Canadian Commentary: Media and Culture

The Sun in Teacher's Eyes

November 1997

One of the stranger aspects of the just-finished teacher's strike was the systematic anti-teacher campaign conducted by the Toronto Sun on its front page for the three weeks of the drama. The reason this is odd is that the Sun is in fact largely owned by the teachers through their pension fund. You would have thought that the Sun's managers would have been grateful to the teachers, because their pension fund actually saved the Sun's management from a fate worse than death (or being owned by teachers): being owned by Pierre Peladeau, the separatist press baron of Quebec.

Theoretically, of course, this is all very laudable. The teachers are supporting freedom of the press by letting the newspaper they own conduct an overt propaganda campaign against them. But let's get real. Can you imagine the Globe spending three week attacking Lord Thompson on its front page? Or the Ottawa Citizen systematically going after Conrad Black's media monopoly in its headlines? Of course not. These owners might accept the occasional critical article or editorial, but as soon as a negative story hit the front page, these owners would have straightened their editors out immediately.

The teachers did, in fact, try to get some influence over the Sun's editorial stance a few months ago. But, being new to the power of ownership, they went about it in a rather ham-fisted way, trying to get someone on the editorial board. They were rightly criticized for this (by Terence Corcoran among others). They should take a lesson from Conrad Black. He does not interfere directly with his editors (other than forcing them to run his wife's column); rather, he simply makes sure he appoints editors who broadly agree with him, and who know that if they get out of line, they'll be looking for a job. Similarly, the teachers should not make the Sun actually support their union (far too uncharacteristic); they should merely ensure that the reporting of the issue is more balanced - and the front pages more neutral. So, what do they do? The teachers should simply direct their pension fund to inform the Sun's management that, given the paper's anti-teacher campaign, they no longer feel comfortable being its owners, and intend to sell their shares to Pierre Peladeau. That should straighten the Sun out pretty quick.

HORRORS! Am I actually advocating interfering with a free press? Again, a reality check is in order. As long as a newspaper has a majority owner, it is not free. It may be free in day-to-day decisions, but the overall thrust of the paper is decided by its owner. This is simply a fact of the capitalist system - he who pays the piper calls the tune. The difference with the Sun is that, suddenly, the owners of capital in Canada are changing. This change is a reflection of a rather important socio-economic shift. For most of Canada's history, the only people with enough capital to control companies were wealthy individuals or families. In the last decade or so, however, pension funds and mutual funds, who combine the wealth of thousands of middle-class individuals, have become major players in Canada's capital markets. So far, however, they have tended to shy away from exercising the power this capital gives them. They have avoided majority ownership situations, and even when they control enough of a company to put someone on the board, they have not tried to have influence on the overall direction of the company. This avoidance of power is largely due to the fact that, consisting of a vast number of individuals, it is much harder to find any collective will towards a specific direction.

Meanwhile, the concentration of media ownership in the hands of a few press barons is hugely reducing the scope and variety of reporting and points of view in the Canadian press. Once upon a time, there were multiple newspapers in any individual city, who necessarily had to represent different points of view in order to secure a piece of the market. Individually, none of these newspapers was "free" - they represented a specific point of view, of an owner and/or a political party; but, collectively, their variety of points of view created a free press. With the maturing of the industry, most cities have only one newspaper; even the largest Canadian cities have only a few dailies. The ownership of these newspapers is concentrated in the hands of a small number of press barons. With the takeover of Southam by Conrad Black, most of these owners expect their papers to reflect their point of view in a general way; since the owners are of necessity very wealthy, this point of view is generally conservative.

Furthermore, this lack of competition tends to lead to a certain laziness in reporting. No-one is particularly interested in finding underlying stories or different points of view on the major stories of the day. This was evident in the teacher's strike. To the teachers, one of the primary reasons for striking was the outrageous concentration of educational decision-making in the hands of the cabinet and its appointed commission in Bill 160. The scope of this concentration is astonishing - not only can the cabinet decide most matters affecting teacher's working conditions by regulation, but the cabinet has the power to dismiss democratically elected school trustees and boards if they do not agree with the government's appointees. Yet the press did not really pick up on this factor, presenting instead a picture of teachers fighting over the particular working conditions described by the bill (such as reduction in preparation time) - issues which provided less justification for a strike.

Perhaps it is time that the middle class, those new capitalists, began exercising the power their capital gives them in a free-market society. The only way we can really ensure a free press in Canada is to have a true variety of ownership. Go ahead, teachers! Exercise your new-found capitalist power! All other newspaper barons do it. Conrad Black certainly does it. Why shouldn't you?

Nov. 9, 1997

Back to main page

Copyright Dylan Reid

Contents may not be reproduced in whole or in part without the written consent of Dylan Reid