His opponent, NDP Premier Glen Clark told an audience of union delegates at last week’s convention in Vancouver of the Canadian Labour Congress, is “as articulate and charming as he is ideological and right-wing, an opponent who has a huge public following.... But enough,” concluded Clark, “about Rafe Mair.”The remark, aimed at the former Social Credit cabinet minister who now hosts a popular Vancouver-based radio call-in show, was meant to be as much of a joke as it was a gibe. But it shed a revealing light on the wariness with which British Columbia’s politicians regard their province’s powerful news media.
Relations between press and politicians are often testy, of course; indeed, there can be reason for concern if the relationship becomes too cozy. Still, a growing number of critics are speaking out about what they say is a disproportionate influence wielded by three media outlets over British Columbia’s political agenda. In addition to Mair’s CKNW station, attention has focused on Vancouver’s leading television station, BCTV, and on the city’s principal daily, The Vancouver Sun.The two broadcasters are both owned by Vancouver-based WIC Western International Communications Ltd.; the Sun is part of the Southam newspaper chain. Collectively, the three outlets claim a giant share of British Columbia’s
news audience. Mair’s daily show, for instance, is syndicated throughout much of the province. With an average audience of 600,000 for its main evening newscast, BCTV commands one of the largest market shares of any metropolitan TV station in North America. And the Sun is the only daily broadsheet distributed provincewide.
The influence of the three is pervasive. “The extraordinary thing,” observes Robert Hackett, an associate professor of communication at Simon Fraser University who is researching the media’s political role, “is the extent to which they are shaping the political agenda.” At one level, Hackett notes, campaigning politicians have altered their schedules to cater to the needs of BCTV. More subtly, Hackett believes that by focusing relentlessly on the provincial deficit, the Sun and BCTV in particular have underplayed other public concerns, as expressed repeatedly in opinion polls, about the state of government services. As a result, he says, the dominant media threaten to determine “what criteria voters use to make their decisions.”
Clark’s wisecrack aside, politicians in British Columbia have been largely silent on the issue of media power. In part, that may be the result of not wanting to appear to be blaming the messenger for shortcomings in their own campaigns. Or it may be a silent acknowledgment of how much power the influential outlets really do wield.
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