Recent disclosures of conflict-of-interest among top journalists at the CBC have led many to grow sceptical of the integrity of media sources across Canada. Having discovered that high profile correspondents like Peter Mansbridge and Amanda Lang secretly pocketed money from corporations they covered as reporters, it is no wonder that people perceive the line between journalism and conveyance of business interests as beginning to blur. Media magnates and their corporate cohorts may lead us to believe that all is good and well with the “free press”, and that these are only exceptions to the norm. But as the scandals continue to pile on, we can only wonder whether these are really “exceptions” or the result of deeper forces at work in the capitalist press itself.
Many were shocked when it was discovered that Peter Mansbridge, chief correspondent for the CBC, had been handsomely paid for speaking at an event held by The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP). The CAPP is one of the largest and most powerful lobby groups in Canada, and according to its website, its member companies “produce more than 90 per cent of Canada’s natural gas and crude oil”. What left people awe struck was not just that Mansbridge had taken money from a giant corporate lobby, but that they represented an industry which is frequently covered by Mansbridge on the CBC. The conflict-of-interest was there for everyone to see, as it is one thing to “impartially” report on the oil industry, and another thing to “impartially” report on the oil industry when it is lining your pockets with tens of thousands of dollars. In the spirit of the “free press”, the oil interests of the CAPP also refused to disclose both the amount paid to Mansbridge and the text of his speech.
In the months since the Mansbridge revelation, other prominent journalists have been discovered providing favorable coverage to businesses they had quietly taken money from. One of these is Amanda Lang, senior business correspondent for the CBC, who was also paid handsomely for speaking at events held and sponsored by insurance firms and banks she covered as a reporter. Lang, for example, was paid as a “moderator” on two occasions for a “Manulife Asset Management Seminar” in July and August of 2014. Less than a month later, Lang conducted an interview on her CBC program ”The Exchange” with Manulife CEO Donald Guloien. At the time, a disclosure that Lang had been previously paid by Manulife was not given; therefore, viewers were left in the dark regarding the conflict-of-interest, until the story was broken by Jesse Brown of Canadaland (a small, independent news web site that also broke the Mansbridge story). The segment, which dealt with a multi-billion dollar acquisition by Manulife, has been criticized for the “cozy” and uncritical platform given to Guloien from which to promote his company.
This was not all for Lang, who had also come under fire for her suspicious relationship with RBC - a bank which would be covered by her as a journalist. Not only had Lang accepted money for six speaking events sponsored or partly-sponsored by RBC, but it was also revealed that Lang was in a non-publicly disclosed romantic relationship with RBC board member Geoffrey Beattie. Lang was also given praise by RBC president Gordon Nixon to help with the marketing of her book, The Power of Why. These now discovered facts may help to explain why it was that Lang went behind the back of the CBC to pen an editorial in 2013 for the Globe and Mail, in which she categorically defended RBC’s controversial move to outsource jobs to temporary foreign workers for lower wages. As though this weren’t enough, recent accusations have also surfaced of a concerted attempt by Lang to sabotage the coverage of RBC’s temporary foreign worker program when the story first broke in 2013. CBC journalist Kathy Tomlinson, who first brought the RBC story to light, told Canadaland of how Lang aggressively intervened in the coverage of her story to defend RBC’s actions as “common business practice” and hence un-newsworthy – a move Tomlinson herself labeled as a “perceived conflict of interest” in wake of the revelations.
As frightening as it may be for proponents of a truly free press, Mansbridge and Lang are only the most high profile cases of journalists and their back-room exchanges with big business. Rex Murphy of CBC and Leslie Roberts of Global News have also been caught in similar dealings in recent months. Roberts himself resigned from Global News for shouldering praise as a journalist for businesses he worked for as a secretive part-owner of a public relations firm. Nonetheless, these are only the revelations which have come to light so far. The true extent of the encroachment of big business in journalism may very well be immensely deeper, making the Mansbridge and Lang scandals only the tip of a more sinister iceberg.
What these revelations should lead us to question is not the respective integrity of individual journalists (though this too plays a role), but how wealth can become so concentrated as to hand power over the media to the big businesses, whose sole interest is to propagate themselves and increase profits. Doing that would bring us to capitalism – the economic system in which the centralization of wealth and handing over of power to the capitalists are in its’ nature. After all, capitalism has not only allowed for large firms to influence individual journalists, but for them to own entire news networks. American writer A. J. Liebling once wrote that “freedom of the press is guaranteed to those who own one”. This is a perfect characterization of the press in Canada and the rest of the capitalist countries!
For decades, Canada has been recognized as a country where the media is dominated by a handful of wealthy conglomerates. The situation became so dire as to prompt the Canadian Senate, an undemocratic body in itself, to launch a study on the state of the press in 2003. Their concluding report, completed three years after they had begun, warned how “the country will be poorly served if as few as one, two or three groups control substantial portions of the news and information media in particular markets or within the country as a whole”. Despite their foreboding, 11 years later, the media in Canada has only remained as frighteningly centralized under an oligarchy of media conglomerates, including Bell Canada, Rogers Communications, Torstar Corporation, Shaw, Astral Media and Quebecor. With the market utterly dominated by this handful of corporations, it is nearly impossible for independent and cash-strapped news sources to make headway into the mainstream media. Indeed, numerous local media outlets have been gradually swallowed up by the big media companies in a period spanning many years, with no sign of reversal. This is clearly not “freedom of the press”, but freedom of the press for Bell, Rogers, Shaw… i.e. freedom of the press for the minority of capitalists!
It is really no surprise then, being owned and funded by corporate money, that NDP, labour union and other left-leaning voices are often marginalized in the mainstream press. In an August issue of the Globe and Mail, Quebec researcher Jean-Francois Duma was quoted as saying that in the first half of 2014, federal Liberal leader Justin Trudeau was given 69% more media coverage in English Canada than federal NDP leader Tom Mulcair. This is despite the fact that the NDP now holds more than twice the seats of the Liberals in the House of Commons, and despite the fact that Mulcair is more often in attendance during Question Period than Trudeau or Stephen Harper. When the media’s fixation is not on universal child care, the minimum wage or the bombing of Iraq, but rather on the personal intrigues of Justin Trudeau, it becomes apparent where their priorities lie.
At the provincial level, the media marches to a similar tune just like on the federal level. In the run-up to the recent Ontario election, of the four major Toronto newspapers, three endorsed the Progressive Conservative candidate Tim Hudak (The Globe and Mail, National Post, Toronto Sun), and one endorsed Liberal candidate Kathleen Wynne (The Toronto Star), both of whom were prepared to make deep cuts at the behest of their respective business backed political parties. Like their television counterparts, the newspapers prove all too eager to tread in lockstep with their chums in big business.
So long as wealth remains in the hands of a minority of capitalists, the notion of a “free press” can only remain an illusion. Even when taken in a literal sense, the press is not “free”, as people require sufficient funds to purchase subscription services, and ample “free” time to study what they read with any profound thought. When life under capitalism continually means lower pay and longer hours of work, both of these things become less and less practical. What we’re left with is a media by and for the wealthy – not the average worker.
The respective cases of Peter Mansbridge and Amanda Lang have shown us that even the most respected journalists can fall under the sway of corporate money, and they are only the latest examples of what appears to be a much more endemic problem. Every fundamental pillar of the “free press”, such as impartiality, integrity and accountability, are every day under siege by a system which puts a disproportionate amount of control into the hands of an elite few. Mansbridge and Lang are only the perpetuation of a much larger conflict-of-interest case – between capitalism and a genuinely democratic media. The press, far from being “free”, is in desperate need of being freed from the shackles of profit. In short, a truly democratic media cannot coexist within the narrow confines of capitalism.