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American Influence Pervasive in
Canadian Newspapers, Radio, TV
Reviewed by Paul Audley
This new study represents an important addition to the growing literature that documents the inadequacy of the existing media in meeting Canada's social, political, and cultural needs. At the same time, because few insights are offered into how the problems identified might be resolved, Arthur Siegel's book is a frustrating one.
Siegel's basic purpose is to examine the mass media that disseminate information, opinion, and entertainment on a daily or continuing basis, and to study the political, social and economic environment in which they operate. The special focus of his study, which deals with newspapers, radio and television, is on whether these media "bond" Canada and Canadians together or fragment the nation and isolate or divide Canadians.
Like other observers before him, Siegel concludes that "the modern media have become agents of denationalization." He identifies two separate aspects of the denationalization problem: first, the spillover of U.S. content, and secondly, the fragmentation and regionalization of the media within Canada.
At the outset, Siegel observes that in both the media addressed in his study and those that are not — including magazines, books and films — American influence and American content is pervasive. Broadcasting has "served as a roadway for American influence." Newspapers often contain more information that originates or is processed in the United States than information about Canada.
The familiar recital of depressing statistics is unusually thorough. The economic reality behind the figures is, for the most part, clearly identified. In Canada "mass communications is essentially a profit-making industry." In the case of television "Canadian content is a burden on profitability." "Economic realities," Siegel argues, "are the principal reasons for the massive importation of American entertainment. It is far cheaper to buy the U.S. product than to produce equivalent Canadian programming." The incentive structure and the resulting reliance on imports is just the same for international news. As a result "the international news flow into Canada continues to be of largely American origin;" Canadian Press's efforts at international news collecting are dismissed as "little more than tokenism."
In the face of the flood of U.S. content, the Canadian material that is produced is to a very substantial degree local or regional in nature. As a result the Canadian media, Siegel argues, tend to reinforce the regional character of the country that arose originally out of geographic isolation and the existence of two language groups. Efforts to tie the country together have largely focussed on the development and use of communication technology and have, ironically, served primarily as highways for foreign content to be communicated among Canadians. The flow of information, opinion and cultural expression among the regions of Canada is limited; so too is the exchange between French and English speaking Canadians.
In addition to the combination of the profit motive and the low costs and limited risks that make importing in most cases the sound commercial strategy for Canada's media industries, Siegel suggests two further factors. First, he argues that "a degree of indifference about the national implications" of the news media's behavior has been one of the main reasons that so little commitment has been made to generating Canadian news coverage. Secondly, he claims that "when the choice is free Canadians are likely to choose the U.S. media."
It is unfortunate that this study never follows its recognition of the incentive structure of the commercial media through to an analysis of the degree to which various elements of the media in Canada function as a lobby, a lobby against any requirements that they spend more on generating or supplying additional Canadian material.
Beyond the suggestion of indifference noted above, Siegal in fact gives relatively little attention to the political realities that account for Canada's strange inability to address what the British writer, Anthony Smith, has described as "a kind of running national crisis." Not only would it cost more and involve real risks of lower profit if the media performed more responsibly in providing Canadian material, it might also result in some displacement of U.S. content in the Canadian market.
The political realities of pressure from both Canadian and American industry, and possible American government resistance to measures that might significantly increase the Canadian component in the media mix require a degree of recognition and analysis that are not offered in this study.
If any action is to be taken to improve the performance of the media in Canada, the measures taken will have to accommodate both the concerns of the Canadian media that their profits not be adversely affected and the concerns of the United States that its cultural products continue to have fair access to a Canadian market that some of the American media at present consider simply a part of their domestic U.S. market. The scope for maneuver is relatively limited. Whether it is worthwhile to try to put together a combination of financial incentives which might offset the worries of Canadian media owners about their profits and the required political courage and diplomatic give-and-take to address American concerns is the key question for the Canadian Government.
For it to seem worth the certain trouble it will cause, the assumption must be made that Canada as a separate nation is worth preserving and that Canadians will support measures to establish the "efficient internal communications" which Siegel recognizes as one of the apparent requirements of nationhood.
There is, in fact, a great deal of evidence available from the many surveys of public opinion that have been carried out which shows that a substantial majority of Canadians believe that action should be taken to strengthen Canadian expression through the media. While public attitudes represent an important political factor the available information is not assessed in this study. While Siegel does suggest at one point that, as noted above, Canadians prefer U.S. media content, the evidence he presents is that well-financed Canadian alternatives are generally unavailable. In the case of television, the most influential of the media, he notes: "When most Canadians are watching television there are few alternatives to U.S. programming fare."
While the particular focus of this study is on the role of the media in nation-building it also addresses a wide range of issues, including the decline of competitive journalism in Canada, concentration of media ownership, freedom of information, libel law, the history and functions of the Parliamentary Press Gallery, and the impact of new technologies. While the author's opinions are bluntly expressed, in most cases a wide range of information is assembled as a basis for judging the merits of the author's views. The unfortunate exception is a very partial and biased presentation of the recommendations of the (Kent) Royal Commission on Newspapers. While admitting that forceful steps are required not just to avoid further newspaper concentration but to stimulate a more competitive media industry, the Kent Commission's recommendations are all lumped together indiscriminately as proposals for government "control" and "intrusion" into the industry. No realistic alternatives are suggested. There is in fact a general tendency in Siegel's analysis to equate politics with government and to see the economy and the business community as apolitical realities.
Despite its shortcomings however, Politics and the Media in Canada represents a valuable contribution. The unresolved internal tensions and conflicts it contains suggest that it might be viewed as work in progress. It is to be hoped that its author will in the future expand the wide-ranging analysis he has begun, continuing to draw as he has here on history, sociology, economics and politics.
Published in SOURCES Summer 83