Lockout highlights dangers of media concentration

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With media ownership more highly concentrated in Canada than almost anywhere else in the industrial world, our government has a vital role to play in reversing the trend.

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) began hearings aimed at setting new policies for media consolidation and diversity last week.

Canada's largest media corporations have been making the case against restrictions that would limit their further expansion. CTVglobemedia Inc., for example, is demanding that proposed restrictions take the form of guidelines instead of formal rules.

This is an important opportunity for Canadians to reflect on the impacts media convergence has had on journalism and journalists in this country. A story unfolding in Quebec City shows the extent to which things have gone out of hand in Canada.

On April 22, Sun Media Corporation locked out newsroom and office workers at le Journal de Québec. There was nothing to justify this move. The unions were in the midst of collective bargaining, and had not taken strike votes or adopted any other pressure tactics. Until then, not a single day of work had been lost to labour conflict at le Journal de Quebec since the paper opened in 1967.

What does media convergence have to do with this?

The Sun Media Corporation is Canada's largest chain of tabloids and community newspapers. Its parent company, Quebecor Inc., is one of Canada's largest media conglomerates. Quebecor also owns Vidéotron Ltd., the largest cable service provider in Quebec, TVA, the largest private French language broadcaster in North America, Canoe, one of the largest networks of English and French language general-interest and special-interest Internet portals in Canada.

Within this environment of cross media ownership, there has been a drive at Quebecor to centralize control of content into one big newsroom. Journalists at le Journal de Québec were disgruntled about being forced to take on responsibilities beyond those of investigating and reporting. Journalists were being expected to multitask in ways that limited their ability to deliver high quality journalism. On top of their reporting duties, they were asked to operate film, video and photo equipment.

And despite Quebecor's assurance to the CRTC panel that Big Media are in a better position to protect diversity, newsroom convergence has meant less relevant content, local coverage, original journalism and newsroom independence at le Journal de Québec. These factors have contributed to the dissatisfaction of journalists at the bargaining table.

Quebecor negotiators have rejected offers to restart negotiations. They have managed to continue operations using wire stories and freelance journalists. They have even gone so far as to train executives on Quark page-layout software. Sun Media Corporation apparently considers professional editorial staff and journalists superfluous to running a major newspaper.

This is a cautionary tale about convergence that serves as a warning for journalists across the country. Sun Media's actions show a general lack of respect for labour rights and a disdain for the journalistic profession which are typical in an environment of media concentration where large conglomerates compete with each other by cutting labour and administrative costs.

To make things worse, Quebecor purchased Osprey Media this summer, giving it control over an additional 54 Canadian newspapers including such titles as the St. Catharines Standard, the Kingston Whig-Standard and the Peterborough Examiner as well as several magazines and specialty publications.

This purchase is part of a wave of media mergers that occurred this year including the CTVglobemedia purchase of CHUM Ltd. and the Rogers Communications acquisition of CityTV.

The CRTC succumbed to CanWest MediaWorks' antics by postponing a public hearing on the corporations' acquisition of the specialty channels of Alliance Atlantis Communications Inc. to November 19. The hearing was originally scheduled to be held before the media diversity hearings.

With media ownership being more highly concentrated in Canada than almost anywhere else in the industrial world, our government has a vital role to play in reversing the trend and preventing what is happening to workers at le Journal de Québec from happening elsewhere in the country.

Let's hope the CRTC hearings will be the first step in that direction.

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