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Canadian media bias: A sketch from the 1980s to today (Part One)

By Mark Wegierski
web posted January 8, 2007

It is often considered by many conservatives in Canada that there is a huge media bias against them. However, raising this issue is often met with hysterical denunciations in most of the Canadian media.

Nevertheless, there have been a large number of incidents across the decades, only a few of which are mentioned below.

One might consider, for example, the unrelenting characterization of Ontario Progressive Conservative Premier Frank Miller (during the 1985 campaign) as a "used-car salesman - country bumpkin," even though he had a degree in Chemical Engineering from McGill, served many years in the Ontario Parliament, and had lived, in fact, for several years in Toronto. Was it any surprise that Miller failed to win a majority in the provincial Parliament?

One might also consider the way the Liberal – New Democratic Party (NDP) coalition (which sent the Ontario PCs spiraling into oblivion) was virtually put together on the pages of the Toronto Star (as the most cursory glance at the headlines of the period will show), at a time when the Tories possessed the plurality of seats in the provincial Parliament.

Indeed there are numerous examples of media bias, misstatement, mislabeling, semantic manipulation, under- or over-emphasis, in regard to the "official conservative" federal and provincial parties , and  in relation to various emanations of "small-c conservatism". A long analytical essay could be written on the manifold distortions of reality in just one, randomly selected issue of the Toronto Star, Canada's largest and most profitable newspaper.

Careful empirical studies of the media, carried out by credible scholars, had already in the 1980s shown the presence of a very marked left-wing bias in the Canadian media.

Professor Barry Cooper of the University of Calgary found, in his study released in the summer of 1986, that 78% of CBC programs originated in Toronto (what might be called "the megalopolis factor"); and that, where a political viewpoint could be discerned, those with a left-wing bias outnumbered those with a conservative bias by a ratio of two-and-a-half to one. Of the CBC's criticisms of government, 62% were from a left-wing viewpoint, vs. 12% from the right (Peter Worthington, "The Media Are Found Wanting", Financial Post, February 23, 1987).

Referring to one of the conclusions of the same study, the Globe and Mail reports it as saying that CBC Radio leans to the left:

"Of the stories for which an ideological bias could be ascertained...over 50% were oriented towards the left, with 34% having a centre focus, and 15% a right focus...If a wide variety of points of view were expressed, even if critical of the Government, one would expect that the balance of left to right criticism would be closer than 5 to 1. It seems clear, therefore, than when important points of view are involved, and criticism of the Government is expressed, the CBC adopts a left-wing ideological perspective." (Globe and Mail, June 9, 1986.)

Another major study, conducted in 1982 by Professor Peter Snow of the graduate School of Journalism at the University of Western Ontario, focussed on the members of the Parliamentary Press Gallery in Ottawa (Canada's journalistic elite).

"It was found in the study that, when asked to identify the party they felt closest to, 37% of the journalists surveyed chose the NDP, 17% the Liberals, and 11% the PC party. When asked for voting preferences, the single largest preferred party was the NDP, at 19%." (Toronto Sun, July 19, 1985.)

The study was commented on by Peter Desbarats, Dean of the School of Journalism at Western University (London, Ontario), in the Financial Post of July 13, 1985, where he refers to the results found by Professor Peter Snow:

"When asked to place themselves on the political spectrum, 43% of the surveyed gallery journalists described themselves as belonging to the political centre, while 42% stated that they usually thought of themselves as being to the left of centre. Only 4% identified themselves as being right of centre."

The existence of a significant left-wing bias in the Canadian media can be accepted as an empirical fact.

At the same time, it must be realized how enormous and socially significant the power of the media is. One could quote from the media itself:

"Television...is the greatest cultural force the world has ever known..." (Knowlton Nash, The National, June 10, 1985.)

"Many surveys demonstrate that Canadians have come increasingly to rely on television as their primary source of information...Television has become one of the most pervasive influences in the lives of most of us. (Pierre Juneau, Chairman of the CBC, March 30, 1987.)

(Both quotes from George Bains, Macleans, September 21, 1987.)

If one combines the notions of the vast power of the various technological media, and the existence of the strong left-wing biases of many of those who play highly prominent roles in them, one arrives at a formula for what might be the ultimate form of normative social control.

In the 1987 Ontario provincial election, the droning of the media about an inevitable Peterson triumph could not have been but prejudicial to the over-all election results. After the election, it was not amplified in the media that the Liberal Peterson majority was elected by at most 29% of total eligible voters. (Approximately 1.8 million votes out of 6.3 million votes possible.) If an equivalent Progressive Conservative majority had been elected, one could safely assume that attempts would immediately be made to delegitimize this victory, by headlines such as "Conservatives Win Majority with Only a Third of Eligible Voters", and stories to match.

It must be said that the media often does not permit  any real criticism of itself, which could be seen as a surefire mark of a truly dominant group. Rosemary Speirs, a prominent Star columnist, with known left-wing views, wrote in her column:

"The Conservatives need a leader...who likes, rather than secretly despises, the members of the media." (Toronto Star, September 12, 1987, p. B4.)

To "like the media" is to agree with the media, and to agree with the media is to agree with many who secretly (or not-so-secretly) mostly despise the "official conservative" parties and "small-c conservatism."

Rosemary Speirs also implies that criticism of the media can only be due to emotional instability (i.e., it is "non-objective"), and therefore wholly illegitimate:

"The Conservative leader was, visibly, in a battered emotional condition at the end of the campaign, lashing out at the media..." (Toronto Star, September 11, 1987, p. A11.)

It might be said that nothing less than perfect obedience is expected from the "official conservative" parties by many in the media:

"He made a gallant recovery on the last day, sending a cake aboard the media bus that followed his tour and thanking reporters for fair coverage." (Toronto Star, September 11, 1987, p. A11.)

It is like the sheep being expected to thank the wolf for devouring it!

Rosemary Speirs conveniently explains the election defeat in her headline, "Tories fell apart when Grossman lurched to right." (Toronto Star, September 11, 1987). This is indeed a common left-wing explanation for conservative failures. However, this statement should be examined closely. First of all, does it not operate from a skewed position of what "right" and "left" mean? Wasn't Grossman elected to the leadership of the Ontario P.C.s as a "centrist" candidate, in contrast to the more pronouncedly "right-wing" Frank Miller? Also, is it not an essentially anti-democratic supposition that we must have three equally left-liberal or left-wing parties, and that being "on the right" is a virtually illegitimate position to take in a democracy?

It might be argued that the adoption by the Ontario P.C. party of Liberal and NDP policies and programs, particularly under Premier Bill Davis, constituted a real frustration of the democratic process, which presupposes that the electors have the right to choose from a variety of widely-differing, widely-contrasting, platforms and philosophies, the right to make at least some fundamental choices.

The "official conservative" parties  and "small-c conservatives" are political groupings at a marked disadvantage in today's Canada -- groupings which are indeed forced to operate within a largely hostile societal environment. It is hard to escape the conclusion that a large part of this environment of hostility to the "official conservative" parties and "small-c conservatism" is one carefully and deliberately constructed through the continuous efforts of much of the media.

To be continued next week. ESR

Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.


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