Most of the time, there’s a polite fiction in mass media that the obscenely wealthy billionaires and hedge funds which control 90% of the newspapers and TV stations don’t dictate what positions their properties take on major issues. Not everybody believes it, but it’s also an easy thing to just kinda forget about.
Every once in a while, though, the mask comes off, and the heavy hand of ownership makes itself felt.
That was the case these past few days, as across the country, newspaper after newspaper issued torturously worded, illogical, ill-informed, half-baked endorsements of Stephen Harper and his Conservative Party.
For those of you who aren’t up on the intensity of media concentration in Canada, here’s a post I did on it a few months back, or, here’s media ownership summed up in a single simple diagram:
Here I made a Canadian media ownership chart for everyone to help put Postmedia/Sun Media deal in context. pic.twitter.com/IBUz449baK
— Steve Ladurantaye (@sladurantaye) October 6, 2014
For the record: a private holding company called The Woodbridge Company now wholly owns the Globe, while the Star is technically owned by TorStar, which at one point had a minority stake in the Globe, as did Bell. (It’s cozy at the top.)
What we’re looking at here is a media structure which affords a handful of extremely wealthy people an incredible amount of control over what we read in our newspapers and see on our televisions.
And here’s the thing. Traditionally, newspapers’ endorsements of parties and candidates have been the decision of the paper’s owner(s). But traditionally, there were (a) many many more newspapers, even in smaller cities, which were (b) owned by actual individuals with actual ties to the newsroom, which was (c) staffed by reporters who could probably go write for a competitor if they didn’t like the ideological bent of ownership.
These days, though, the question of who actually owns these newspapers is a little bit murky.
Who specifically ordered up the laughable disaster that was the Globe and Mail’s endorsement of the Conservatives/demand for Stephen Harper’s resignation (a fantastically-written takedown of which is here and which you ought to read)?
The aforementioned Woodbridge Company, which owns the Globe, is primarily controlled by the Thompson family, the richest family in Canada, worth $26.1 billion as of 2013. The Globe categorically denies any involvement by ownership in any editorial decisions, but does concede that the editor-in-chief consults the publisher. (That’d by Phillip Crawley, who once said that he’s only interested in attracting readers who earn over $100 000/year.)
Direct ownership involvement notwithstanding, it’s hard to believe that the Thompson family’s feelings about the matter weren’t a factor in the decision, especially given the contentious newsroom fight at the Globe last year over the editor-in-chief’s decision to endorse Tim Hudak over Kathleen Wynne in the Ontario election. See this fantastic Canadaland article for a full rundown; the key quote:
The Globe newsroom was in miserable spirits today as [ed-in-chief] Walmsley’s honeymoon came to an end. It is widely felt that Walmsley was carrying water for publisher Philip Crawley, who in turn was carrying out the orders of the Globe-controlling Thomson family, whose interests would be best served by a Conservative government.
But of course, the Thompson family wouldn’t want to be so crass as to directly stick their noses into something so sordid as an editorial decision.
Not so with Postmedia’s owners, according to the Edmonton Journal’s Paula Simons.
And yes. Before you ask, this was a decision made by the owners of the paper. As is their traditional prerogative.
— Paula Simons (@Paulatics) October 16, 2015
All across Canada, Postmedia properties endorsed Harper, with varying degrees of coherence and enthusiasm. The Ottawa Citizen’s juvenile endorsement (it dismisses the NDP’s “freshman-grade leftism” and says of Justin Trudeau that he “still has the manner of boy playing a man’s role”) has met in the comments with widespread and deeply-felt scorn from that city’s sizeable contingent of disenchanted public servants. The Montreal Gazette’s pronouncement that the Conservatives are the “most prudent” choice is inexplicably out-of-step with a city which is certainly not going to elect a single Conservative MP. And Postmedia’s flagship paper, the rarely-seen-IRL National Post, really takes the cake with its (apparently internally controversial) endorsement, which proclaims that the essential character of the Canadian people is inherently conservative and pro-free-market.
The argumentative structure across these editorials is remarkably consistent, and that’s no surprise. The characterization of Trudeau as a flighty boy and of the NDP as being beholden to a rabidly leftist base are stand-outs, but the overarching theme is the (false) assertion that the Conservatives have a strong economic record.
That this narrative was pushed by ownership is well-established fact.
But who, exactly, is “ownership”?
The short answer is: Wall Street.
The long answer is that various stakeholders own Postmedia Network. Two American hedge funds, Silver Point Capital and Golden Tree Asset Management, together own a majority stake, although they use some clever legal chicanery to bypass rules against majority-foreign ownership of Canadian media. They’ve been called “vulture funds”, meaning they buy up distressed companies and ruthlessly cut costs to squeeze as much return out of their investments as possible.
Which makes the crappy quality of Canadian newspapers instantly comprehensible.
Worth noting also in this context is Postmedia’s close institutional ties with the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.
The specific people behind the Post are, in essence, kind of hard to pin down, but the broad class is easily identifiable: the extremely wealthy.
That the uber-rich favour four more years of Harper is no surprise. That they can use their sputtering media empire to broadly endorse such a concept is disgraceful.
That people are reacting with such vivid and intense anger to the nearly-unanimous voice of newspapers in Canada in declaring that Harper is the man for the job (of all major dailes in Canada, only the Star didn’t endorse the Conservatives) is cause for hope that there is still a market for high-quality local news.
The demand is certainly out there. And dissatisfaction with the neoliberally crappified miserable excuse for pulp that most major dailies put out is at an all-time high. The furor surrounding these ridiculous endorsements will hopefully only serve to drive more people away from these mouthpieces for the billionaire capitalist class.