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KENT COMMISSION—4
One can hope, but Kent report likely to go the way of Davey's
By Paul Park

Who killed Cock Robin?
"I," said the sparrow,
" With my little arrow"
Who killed Canadian newspapers?
"I," said Lord Ken,
" With a stroke of my pen."

It was precisely that sort of arrogant feeling among the owners of what remains of the Canadian newspaper industry that led to the establishment of the Royal Commission on Newspapers headed by Tom Kent.

Sadly, when the commission finishes its work by July, little will have been accomplished to make the owners of the media change that attitude. They will continue to deliver a product below their capabilities, crammed with ads and too many bright, light and trite "lifestyle" stories.

When one considers what could have been done, what real changes could have been made, what a total all-round kick in the ass this business could receive, and when one looks at what will happen, depression is likely to set in.

It's not that these commissioners are not qualified to look at the state of news-papering today. Tom Kent was once an editorial writer and editor in chief of the Winnipeg Free Press. Borden Spears, although a former editor of Maclean's and consultant to the Davey committee, is best known as the man who, while at the Toronto Star, did every thing except bundle the newspapers for the carriers. Laurent Picard was once president of the CBC.

The problem is the system and the mandate the commission was given. Canada does not have anti-trust laws which have any teeth in them. Only market forces kept Power Corporation from buying Argus a few years back, only market forces prevented Campeau Corporation from buying Royal Trustco Ltd. recently and, unless changes are made to the present combines laws, perhaps only market forces will stop one of the two major newspaper chains from buying the other. Likewise, the Kent commission is looking solely into the workings of the newspapers at a time when most of them are owned by major corporations with holdings in other areas.

Southam at least concentrates on communications as a company policy.

Thomson owns newspapers in three countries, department stores and has interests in North Sea oil.

Even some of Canada's independently owned newspapers have non-newspaper interests. The Toronto Star owns several weekly papers and a large chunk of Harlequin books (which may explain the tone of some of the Star's editorials). The London Free Press is proprietor of the local radio and television stations and a string of "shoppers".

To investigate newspapers as exclusive entities without looking at them in the broader context of the corporate world defeats the whole purpose of the inquiry.

Borden Spears told Content the commission will be looking "quite closely" at the events which led to the closing on August 27 of the Winnipeg Tribune, the Ottawa Journal and the FP News Service and the sale of Pacific Press and an interest in the Montreal Gazette to Southam by Thomson. Already some of the victims of Black Wednesday have contacted the commission to make submissions.

But the best the commission can do is to make recommendations to prevent a recurrence of the closings. But what kind of hard legislation can be enacted? If a paper is losing money at a rate which makes it "impossible to continue publishing," how is its owner to be obliged to carry on running it?

One of the few possibilities is government subsidy. But newspaper people are loath to support this, in spite of the successful subsidies systems in Europe and the example here of the CBC, which runs a news operation as independent as any.

Even Britain and the United States, which have stronger laws than Canada's to combat concentration of ownership, particularly in the media, have been unable to make any dent in it. The British board set up to review newspaper activities has been powerless to stop the closing of the Times by Thomson.

(As Fraser MacDougall, executive secretary of the Ontario Press Council, points out, Thomson struck a better deal with its London employees, giving them nearly six months' notice of the paper's demise, than it did with its Ottawa people, who were given no warning.)

The one bright spot in the Kent study is the decision to look at the technology of newspapers and how it will affect the publishing industry.

MacDougall suggests the future of publishing may lie with small community weeklies. Those outlets, whether serving a large rural area or the suburban section of a major city, are able—whether they do— to provide readers and small advertisers with a forum lacking in big dailies.

What is in store for the future of dailies? Since Black Wednesday one of the cities affected, Winnipeg, has seen the birth of a thrice-weekly tabloid. In two others, Montreal and Vancouver, Southam is studying the prospect of starting a new paper. Ottawa is without a second daily although the Gazette, and to a lesser extent The Globe and Mail, have increased local coverage in the capital.

The federal government is promising tough new combines legislation, which will include attention to press monopolies. The government interest is forcing the large chains to lay low, at least for a while.

Technology changes mean newspapers and other data can be shunted from one side of the country to the other in seconds. The leader in the field in Canada so far has been The Globe and Mail, which now prints its national editions in Montreal and Calgary, and whose InfoGlobe service is available to businesses and government departments as a handy, electronic clipping service.

Ten years ago, the Davey report looked to the future of Canadian journalism. The report is still around, but Davey's findings are scrutinized mainly by journalism students.

Borden Spears thinks theKent commission will be paid closer attention by the cabinet, since it is a government report. One can only hope he is right, but fear he is wrong

Paul Park is Content's Ottawa contributing editor. 

Published in Sources Winter 1980/81
 



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