Group Says ‘Big Media’ Suppressing Free Speech
Group Says 'Big Media' Suppressing Free Speech
by: Joan Delaney
The group that brought the world Buy Nothing Day, TV Turnoff Week and World Carfree Day has taken on Big Media.
Adbusters Media Foundation, a global network of media rights and anti-consumerist activists, is suing CanWest Global, the CBC, the CRTC and the Canadian government over the right to air what it calls public service advertisements.
On Jan.7, the British Columbia Supreme Court heard arguments on whether the lawsuit, launched in 2004, should go forward.
At issue, says Adbusters, is the right of Canadian citizens to have a "reasonable opportunity . . . to be exposed to the expression of differing views on matters of public concern," as stipulated in the Canadian Broadcasting Act.
"We want to air messages about some of the biggest issues of our time, including things like obesity, war, and media concentration, and some of our ads want to talk back against some very large corporations that we think are distorting our society," says Vancouver-based Kalle Lasn, founder of Adbusters.
For over 10 years Adbusters has been trying to pay major commercial broadcasters to air its ads, only to be routinely blocked by network executives, usually with no reason given. This amounts to censorship and suppression of free speech, says Lasn.
"Ninety percent of the time they refuse, and the reason they refuse is because they think that it will hurt their business, because quite often our ads talk back against fast food or over consumption or the automobile industry."
One reason why the broadcasters are reluctant to sell airtime to Adbusters, adds Lasn, is what happened when tobacco commercials went the way of the dodo about three decades ago.
After some hard-hitting anti-smoking ads began appearing on television, it spelled the beginning of the end for tobacco advertising on TV, and broadcasters lost many millions of dollars in revenue.
The way Lasn looks at it, every Canadian citizen should have the right to walk into their local TV station and pay for 30 seconds of air time if it is in the public interest.
However, Nick Ketchum, senior director of broadcasting at the CRTC, says that's not necessarily the case; media have the right to refuse ads or editorial material, "and that's not censorship."
"I don't know any media, whether public or private, that is forced to carry any ad that someone is willing to pay for. There's always the responsibility the media has to ensure that whatever they broadcast is consistent with the rules, regulations, and values that they represent," says Ketchum.
An obstacle to Canadians having a "free marketplace of ideas," says Lasn, is the high level of media concentration in Canada. Currently, only four corporations — CanWest, Quebecor, Torstar and Gesca — control 72 percent of the country's daily newspaper circulation, according to the Standing Committee on Transport and Communications.
In Vancouver and Victoria, CanWest Global, Canada's largest media company, owns two regional TV stations and three daily newspapers.
And while the CRTC last week announced new regulations around media consolidation, critics say these rules are too little too late, and do nothing to halt some big media acquisitions that were initiated in recent years.
Lise Lareau, national president of the Canadian Media Guild, a union that represents media workers, says the CRTC's new regulations "did not reflect Canadians' broad concerns about this issue at all.
"It's like you wouldn't have known for the past two years that the media landscape in this country has become far more concentrated than it had been 10 years ago."
While the CRTC regulations may have the effect of preventing media corporations from consolidating further in the future, they did nothing to change the existing situation, says Lareau.
"In many ways the train has left the station. We are stuck with these conglomerates that we have."
Media concentration is occurring around the world, but to a lesser degree than it has been in Canada, says Lareau. In December, the Federal Communications Commission in the United States loosened up the rules around media ownership, making it legal to own a TV station and newspaper in the same market.
However, according to Lareau, the U.S. has far more media owners for the most part than Canada has. In addition, the American people tend to be more aware of the problems associated with media concentration — and more vociferous about it — than Canadians.
"People understand the impact of a free press on democracy as an issue in a great way down there. That really matters to Americans in a kind of more visceral way than it might in Canada, so you have an alliance down there of interesting people who are fighting these issues," says Lareau.
Stephen Anderson, coordinator of Campaign for Democratic Media, says such media concentration means Canadians have not been informed about the Adbusters lawsuit because the broadcasters that would report on it are the ones named in the lawsuit.
"It is the same problem with challenging media policy in general in Canada as they won't cover themselves," says Anderson.
"This campaign Adbusters has going is the perfect example — they can't get it covered because the media is so concentrated. If there were more Toronto Star-type publications or independent media it would be a lot easier. It's really a good example of why we shouldn't have such concentrated media."
Anderson says that while media activism is still in its infancy, the last few years have seen a number of new groups formed — both in Canada and overseas — that are fighting for "media democracy."
Media activists believe that, given time, media democracy will become a movement as powerful as feminism, civil rights, and environmentalism.
They hold that "distorted news" and manipulative commercials prompting rampant consumerism are neither good for humans nor the planet, and can even cause stress and mental health problems.
Lasn says it's a "well documented fact" that, counting ads on television, the Internet, billboards and T-shirt logos, around 3,000 marketing messages a day register in the human brain.
He says there's a backlash brewing around the world against advertising, a case in point being Sao Paolo in Brazil.
On Jan.1, Sao Paolo implemented a wide-ranging ban on outdoor advertising, including billboards, neon signs and electronic panels. City officials said Sao Paolo's population of 11 million was overwhelmed with "visual pollution."
Lasn says there's a generation of young people now who are rebelling against what they view as propaganda being disseminated by the media and are working for change.
"There's a grassroots pressure from the bottom up against this kind of hyperactive, commercially charged mental environment we're forced to live in, but there is also a sort of top-down from politicians and city governments to change things.
"So I think we're on a bit of a roll here, we're catching a wave of media activism that over the next 10 years will start to change things, and this legal action of ours is an important element of that whole wave."
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