Agreeing to Agree: How Canada’s consensus media normalizes our fear and loathing

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If there is any truth to Bruce Cockburn’s line that “the trouble with normal is it only gets worse,” the great enabler of our deteriorating normality is the country’s sterile media consensus. Media then serve as a loudspeaker for a perpetual loop that warns against panicking, because in a world of constant menace, we desperately need assurance that the properly constituted authorities have our back. That these authorities themselves are the source of our dis-ease must never be allowed to cross our minds.

Take the foray of Our Brave Boys against the most recent group of fundamentalist baddies in the Middle East. The 7th of October (2014), my morning paper —The Montreal Gazette — comes through the mail slot and informs me in its lead editorial why Canada should join in the most recent round of the war against ISIS. I briefly wonder how it had come to this conclusion. Was there a cut-and-thrust debate on the editorial board lasting into the wee hours, where positions were taken on both sides before arriving at a hard fought conclusion? After all, people’s lives were at stake and going to war should be a serious matter. Or was this position just assumed in advance, mirroring the conservative orientation of the entire Postmedia chain, which owns most of Canada’s daily newspapers. The Ottawa Citizen’s editorial headline that same day read “We must do our part in Iraq.” The Calgary Herald had been ratcheting up the rhetoric for days with editorials about “NATO carrying a big stick” and the necessity of “Drawing a Line in the Sand.” Out on the west coast, The Vancouver Province didn’t even bother writing its own editorial but simply republished that of The Herald. You didn’t have to be part of Postmedia to climb on board the war train. The Globe and Mail was of the opinion that “On Balance, Harper’s Choice of Military Action is Right.”

The point is not whether the bulk of the newspapers across the country are right or wrong about supporting this latest war, but that they came to the same point of view so quickly, using pretty much the same argument — the enemy is horrible and we can’t let our friends down — to do so. These views are highly predictable for anyone familiar with our media landscape. There are many discordant voices out there – people with different attitudes towards military solutions and their consequences, and specialists in the politics of the region, the efficacy of aerial bombardment or the roots of terrorism. While occasionally such voices can be heard on CBC radio or seen in the Toronto Star or Le Devoir — or even more rarely in the odd op-ed piece in Postmedia papers — they definitely lie outside the parameters of what I think is fair to call “the consensus media.” War reporting is not protected much either from editorial influence by the supposed ‘”fire wall” – what stories are covered and how is very much subjected to editorial bias. The idea that TV and radio add diversity to the journalistic mix is also not very convincing, as they cling to patriotic scripts and frames and are more dedicated to entertainment than engagement with public issues.

This would not be as serious a problem if media consensus were restricted to the war against the Islamic State. However, it holds true on issue after issue relating to taxes (they need to be low), government regulation (it needs to be light), environmentalism (shouldn’t be too “extreme” or allowed to interfere with “growth”), jobs (the more the better), public services (lean and efficient), politicians (strong and decisive), trade (the freer the better), our military (indispensable heroes one and all), law and order (tough on crime). Again and again, whether providing editorial comment or framing stories, our media have a strong tendency to agree to agree. It’s no conspiracy, but is all too often a kind of default consensus.

Does it come down to the old adage that “freedom of the press belongs to those who own one”? Not entirely. Many factors play a role in consensus creation, and the desire to maintain readership and attract advertisers is not a minor one. But the pro-business bias of media (mostly owned by corporate interests) is rooted in their commitment not only to maintain their own profitability but also to ensure a healthy business climate, whatever the social or environmental costs. This concentration of power in Canada (criticized as far back as 1981 by the Kent Commission) is one of the greatest among G8 countries, whether in print or television. Pro-business conservative bias is usually a subtle matter, but occasionally it surfaces in a stark fashion to remind us – such as during the 2013 Ontario election, when the editor of the Globe and Mail (presumably reflecting the wishes of the Globe’s owners, the wealthy Thomson family) overrode his own editorial board to throw the paper’s support behind the ill-fated campaign of slash-and-burn conservative Tim Hudak. Influence is not usually wielded in such a heavy-handed fashion, as editors and reporters are hired to know their place and the views that their employers find palatable.

It is arguable that this consensus would be legitimate if it reflected Canadian public opinion. It could then be justified on representational grounds. But according to polling data, Canadians hold a wide range of often contradictory opinions. In the wake of the commitment to fight ISIS, slightly less than two thirds of Canadians approved. On issues of personal rights (say assisted suicide and marijuana legalization), they strongly believe that government has no business telling them what to do. Canadians are deeply concerned about the environment, and express the desire for government to take much stronger action. More of us believe there is human-created global warming than do people in the US or the UK. In 2011, while every English daily newspaper in the country (with the exception of those associated with Ontario-based Torstar) took an editorial position to re-elect Stephen Harper’s Conservatives, only 39 per cent of those Canadians who bothered to vote felt this way. It seems pretty obvious that Canadian opinion is much more diverse than the opinions that dominate the media would suggest. On one issue – law and order– the media consensus tends if anything to understate public opinion. A majority of Canadians believe that violent crime is increasing (it’s actually decreasing) and that a tougher approach is necessary – more incarceration, expanding police budgets, a more punitive prison regime, and reduced legal rights for the accused. These are highly controversial views, which a significant number of criminologists feel are both counterproductive and expensive. So even where the consensus media accurately reflect public opinion, would the media not be doing a greater service by fostering a thoughtful debate rather than climbing on the law and order bandwagon?

Trouble is looming over the health of our democracy and the mainstream media orientation toward consensus. Our democracy is made up of two main elements: a system of representational government presided over by a professional political class that is for the most part organized into fairly hierarchical electoral parties, and a civil society that allows the citizenry space to express itself (through freedom of speech, of assembly, etc.) and attempts to influence the direction in which society is heading (whether on the economic, ecological, political or social front). The relationship between government and society is referee-ed by an independent judicial

system. I would say the most important aspect of our current democracy is the civil society rather than the representational institutions. Our first-past-the post electoral system is showing definite signs of fatigue as voter turnout declines election after election, and there is growing disenchantment with politicians and their doings. Fear and loathing is both the object and the subject of politics. The fact is that the views that separate our politicians have become fairly narrow (even if they generate a lot of heat) and there is often not a great deal of difference in how they perform once in power. Thus to sustain and perhaps replenish our democratic ethos, what is essential is an engaged public drawing sustenance from diverse, critical thinking. If our media is also locked into a sterile consensus of narrow agreement, this will prove a difficult task.

Of course it can be argued that every society has some sort of consensus around which media-driven public discourse evolves. This may be true, but in most open societies the range is wider than one gets from the Canadian media. In almost all European countries there is not only a greater presence of public media, but also a printed press that ranges across the political spectrum. In the UK, for example, there is The Guardian and The Independent (on the Liberal Left) and even a large tabloid — The Mirror — that identifies with the Centre-Left. The Telegraph and the Murdoch papers anchor the Right. A wide range of intellectuals and unorthodox voices (running from the radical comedian Russell Brand to fascist BNP leader Nick Griffin) get a hearing on the BBC. No matter how unpalatable some views may be, the appearance of the heretical and idiosyncratic represents an ethos not afraid of fundamental disagreement. Even CBC TV, striving for a modicum of debate on various news “panels,” usually restricts participation to insider journalists or voices “credentialed” by some connection with major political parties. This is not to say that there are no dissenting voices in mainstream media (David Suzuki sticks out, along with many more in cyberspace), but on balance they remain a marginalized minority. Arguably cyberspace, where cacophony certainly prevails over consensus, with its plethora of alternative news sources, blogs, specialist and public interest websites, could be a counterweight. But the Internet’s vast diversity, while a healthy development, remains so fragmented that it is ineffective in providing pluralistic balance to a mainstream that also maintains its own web presence. The problem is now aggravated with public broadcasting (the CBC) starved of government funds, and Postmedia further centralizing its monopoly by gobbling up the Sun Media chain.

Our media consensus is, I think, underpinned by the notion that any advocacy of significant change beyond certain accepted boundaries is simply unacceptable. Change needs to be slow and incremental. It cannot cause polarization and disruption or be subversive of prevailing power relations. While few actually enjoy conflict, adherence to this view is at best short-sighted. If the problems we face are urgent and radical, how do they lend themselves to uncontroversial moderate solutions? Take two main examples: inequality and climate degradation. There is now a well established view in the international scientific community that we face a growing problem of severe weather disruption, probably culminating in sea rise and other meteorological effects that will create millions of environmental refugees. Their dire projections see changes that are species threatening. We are also now facing a polarization of wealth and poverty, gaining momentum since the 1980s, which is reshaping the social landscape of life chances. According to the most disturbing estimates, the world’s three hundred wealthiest families now control more wealth than its three billion poorest people. Of those three billion, many survive (or don’t survive) on $2 a day or less. Even if this estimate is exaggerated, and there are six hundred wealthy families and just 1.5 billion poor people, it is a startling situation. To shift such issues will be a major challenge involving significant changes in the nature of our carbon economy, the tax system, how we distribute wealth and how we make our decisions. We will need to rethink deeply the consequences of economic growth and our preoccupations with our own narrow national security. To do this it would be helpful to have a media in which coverage and opinion are open to a much broader range of issues and voices to help us decide what is important and what we need to do about it.

To some degree it comes down to what one values in democracy. If our preference is for a well-ordered polity with strong leadership and widespread agreement across ethnic, class and gender lines, then we tend towards stability and consensus. If we think democracy is a messy business with shifting values and alliances, and vitality emerging from conflict, then we are suspicious of consensus. Is democracy something we already have and must defend, or is it a perpetual horizon we must always strive to reach? For advocates of conservative stability, consensus and vigilance against democracy’s destabilizing foes is essential. These foes (terrorists, criminals, the poor, disruptive trouble-makers of all varieties) are the scapegoats we must learn to fear and loathe. For those who believe we must still strive to achieve democracy, the focus shifts to challenging conglomerations of political and economic power that limit democratic possibility. Our current comfortable media consensus works to block any such deepening of democratic life.



Richard Swift is a Canadian independent journalist based in Toronto who has covered many parts of the world. He is the author of The No-Nonsense Guide to Democracy (New Internationist 2010) and also Gangs: A Groundwork Guide (Groundwood Books, 2011). He is also the 2011 winner of the Daniel Singer Millennium Prize for his essay, "Preparing The Ground." The topic he addressed involves why the Left in some Western countries has been marginalized while right-wing populism has been able to channel much of the anger caused by the financial crisis. Swift is a former co-editor of The New Internationalist which is based in Oxford, U.K., with offices in Canada, Australia and New Zealand.