Canadian Media in Crisis

By Nick Fillmore

Staff reporters at the country’s most prominent business news publication, The Globe and Mail’s Report on Business, are at it again – distorting an important issue: the possible sale of Ontario Crown corporations by neglecting to include vital information that could have balanced their reports.

But before I get into the specifics of the story, I want to provide some background concerning the growth of biased business journalism in Canada in recent years. While journalism catering to the business community has been a specialty area for many decades, I recall when media companies began to focus heavily on business journalism.

In 1978 I was one of a small group of journalists who helped establish the Centre for Investigative Journalism (CIJ), now the Canadian Association of Journalists (CJFE). Our “how-to” conferences and other activities were a hit with many journalists, and we were cautiously supported by several media companies and the CBC. The mainstream seemed to have an interest in expanding investigative journalism.

But by the mid-1980s conservative and right-wing ideas had become dominant in Canada, and most large media companies, instead of providing investigative and in-depth journalism, were greatly expanding the space for business journalism to attract increasing amounts of advertising dollars. A number of excellent journalists I knew were not able to land good jobs in the regular news sections of newspapers and reluctantly took work as business journalists.

Of course, capitalist newspapers have long existed primarily to sell advertising. To make certain that corporate advertisers would support the business sections, media companies perfected a particular brand of journalism that would not offend advertisers and that matched the narrowly focused, pro-business opinions of the corporate world. Most business news stories and columns carefully catered to the needs of businessmen and investors. Fawning profiles of “the champions of business” regularly appeared. The sections tended not to include information that was critical of business or in conflict with corporate ideology, or that dealt with the interests of other groups.

Today this brand of business-biased journalism is widely practised throughout the country. Virtually all of Canada's 98 city newspapers as well as the two national dailies have special business sections that sometimes are larger than the paper’s regular news sections. One small-city chain has a weekly page called “Money.” At least half a dozen magazines are devoted entirely to business, and the country has hundreds of business trade publications. In addition, dozens of U.S. business publications flood across the border into Canada.

With the exception of some safely targeted investigative journalism and some policing of usually rogue businesses, most of these publications are biased and strongly pro-business in their standard mode of operation.

Globe coverage illustrates the pro-business model

The Globe’s coverage of the possible sale of Ontario Crown corporations in mid-December provides an excellent case study of what is wrong with most business journalism.

In the Globe’s Dec. 16, 2009 front news section, two journalists who normally write for the RoB authored a front-page story: “ Ontario looks to unload Crown corporations.”

The story, which was attributed to “unnamed investment bankers,” said the Ontario government was considering various ways of selling either all or part of a number of Crown corporations, including the Liquor Control Board of Ontario, Hydro One and the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp. The objective would be to raise money with the goal of reducing the province’s $24.7-billion deficit.

The idea of governments selling Crown assets is controversial. In recent years neo-liberal governments in many Western countries that believe in privatization and an unfettered market economy have sold off dozens of Crown corporations. Sales have taken place over the protests of a large percentage of the population who believe that government should control vital public resources, such as power generation and transmission, transportation, water regulation and culture, as well as agencies that require strong oversight, such as gambling and liquor.

The Globe story dealt extensively with how the government could proceed with the sale and what its strategy might be. According to these writers, “The potential paydays for the government could be huge should it move ahead.” They failed to seriously discuss any of several arguments against such sales. They did not quote anyone who might have provided balance to the story, and failed to point out that, earlier in his political career, Liberal premier Dalton McGuinty was opposed to such sales.

Curious to find out why such an important front-page story so seriously lacked balance, I emailed a few questions to Globe Publisher John Stackhouse and the two RoB reporters. In response to my question about why no dissenting opinions were included in the story, one of the reporters emailed back that this was because they “were writing to a tight space” and to meet a deadline. He said that future articles would “look at the trade-off between selling assets and raising taxes to fund deficit spending,” as well as other matters.

But on the very next day the Globe again failed to produce a balanced picture of the Crown corporation selloff idea. A follow-up news story in the RoB, written by one of the RoB reporters and a news department reporter, was nearly as poorly balanced as the first story. A column by Adam Radwanski assured readers that “Talk of selling Ontario assets is completely serious.”

And a Globe editorial concluded that the province should sell the corporations “if the price is right.”

Articles all but ignore opposing point of view

Over the two-day period, the Globe devoted 90 column inches to this story. It gave only seven of the 90 inches to criticism – and token criticism at that – of the sale idea.

Incidentally, all three of the letters to the editor that the Globe published on this issue were opposed to the concept of selling the resources. The Toronto Star, a more liberal paper, ran a lengthy story and an editorial that cautioned against rushing into a sale. Surprisingly, to me at least, the avowedly right-wing National Post strongly condemned any sale in an editorial.

How the Globe handled this important story presents a classic case study of how business news publications and business sections in Canada tend to publish biased and unbalanced stories.

No obligation to balance stories: It is clear from this Globe story – and many others handled in a similar way – that RoB reporters are under no obligation to balance the information in their stories. Articles tend to be written from the point of view of the business community, and in a way that favours business interests.

No “experts” with alternative opinions included: None of the four Globe items included significant or in-depth comment from any one of a number of Canadian economists who have expert knowledge concerning the privatization of government assets.

Long-term financial benefits not considered: The articles gave no comparison of the financial benefits that could arise from the government operating the agencies over, say, a 20-year period vs. the benefits of selling part or all of the assets. (Three of the Crown corporations in question had profits totalling nearly $2 billion in 2008, and a fourth had a profit of $1.7 billion in 2007, the most recent year for which financial information was available.)

Alternative income sources not discussed: the Globe stories failed to discuss any possible alternative revenues for the province, such as whether high-income earners should have their taxes increased to help meet Ontario’s deficit. High-income earners are paying less in total taxes compared to a few years ago, which is one of the reasons for Ontario’s deficit. A once “fair” tax system has been dismantled to the point that, as economist Marc Lee has> pointed out, “astonishingly, the richest 1% of families also now pay a lower tax rate than the poorest 10%.”

This failure to write about taxes as a possible source of revenue suggests that the reporters working on the privatization story did not see raising this possibility as being relevant enough to be included in a business story. I disagree. I believe that every story should be balanced and written in way that appeals to any reader, not just those with a special interest in business.

One-sided journalism is practised routinely by business reporters and columnists across the country. In addition to providing readers with a distorted picture of the news, this “censored” form of journalism fails to hold the corporate community to the same high standards followed in the regular news sections of newspapers. For instance, business journalists rarely include in their articles information concerning areas such as possible ethical breaches of paying a fair wage, environmental damage, occupational hazards and, particularly in international business, human rights violations.

I do not believe that there should be a soft, almost patronizing style of journalism for the business community, while other news reporters are expected to be balanced and fair in coverage aimed at the general public. Given that it is practised knowingly, and on a regular basis, this kind of business journalism must be considered to be unethical.

Footnote: Globe’s news stories may have been misleading

While the Globe’s news stories said that the main reason for selling of the Crown resources would be to decrease the Ontario deficit, Radwanski’s Dec. 17 column suggested otherwise. “In a sense, the scale of the deficit would be more an excuse than the real reason” for selling the government’s assets, he wrote. Even before the extent of the deficit was known, “a good number of influential Liberals were arguing the government should respond to its fiscal woes by getting out of businesses it doesn't need to be in – be it power transmission, liquor sales, gambling, or some combination thereof.” Radwanski said that the current argument revolved around whether the government needed to pay attention to its core activities.

Surely the journalists who wrote the news story published on the same day as Radwanski’s article must also have been aware of the reasons for the possible sale that the columnist put forward. Yet in the second story the only reason they cited was the pat, easy-to-sell idea of deficit reduction.

Had Radwanski’s “real reason” for selling been raised, a much different message would have gone out to Globe readers as well as the hundreds of thousands of people who saw the same Globe story picked up by the Canadian Press and dozens of websites – and that story would have been harder for the government and the backroom boys to sell. No doubt the people behind the story leaked to the Globe – those “unnamed investment bankers” and others lurking behind the scenes – were very pleased that the deficit-reduction version of the story was the one that got the public's attention.

I am not at all surprised at the way in which the RoB staffers handled this story. But I must also wonder -- with the slick investment bankers involved in advising the government on whether to sell, with talk of powerful non-elected Liberal backroom boys influencing government policy, businessmen surely licking their chops to get a piece of the multi-billion-dollar action, and with the premier flipping his position on the sale of Crown corporations – what kind of story might have been developed if this story had been turned over to a crackerjack investigative reporter.

Pro-business journalism should be abandoned

While I have no firm evidence to back up this observation, it is my impression that a high percentage of the people who read the regular news pages of newspapers do not bother to read the business sections. They too find the business journalism style of writing to be poorly balanced and set apart from their own everyday interests and concerns.

Newspapers do have it in their power to make changes that would overhaul business journalism and bring it into the sphere of interest of the general public. This could happen if the media corporations abolished the word “business” in the title of their special sections and instead gave them a different name – maybe something referring to the concept of “community development.” The biggest change would be to abandon forever the concept of business-specific journalism and instead engage all readers in the political and social economy in all its manifestations.

Mr. Fillmore was an editor and producer with the CBC for 18 years, and also worked with The Canadian Press and Reuters. A freelance journalist and media fundraiser based in Toronto, he is a founding member of the Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ) and Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE). He can be reached at: