It’s barely been in the news, but one of the biggest political stories in a long time will likely happen this week. More than half the major newspapers in the country belonging to Canwest chain are being sold off.
The winning bidder will gain enormous power — the capacity to shape the national discussion. The bidding process has been kept so quiet that little is known about the major candidates for the big prize. But parties representing the right, the centre and the centre-left are apparently in the running.
The newspapers, including the National Post, have been under conservative direction since the late 1990s and have been of major benefit to that cause. Before that, when the Southam family owned many of the titles, it was of significant benefit to the other side.
Never mind the Jaffer affair, never mind the Afghan detainees controversy. If the conservatives lose these jewels, which also include major papers in Vancovuer, Edmonton, Calgary, Ottawa and Montreal, it would be a bigger blow to Stephen Harper than either.
The reason there has been such little discussion about the big media sell-off is that media don’t do an adequate job of covering media. The old cliché about nobody watching the watchdog applies. In this case, there’s a good reason. Since many of the bidders already own large swaths of media, there’s too much self-interest for the reporting to be seen as being objective.
There is also, regrettably, no discussion about the issue of concentration of media ownership. This has been the ideal time to debate the problem, but there has been none. The papers, apparently, are going to be sold in one big block, meaning the monopoly situation will continue and perhaps worsen.
Media concentration in Canada is among the highest in any Western country. In the mainstream media, a small number of players control what we read, see and hear. If you’re thinking too much power in too few hands, you are on the mark.
Several studies over the years, the last being a Senate report in 2006, have all warned of the dangers of concentration but hardly anything has been done. No government has had the courage to act.
Fortunately, the rise of non-traditional media is denting the domination of the big mainstream players. But it’s still a lamentable situation when one family or small group, no matter what side of the political spectrum they represent, can control most of the major newspapers in this county.
Lawrence Martin is a journalist and author of 10 books who writes about national affairs from Ottawa.