Back in the olden days, the really olden days, public policy in Canada in certain sensitive sectors, including publishing, broadcasting and banking, was governed by three big “NOs.”
• No undue concentration of corporate ownership—the object being to allow the people a multiplicity of choice (at the expense, if necessary, of economic efficiency);
• No cross-ownership— newspapers weren’t supposed to own television stations, or vice versa, nor banks to own trust or insurance companies;
• No foreign ownership—the better to preserve Canadian uniqueness and enable Canada’s identity to flourish.
It was an age of innocence, a time when the three big NOs seemed to make eminent good sense. A paternalistic time when people believed that government could, and should, keep the corporate beast on a leash, that national borders could be successfully defended against foreign ideas and enterprises, that media barons, if any were ever allowed to emerge, would lead a malleable populace into error. These beliefs were probed and validated in one way or another by a succession of official bodies, including three royal commissions (O’Leary on publications in the early 1960s, Bryce on corporate concentration in the 1970s and Kent on newspapers at the beginning of the 1980s) plus one special Senate committee (Davey on the mass media in 1970).
Reading their reports today, one is struck by how dated and naïve they seem. Keith Davey, for example, called on the government to ensure “diverse and antagonistic sources” of information by, among other things, creating a Press Ownership Review Board and giving it a guideline: “concentration is bad— unless proved otherwise.” Eleven years later, Tom Kent followed in the same vein, proposing that Ottawa enact a Canada Newspaper Act that would not only prohibit any further concentration of ownership and cross-ownership, but would be able, in some circumstances, to break up existing chains.
Of course, nothing came of the press ownership board or the newspaper act. If they had come into being, there would be no Quebecor chain, no Thomson, BCE/CTV, Hollinger or Can West Global. In theory, at least. In reality, any government agency that tried to block change would have been swept aside by forces far beyond its control: the 500-channel universe, a proliferation of publications (as many as 5,000 titles on Canadian newsstands today), the Internet with its more than three billion Web sites, and free trade, which makes national borders increasingly irrelevant. Although Keith Davey’s diversity of voices may have given way, on the ownership front, to Izzy Asper’s multimedia convergence, the battle has not necessarily been lost. There are fewer owners these days but there is no shortage of choice for the rest of us. — email@example.com to comment on From the Editor
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.