Discussions surrounding media governance, regulation, and policy making by government and private sector media have increased since the arrival of the network society. Digital technologies have widened the reach and means to communicate in ways never before imagined. According to Raboy (2006) “questions surrounding access, freedom of expression and control are more urgent than ever” (p. 290). As governments gradually pull away from media ownership and push toward privatization, a struggle for power, and control of media networks from among corporate media actors (such as Quebecor, BCE, Rogers, and CanWest Global) swells within Canada and throughout the world. Media agencies are more concerned with promoting and protecting their own agendas and reputations than protecting the public’s interest. Media corporations regularly represent specific political agendas or systematically repress certain facts. Therefore, if we consider the constraints on freedom to communicate in Canada are imposed by government and large private sector media, then a perspective informed by the “right to communicate” would help to counter an oligarchical system and therefore enable a framework of democracy and pluralism.
Canada’s Media Regulatory Framework
Global debates are taking place regarding the state’s role relative to communication, media, and culture. Frequently arising from these debates is the argument that a new regulatory framework is desperately needed in order for media to flourish. In the article, “The 2005 Graham Spry memorial lecture making media: Creating the conditions for communications in the public good” Raboy (2006) argues that the state should be aggressively regulating media and that Canada needs a new regulatory framework “focused on how to guarantee communicative access and equity” (p. 299). Raboy continues by stating that such a framework needs to involve the public into the media and cultural policy making because “media are paramount social institutions, public intervention with respect to their orientation is both legitimate and necessary” (2006, p. 298). In contrast Schultz (2007) argues that the state should not have a strong hold on media regulation because of its “compulsion to control” but agrees with Raboy that a new regulatory framework is needed (Black, Communication and Media Policy in Canada PowerPoint, 2012). According to Schultz, Canada’s current media and cultural policy regime is built on two out dated premises. The first premise is the idea that media must be controlled by government through policy and regulation, and second is the fear of Canada losing its distinct culture to the influence of American media. While the Canadian government still has some influence over the media through awarding broadcast licenses and by regulating policies, they have lost much of their power.
The Crippling of Communication Rights
Bell Canada Enterprises (BCE) recently announced a $3.4-billion acquisition deal of Astral Media, Canada’s largest pay and specialty TV broadcaster who own 84 radio stations in 50 Canadian markets and 24 television services. BCE met with Canada’s media regulatory board, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) to pitch their request and receive permission to move forward with the acquisition. The CRTC chairman, Jean-Pierre Blasis, said that CRTC will review the BCE request very seriously to make sure the transaction is in the public’s interest. To help persuade the CRTC decision, BCE added that if the deal is allowed to go through BCE will launch a Canadian competitor to Netflix following Canadian content regulations that will provide tax revenue for the government. The acquisition has rivals Quebecor and Shaw fearing that the purchase will give BCE too much control over Canada’s media landscape which will put Canadian consumers at risk of higher prices and limited choices. Campaigns have been started to stop the deal stating that if the deal is allowed to go through BCE would control 37.6 per cent of the Canadian market and one rival is arguing it will be as high as 49.9 per cent. The questions that the CRTC must carefully consider are, “what percentage of the Canadian market will BCE control?” and “will that percentage be creating a media monopoly for BCE?”
The main issue is that the current system of communication and media in Canada cripples the communication rights of individuals conducive of a democratic society, impedes pluralism and creates powerful media monopolies as is the case potentially with BCE. This is not a matter for Canada only; one infamous U.S. case of media concentration is that of Clear Channel, which now owns more than 1,200 radio stations throughout the United States. Early in 2000 a small town in South Dakota had a chemical spill and authorities needed to alert the local community of the health risks. When the decision was made to use the local radio stations as a means of disseminating the warnings, it was discovered that a national company, Clear Channel, owned all the local radio stations. They had no local staff or public programming and the towns’ people could not be alerted about the public health and safety issue over local airwaves.
Consider if the CRTC was to use a regulatory framework based on the “right to communicate” in the BCE situation. This type of an approach would aim at providing “an enabling framework within which the media can flourish and contribute to democratic public life and human development” (Raboy, 2005, p. 115). The term “right to communicate” is typically attributed to Jean d’Arcy who served in the United Nations Office of Public Information in the 1960s (Felczak, Smith, & Glass, 2009, p. 438). Jean d’Arcy argued that Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights did not adequately address the “bidirectional, interactive nature of communication” (Felczak et al., 2009, p. 438) because it could be understood in a non-interactive sense not conducive to “the sort of two-way communication facilitated by developments in telecommunication” (Felczak et al., 2009, p. 438). The two-way communication mentioned by Jean d’Arcy is even more relevant in today’s network society of computers, mobile devices and social media. The right to communicate implies and seeks to develop a communication cycle of not only seeking, receiving and imparting of information and ideas as Article 19 states, but also “listening and being heard, understanding, learning, creating and responding” (Ó Siochrú, 2004, p. 7). Therefore, a communication rights framework cultivates an environment necessary for a democratic society that is receptive and responsive to the public’s needs and cultural differences.
Freedom of Expression
The Bell acquisition of Astral Media demonstrates the importance of the right to communicate for two main reasons. First, a right to communicate helps to reduce corporate media dominance by enabling an environment for individual expression and participation. Chuck Lewis, executive director of the Centre for Public Integrity stated, “If media moguls control media content and media distribution, then they have a lock on the extent and range of diverse views and information. That kind of grip on commercial and political power is potentially dangerous for any democracy” (Gutierrez, 2004). Media monopolies will continue to grow in Canada as long as the CRTC allows it to happen. Second, a right to communicate enables a pluralistic framework through the promotion of Canadian identity and culture regardless of diversity. Lewis argues “The principal reason people should care about the increasing concentration of the media has to do with independent thinking, freedom of thought and ideas… the fewer the outlets for information, the less intellectual range for political, ideological and other thinking” (Gutierrez, 2004). In other words, if you reduce media monopolies you provide opportunity for a greater range of identity, ideas, and culture, therefore countering an oligarchical system and enabling a framework of democracy and pluralism.
Black, D. (2012). Communication and media policy in Canada. Course material PCOM 640 Communication Policy, Politics and Law, Week 4, 1-35, Royal Roads University, Victoria, British Columbia.
Felczak, M., Smith, R., & Glass, G. (2009). Communicating with (some) Canadians:Communication rights and government online in Canada. Canadian Journal of Communication, 34(3), 435-460.
Gutierrez, M. (2004, March 19). MEDIA: Fewer players, less freedom. Retrieved from http://www.ipsnews.net/2004/03/media-fewer-players-less-freedom
Ó Siochrú, S. (2004, November 21). Introducing communication rights. Retrieved from http://www.direitoacomunicacao.org.br/index2.phpoption=com_docman&task=doc_view&gid=137&Itemid=99999999
Raboy, M. (2005). Media and democratization in the information society. In Girard, B., & Ó Siochrú, S. (Eds.), Communicating in the information society (pp. 101-119). Geneva:UNRISD.
Raboy, M. (2006). The 2005 Graham Spry memorial lecture making media: Creating the conditions for communication in the public good. Canadian Journal of Communication, 31(2), 289-306.
Schultz, R. (2007). Chapter 2: Canadian communications and the spectre of globalization. In How Canadians Communicate II: Media, Globalization and Identity (pp. 23-46). Calgary, Alberta: University of Calgary Press.