell's Oceania were subjected to massive control and censorship, our society is subjective to much less information control, but nevertheless control that prevents us from having access to vital information and that undermines our basic democracy.

Our right-wing corporate mainstream media may never provide fair and balanced journalism. Except for the CBC -- and no one knows what will happen there -- all of our big media is owned by corporations that are part of the capitalist world. The country cries out for independent news sites to either expand or join with other groups to establish a supersite that could begin to compete with their Newspeak rivals.

Nick Fillmore is a Canadian freelance journalist and regular who specializes in media analysis, climate change, and international finance. He worked in various capacities at the CBC, including as an investigative reporter, for close to 30 years, and is a founder of the Canadian Association of Journalists.

Photo: flickr/digital cat

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