Media Democratisation in Canada: A Movement Comes Into Its Own

by Robert Hackett

Democratic media activism has flourished in Canada over the last decade, finally taking its place alongside other movements for social change.

First published: 20 March, 2014 | Category: Activism, Media

Inspired in part by initiatives in the UK, from the longstanding Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom to the Media Reform Coalition’s mobilisation against the Murdoch media empire’s abuse of concentrated power, democratic media activism in Canada has mushroomed in the past ten years.  Existing initiatives have grown and new ones have sprouted.  In the digital era, alternative media as diverse as rabble.ca, thetyee.ca, the Media Co-op, and the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network have emerged alongside venerable print outlets like Canadian Dimension.  They give voice to communities and movements marginalized by hegemonic corporate media, and practise more collective and participatory forms of production.  Even more dramatic has been the expansion of activism oriented towards communication policy.  It’s an opportune moment to take stock and assess strategy, focussing on two particular initiatives – Media Democracy Days, and OpenMedia.ca.

Precursors

The emergence of media democratisation as a distinct contemporary form of activism arguably dates from the 1990s, but it had historical precedents.  In the early 1900s, municipalities and farmers’ organisations in Canada’s prairie provinces successfully campaigned for public rather than private corporate ownership of telephone systems.  In the 1930s, highlighting the threats of cultural Americanisation and excessive commercialism, and calling for universal radio service that would not be viable through market forces alone, the Canadian Radio League assembled a blue-ribbon coalition to persuade a Conservative government to create the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.  A half-century later, the Friends of Canadian Broadcasting would follow in the League’s footsteps as a defender of the democratic principle of independent public broadcasting. 

The social upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s gave birth to the ‘underground press.’  Weekly papers like Vancouver’s Georgia Straight helped constitute the youthful counter-culture, and gave voice to anti-war, urban reform, ‘yippie’ anarchist, and other protest movements.  But the alternative media and movements of the Flower Power era did not generate activism oriented towards changing the very structure and policy framework of the media system. 

Why not?  Not unlike today, many activists were seduced by the emancipatory potential of new media technology, like hand-held camcorders.  The popularity of Marshall McLuhan’s technocentric theories (‘the medium is the message’) distracted attention from the role of capitalism in blunting new media’s democratic possibilities. 

Moreover, Anglo-Canadian social movements had other priorities – the Vietnam War, poverty, cultural and economic Americanisation.  Media were not seen as a primary problem.  After all, the postwar social contract had not yet unravelled.  Government was still willing to actively counterbalance some of capitalism’s rough edges, whether funding summer jobs for students, or launching programs like the National Film Board’s Challenge for Change, which provided media tools for economically disadvantaged communities.  The CBC, whose current management appears to be cowed by Stephen Harper’s Conservative government, still deserved its reputation for (relatively) independent journalism.  Even the corporate media could be positively influenced by emergent social movements.  One example: the Vancouver Sun’s publicity to Greenpeace, which began its rise to global status in British Columbia in the 1970s.

Quebec’s distinct society, by contrast, experienced a much higher degree of class and political/national polarisation, richer interaction between alternative media practices and popular mobilisations, and the salience of culture and language as political issues.  These realities had ‘pertinent effects’ on public policy, such as support for community radio.  But in Anglo-Canada, reformist pressure on communication policy-makers was largely confined to occasional Parliamentary and Royal Commission reports on media concentration and the cultural objectives of broadcasting.  Lacking a public platform, a base in popular mobilisation, or linkage to broader issues of social justice, even these modest challenges to corporate and commercial domination of the media typically languished in obscurity.

Fast forward to the mid-1990s.  Two decades of ideological mobilisation by the New Right had forged the hegemonic project of neoliberalism.  The mantras of marketisation and privatisation were undermining regulatory and policy support for public service broadcasting and media diversity.  Media concentration and conglomeration were proceeding apace, as Senator Keith Davey’s report had predicted 25 years earlier.  Right-wing press baron Conrad Black’s takeover of the Southam newspaper chain provided a sharp wake-up call for the Canadian left.  In response, the Council of Canadians, unions representing media and other workers, research and advocacy groups concerned with media issues, and other progressive advocacy groups, formed a ‘common front’ to campaign for press diversity.  Inspired by and named after the longstanding British media reform organisation, the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom launched a court challenge to Black’s takeover.  The challenge was a legal failure but a partial political success.  While the Canadian CPBF dissolved, it suggested – for perhaps the first time since the 1930s – the potential for broad organisational support for media reform.  More concretely, the CPBF’s campaign inspired local spin-offs in Vancouver and Toronto, where activists and academics launched an annual Media Democracy Day. 

Celebrating Media Democracy

MDD is not a campaign but rather an event intended to bring together community activists, independent media producers, researchers, teachers and students, to promote networking and a sense of community around the twin projects of democratisation of the media – changing media practices and structures to make them more representative, diverse, accountable – and democratisation through the media – using media to enhance popular political engagement and social justice issues.  Vancouver’s first MDD in 2001 featured feminist icon Judy Rebick, who had just launched both a book on re-imagining democracy and the online news magazine rabble.ca – very timely initiatives in the wake of media-augmented post-9/11 warmongering. 

In 2002, the then-new Independent Media Centres used the Internet to help make MDD an international phenomenon, with parallel events in six countries.  (I recall seeing a Cairo conference attendee wearing a t-shirt labelled ‘Media Democracy Day, Barcelona 2002’).  Clearly, the idea of building movements specifically oriented towards media change was timely, and had international resonance.  For the most part, MDD has remained a locally-based event, but its movement-facilitating intention is reflected in MDD’s slogan ‘Know the media, Be the media, Change the media,’ referring respectively to the three main branches of media democratisation – critical media education, independent/alternative media, and fundamental reform or reshaping of the state policies, institutional structures, and governing logics of the media system.  Albeit varying in scope and with shifting volunteer-based organizing teams, MDD has been held every October or November in Vancouver since 2001, typically featuring keynote speakers, panels that bring together academics and experts with community organizers and media practitioners, hands-on workshops for media makers, and a ‘trade fair’ of independent media organisations.

The Vancouver event’s longevity can be explained by several factors.  Modest institutional support, from the Communication, Energy & Paperworkers Union (now part of Unifor), the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, and then OpenMedia.ca, helped anchor MDD in its first decade.  Throughout, Simon Fraser University, particularly its School of Communication, has provided essential space and funding.  Other major sponsors have included the Vancouver Public Library as the main venue, and more recently, Vancity Credit Union.  Program themes – such as privacy and the Internet, the Harper government’s war on science, aboriginal voices in the media, pipeline protests and the press, militarism and the media – were timely and flexible; each was intended to appeal to, and developed in partnership with, particular non-profit and activist sectors that extend beyond the field of media activism.

MDD clearly has its limits.  Even with part-time assistants financed by SFU and other partners, it is chronically short of ongoing reliable funding.  It is not in itself a campaign or movement, and thus cannot point to particular political victories.  But that was not the point.  It helps overcome what Bill Carroll and I (in Remaking Media) identified as a distinctive feature (and potential limitation) of media democratisation – it functions more as a nexus between other movements, than a movement with its own strong sense of collective identity.  While impact is hard to measure, MDD is helping to forge that sense of identity, along with connections between social justice groups that share a need for accessible and representative media, but had previously worked in isolation.  MDD has engendered other projects, such as the Vancouver-based award-winning independent online news outlet thetyee.ca, which celebrated its tenth anniversary at MDD 2013.  Its local base is a key advantage: it would not be difficult for other cities to replicate Vancouver’s MDD, adapted to their own circumstances, and thereby to help give media democracy national profile as a political issue. 

Open Media

By contrast, OpenMedia.ca (OM) has already earned both national resonance and policy impact.  OM sprang from a conference at the University of Windsor in May 2007 to celebrate two of the world’s foremost critics of media propaganda, Ed Herman and Noam Chomsky.  I pleaded that the best way to honour their work is to build a broad national coalition to transform the media, so that they wouldn’t have to keep writing books like Manufacturing Consent.  Steve Anderson, then a graduate student at SFU, suggested FreePress.net, a leading media reform organisation in the US, as a model.  Starting with modest funding and in-kind donations from individuals, non-profit organisations, small businesses and labour groups, Anderson tirelessly forged support networks, a sustainable organisation (originally named Canadians for Democratic Media), and a series of campaigns. 

The first campaign, ‘Stop Big Media,’ mobilized 2,000 online submissions supporting diversity of media ownership, to hearings held by the federal regulatory agency, the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC).  The outcome was modest (and insufficient) caps on future media concentration.  The ‘Save Our Net’ campaign defended the principle of Net neutrality, preventing Internet service providers (notably the big telecom companies) from discriminating against other content providers on commercial grounds.  The result was a partial victory: strong rules, but problematic enforcement.  In 2010, ‘Stop the Meter,’ against ‘usage-based billing,’ was an issue that potentially affected average Net users’ pocketbooks, and for OM, it was a breakthrough.  OM flooded the CRTC with an unprecedented 100,000 comments, and gathered hundreds of thousands more names on an online petition, forcing the regulator to back away from rubber-stamping the telecom companies’ proposals.

Subsequent campaigns have included ‘Stop Online Spying,’ an OpenMedia-led coalition that pressured Harper to shelve Bill C-30 with its noxious surveillance provisions; and Cell Phone Horror Stories, an intervention vis-à-vis the CRTC’s development of national rules for cell phone service, resulting in certain new protections for consumers.  OM has also ventured into the sphere of inter-state negotiations.  Its intervention at the International Telecommunications Union against state censorship (‘Protect Global Internet Freedom’) helped build an enduring international coalition, and dissuaded the Canadian government from signing on.  At TransPacific Partnership negotiations, OM campaigned (StopTheTrap.net) against corporate- and state-driven threats to Internet users’ privacy, access and content sharing.  Anderson personally attended TPP negotiations in New Zealand, after devising a process for ordinary people to stream comments directly in to the policy meetings.  Stop the Trap has since transitioned to a longer-term coalition (OurFairDeal.org).

Reimagining Media Activism

Its impact at the policy level led even a Tory cabinet minister to describe OM as one of the most influential grassroots advocacy groups in Canada.  What are the keys to its (relative) success?

* OM has had engaged masses of previously politically inactive young people, partly through focus on the networked media that they use daily, humour and entertainment, and genuine receptivity to creative input (including video clips) from supporters.

* OM has nurtured a base of over 500,000 online supporters, a stunning achievement for Canadian media advocacy.  Small individual donations from this large base account for about 75% of OM’s budget, sufficient for several full- and part-time staff. 

* OM has placed a high priority on financial and organisational sustainability.  It selects campaign issues carefully, taking into account the real potential for policy impact, funding support, and viable coalitions, along with extensive input from its supporters.  Each campaign has a distinct focus, time frame, and set of political partners and funders. 

* Similarly, OM frames its work strategically, starting with its own name, which resonates with youthful Internet users and with open data and open government movements.  The populist language of its campaigns appeals to people ‘where they are at,’ drawing connections with their own interests and experience, and cutting through the mystifying jargon of policy wonks.  OM uses a fairly consistent diagnostic repertoire of problems and villains (Big Telecoms) and solutions that straddle the discursive divide between its supporters, and policy-makers (more choice, public input, innovation, accountability, transparency).  It has successfully positioned itself (at least to its mass base) as a defender of the Internet against vested interests trying to colonize it – a position that has led some mainstream journalists reductively to label it a ‘consumers’ rights’ group.

* OM brilliantly combines tactics from older advocacy group organizing – attending regulatory hearings, submitting briefs, lobbying or pressuring MPs in swing ridings, very successfully obtaining ‘earned’ coverage in conventional media, encouraging other organisations to intervene – and more recent innovations from the digital era.  It extensively uses social media to amplify and crowd-fund campaigns.  OM’s messaging, even its campaign themes and coalitions, are crowd-sourced, giving supporters a genuine sense of ownership.  Leading up to the CRTC’s fall 2012 hearing on CBC’s licence renewal, OpenMedia.ca was a leading partner in a creative multi-platform campaign to invite supporters of public broadcasting to critically ‘Reimagine CBC.’  Thousands of suggestions were condensed into dozens of concrete proposals and priorities.  Even the CRTC’s new chair, Jean-Pierre Blais, described Reimagine CBC as a new model for citizen engagement. 

* OM has made full use of the political opportunities for citizen feedback presented by public hearings and other avenues not yet blocked by the neoliberal state.  To be sure, like progressive politics more broadly in recent years, OM’s highest profile campaigns have been mainly reactive to policy initiatives by the CRTC and/or the Harper government.  But OM has also put much effort into developing forward-looking and comprehensive proposals on digital, broadcasting and cell phone policy that have attracted positive attention from all the major federal parties.  (See openmedia.ca/plan, reimaginecbc.ca/share, openmedia.org/crowdsource).  As noted above, some of OM’s proposals have even had policy uptake, such as strengthening Net neutrality rules, blocking Telus’ takeover of Mobilicity, regulating cell phone roaming fees, and moving towards giving CRTC the power to impose monetary penalties

Inevitably, OM’s achievements are not without limitations and trade-offs.  In finding a niche within the ecology of Canadian activism, OM has not been able to address all the needs identified at Windsor – for example, a forum to bring together the different branches of media democratisation, or the ongoing monitoring of democratic deficits in dominant news media.  OM focuses on the politics of connection more than the politics of representation, but the latter is as relevant as ever for building media activism.  (Interestingly, a top priority identified through Reimagine CBC was the need to reinvigorate CBC’s investigative and watchdog journalism.)  Underlying the Internet’s apparent babble and fragmentation lurks a handful of more coherent ideologies – neoliberalism, sexism, militarism – that urgently need to be critically challenged, through counter-messaging and action.  But apart from occasional university-based projects, such as NewsWatch Canada at SFU, public media monitoring in Canada has been dominated by flak from the ideological Right, from bloggers to think-tanks like the Fraser Institute.  OM’s relationship to broader social justice campaigns is cautious; to maximize its appeal, it defines itself as nonpartisan, avoiding ideological commitments beyond the principles of openness and Internet freedom.  The (necessary) emphasis on sustainability means that OM has not pursued as actively as it would like, such deserving issues as rural Internet service. 

Yet combined with the flourishing of online alternative media, MDD and OpenMedia.ca indicate that media democratisation is finally taking its place alongside other movements for social change.  These two initiatives point to the fruitfulness of combining the strengths of academics and activists, policy experts and ordinary Internet users, media reform and social justice groups, traditional and online organising methods, and social animators with crowd-based democratic participation. 

The mediatisation of politics and culture is proceeding apace.  The American writer and media reformer Robert McChesney has argued that ‘whatever your first issue of concern, media had better be your second, because without change in the media, progress in your primary area is far less likely’.  As more social justice groups take that proposal onboard, media democratisation is becoming a wave of the future.

Robert Hackett, communication professor at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, is a co-founder of MDD and co-author of Remaking Media: The Struggle to Democratize Public Communication (with William Carroll, 2006).  This article draws from interviews with Steve Anderson (executive director) and Reilly Yeo (managing director) at OpenMedia.ca, and a conference paper by professors Kathleen Cross (Simon Fraser University, chair of MDD) and David Skinner (York University).  An abridged version of this article is in press with Canadian Dimension.

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