I Told You So: The Kent Commission

“I told you so”
The Kent Commission Twenty Years On

Richard Keshen and Kent MacAskill

“I told you so” was part of Tom Kent’s reply when asked recently about the state of the newspaper industry in Canada (Cobb 1996b, A1). Kent, Chairperson of the 1980 Royal Commission on Newspapers, might be forgiven his expression of self-satisfaction. Deprecated and dismissed when the Commission’s report first appeared, Kent and his report are currently cited for their prescient analysis. Shelved as either dangerous or impracticable, the Commissions’ recommendations are now being seriously debated. Our paper aims to explain this renewed interest in the Kent Commission.

Background

The Canada Royal Commission on Newspapers, popularly known as the Kent Commission, was created in 1980 in response to allegations of collusion in the same-day closings of the Thomson-owned Ottawa Journal and the Southam-owned Winnipeg Tribune. These closings left each company – Southam in Ottawa and Thomson in Winnipeg – with monopolies in their respective cities. The closings were followed by expressions of public concern over newspaper concentration in Canada and worries that the fourth estate was not fulfilling its democratic function. The Commission’s mandate was to explore these concerns and make recommendations for improvement.

At the time of the Kent Commission, two newspaper chains, Thomson and Southam, were dominant. These chains accounted for 77% of the 117 dailies in Canada (Royal Commission, 9). Significantly, this proportion was up from 58% just 10 years previously when the first government inquiry on newspapers had been established under Senator Keith Davey. In 1980 Thomson owned the largest number of Canadian newspapers. As well as publishing the Globe and Mail, Canada’s only national newspaper at the time, Thomson owned 40 other dailies. The Southam chain, on the other hand, had the largest total daily circulation, capturing 32.8% of the English Canadian newspaper buying public (ibid).

The Kent Commission was generally critical of Canada’s newspaper business, confirming the fears that instigated the Commission. Kent reserved his harshest criticism, however, for the Thomson newspaper chain. While praising Thomson for maintaining the quality of the Globe and Mail, the Commission saw the Thomson-controlled smaller dailies as epitomizing the worst aspects of corporate ownership in the print media.

The Kent Commission argued that Thomson was squeezing the quality from most of its newspapers in exchange for higher profits. As well, the Thomson conglomerate owned large assets outside the newspaper business. Kent argued that Thomson ran its newspapers much the way it operated its other businesses – profit was its dominant goal. By contrast, Southam (then owned by the Southam family) was focussed primarily on newspapers, and quality was not necessarily sacrificed to profit. As Kent put it, Southam still had a “newspaper conscience”: “They spend, on the contents of their newspapers, many millions of dollars a year that are by the simple criterion of the bottom line, entirely wasted” (Kent 1982). A paper bought out by Thomson, on the other hand, inevitably “becomes a little thinner and the share of advertising increases as a percentage of the newspapers total space” (Kent 1982). Cost cutting measures are frequently introduced, especially with regard to editorial and news space. These cost cutting measures occur in an already highly profitable industry, Kent argued. The Thomson conglomerate was (and is) owned by Ken Thomson. But the philosophy behind Thompson newspapers seems to have come from Roy Thomson, Ken’s father and founder of the Thomson empire. Roy Thomson famously said that owning television stations and daily newspapers in Canada is like owning money making machines – only with newspaper ownership, unlike television, one doesn’t need a license (Siegel 1996, 123).

The Kent Commission predicted conglomerate ownership would increase in the 1980s and 1990s. The Commission produced evidence that chains like Southam – those with a “newspaper conscience” – would become ripe for a takeover if the political situation were not changed. Later in this paper we will see that this prediction has been fulfilled.

Based on evidence compiled over a ten month period, the Kent Commission laid out a set of dramatic recommendations to improve the industry. The Commission proposed a tax incentive designed to increase news and editorial content. Any newspaper spending more than the industry average on news content, in proportion to its total revenue, would be rewarded with a substantial tax credit. In order to balance this incentive, “since there is no reason to subsidize the industry as it is, a 25% surtax would be imposed on papers spending less than the industry average on news and editorial content”(Kent 1985, 20).

In a direct attack on conglomerate ownership, Kent proposed a number of measures to block both further newspaper concentration and further cross-media ownership. Such recommendations included prohibiting ownership of a national newspaper if a company owned other newspapers, prohibiting extreme geographic concentration (no monopolies in a province, for example), and, finally, the two largest chains should be made to divest some of their dailies and other media holdings.

Kent believed that his most important long-run recommendations were those designed to open newspapers to public scrutiny. A newspaper is an important community institution, he argued, yet its affairs are normally hidden behind the boardrooms of conglomerate companies Kent proposed that the editorial unit of a newspaper be required to issue a public statement of its purpose and policy. The content of the statement would be entirely up to the newspaper; it would simply be putting on public record what it stands for. The newspaper would then be required to publish an annual report detailing what it has been doing to fulfil its stated purpose. An advisory committee, consisting of two representatives of the owners, two members of the journalistic staff, and three outside members chosen by the first four, would evaluate the annual reports, and the evaluations would be made public. Finally, as a further countervailing force, there would be a Press Rights Panel within the Human Rights Commission which would comment on both the annual report and the advisory committee’s evaluation.

The negative reaction that met the Kent Commission on publication was unprecedented in the history of Canadian Royal Commissions. “Idiot’s delight”, “monstrous”, “vindictive”, “unacceptable and dangerous” were typical of the insults hurled at the Commission (Saskatoon Star-Phoenix 1981). Innumerable references were made to “Big Brother” and to the end of press freedom. Personal attacks were levelled at Tom Kent. He was said to be “authoritarian” and a dupe of the Liberal Party. Often, the Commission was simply treated as a joke. Fred Hagel, Editor-in-Chief of the two Irving newspapers in Saint John, proclaimed, “It reads a bit like a psychedelic dream” (Saskatoon Star-Phoenix 1981)

Through the Canadian Daily Newspaper Publishers Association (CDNPA), the newspaper owners flexed their political muscle in Ottawa. In the end, the government decided Kent’s recommendations were unsaleable to the Canadian public, and the report was shelved. The concern over newspaper ownership, which had flared up so quickly, died down almost as quickly. The issue seemed largely forgotten. Then along came Conrad Black.

The Newspaper Industry Today

Conrad Black’s first foray into the newspaper business was as owner of the Sherbrooke Record in 1969. He quickly built his empire from those humble beginnings and began to acquire numerous overseas papers. Black’s talent lay in purchasing papers that were losing money and converting them into profitable businesses. After amassing a fortune in foreign interests, Black turned back to his native country. In the early 1990s Black acquired a host of smaller media companies, thereby greatly strengthening his own company, Hollinger. He then successfully set his sights in the mid-1990s on Southam. As Tom Kent had predicated thirteen years earlier, Southam was taken over by larger conglomerates – Black’s Hollinger and Paul Desmarais’ Power Corporation. Adding to his burgeoning empire, Black soon purchased fourteen small dailies from Ken Thomson, and then bought out Power Corporation’s share of Southam.

Conrad Black had gained control of 60 newspapers in a remarkably short period of time. These financial dealings have made him Canada’s largest newspaper magnate ever, controlling twenty more dailies than Thomson at his peak. Corporate concentration is at an all time high; the three largest chains (Hollinger/Southam, Quebecor/Sun Media, and Torstar) control 72% of daily circulation, up from 57% in 1980. As we revise our article, Thomson has announced that it is selling its 5 remaining newspapers in Canada, including the Winnipeg Free Press (DeMont, February 16, 2000, A6). Conrad Black has expressed interest in acquiring the Winnipeg Free Press, and worries have been raised in Parliament about the likely increased corporate concentration with the Thomson sale (Brent, February 19, 2000, D3).

Black’s effect on the newspaper scene in Canada is the subject of much debate. He is often criticized for the cost-cutting measures he imposes on his newspapers. It’s true that cutbacks were nothing new to an industry that experienced the recession years of the early 1990s, combined with the rising cost of newsprint. The critics argue, however, that now that the recession is over profit-making has returned to the newspaper industry, and in Black’s case his growth in profits always come at the expense of editorial and news content. As one critic put it the Black-led newspaper industry of the 1990s “is not burning fat, it is destroying muscle” (Siegel 1996, 119). In one dramatic Black takeover, for example, “170 employees were laid off from the Regina Leader Post and the Saskatoon Star Phoenix the day after Black’s Hollinger
tookover”(Cobb 1996a, A9). A study by the University of Regina Journalism School found that after Hollinger began operations at the Regina Leader-Post coverage “in the key areas of agriculture, civic politics, and health dropped dramatically”(McCarthy 1996b, C1).

On the other side, supporters point to the positive aspects of Black’s record. His small-town dailies, for example, have increased their international coverage, thereby satisfying one of the recommendations of the Kent Commission. (Black’s detractors counter that international coverage comes cheap, since it is simply a matter of taking more articles from the wire-services, which are paid for anyway.) Black has also provided the industry and the Canadian public with one of the most ambitious newspaper ventures in years, a coast-to-coast newspaper to compete with the Globe and Mail. Whereas Black may scrimp on his small-town dailies, he spares no expense on the National Post. However, even the emergence of the National Post has been a moot point. There are worries, for example, that the Globe is lowering its intellectual and journalistic standards in order not to lose out to the flashier Post.

Conrad Black’s strong political views have been a source of concern. Black claims that his papers follow the direction of peoples’ preferences, and that preferences are measured by profit. Critics maintain, however, that Black’s political views are having an insidious effect on Canadian newspapers. Tom Kent has been one of these critics: “Black is a person of strong opinions, he is bound to have an influence on his papers”(Cobb 1996b, A1) and “editors and journalists will react to their perceptions of Black’s conservative philosophy (Parsons 1996, D6). Those working for Hollinger are well aware of what Black wants. Several senior editors have left Southam papers since Black’s acquisition, citing editorial differences with their new boss. James Travers, former editor for the Ottawa Citizen, along with editorial page editor, Peter Calamai, left their jobs due to “differences of opinion”(Calamai 1999, 6). Travers stated, “Mr. Black’s view of Southam’s newsrooms is that they are essentially peopled by long-haired dope smoking freaks left over from the 1960s (Calamai 1999, 6). Long time Southam columnist, Chris Young had his column discontinued after he denounced Black’s stand on Quebec separation, but not before being labeled, in an editorial written by Black himself, “a failed and trivial partisan”, and a sympathizer of “odious left wing regimes” and “socialistic anti-American fads”(Council of Canadians Web Site 1999) . As for the columnists working with the National Post, the vast majority are political conservatives. Some critics believe that a national newspaper should try to reflect the diversity of political views in the country rather than be a mouthpiece for one political philosophy.

The rapid growth of Conrad Black’s newspaper chain has given rise to much reflective concern. The Council of Canadians, led by Maude Barlow, has challenged the legality of allowing Black to acquire a controlling interest of Southam.. Numerous journalists have also expressed their worry about corporate concentration in the print media. And once again the Kent Commission has become a focal point for discussion of the newspaper industry in Canada.

The Re-emergence of the Kent Commission

Whereas the publication of the Kent Commission in 1981 provoked cries of “big brother” and monstrous”, contemporary comments on the Commission are almost always commendatory. Typical of this new attitude is the change of view between editions of Arthur Siegel’s standard text, Politics and the Media in Canada. In the first edition, published in 1983, Siegel issued a harsh indictment of the Kent Commission, stating that its recommendations were “produced in haste” (Siegal 1983, 146). He particularly condemned Kent’s proposal for a government ombudsperson and wondered whether the deeper issue wasn’t really a struggle between big business and big government with Kent leading the charge on behalf of big government. With the publication of the second edition in 1996, however, Siegel’s view of the Commission has undergone a dramatic change. Though Siegel still worries about government intervention, he acknowledges that Kent’s concerns over conglomerate ownership were justified (and Siegel’s second edition was written before Conrad Black finalized his sole ownership of Southam). Siegel now respectfully lays out for consideration the Commissions’ proposals (Siegel 1996, 250).

Recent general political science textbooks have also revived their interest in the Kent Commission, almost always commending it. For example, Rand Dyck, in his Canadian Politics, praises the Kent Commission for its recommendations to curb newspaper concentration and to protect editors’ independence from corporate owners. He further describes how corporate pressure was partly responsible for shelving the report when it first appeared (Dyck 1996, 318-319).

Tom Kent’s public entry into the debate during the Conrad Black era occurred as early as 1993 when Black first became a shareholder in Southam. Kent wrote an article in the Montreal Gazette criticizing Black’s previous newspaper ventures both at home and abroad for “their poverty of journalistic content and penny pitching style of management”(Kent 1993, A11). He noted that when Black takes over a newspaper, the political slant of the paper nearly always shifts to reflect Black’s right-wing views. Kent was pessimistic about the Chretien government’s will to take the needed action: “If the Trudeau government wasn’t prepared to face a row with publishers, I’m sure this government isn’t going to” (Flavelle 1996, C1).

If the government is not considering action in the direction Kent would wish, nevertheless Kent’s concerns are sometimes being voiced, often in his own words, from other quarters. In an article in the Windsor Star, Chris Cobb worried that Southam had come under the control of Conrad Black. Cobb cites Tom Kent’s remark that the takeover “marks the end of Southam as we know it”(Cobb 1993, A7). He then discusses the recommendations of the Kent Commission, stating that “not only have those recommendations been ignored, but, in many cases the opposite has occurred” (Cobb 1993, A7). Cobb cites University of Laval media specialist, Florian Sauvageau, who writes that “perhaps we should look at the Kent report again, and begin giving editors contracts that guarantee independence (ibid)”.

The Royal Commission on Newspapers was invoked when the MacLean-Hunter media empire was taken over by Rogers Communication Inc. in 1994. The result of this transaction was a virtual monopoly for Rogers Communication in some fields of publishing, cable systems, TV stations, and magazines. In his article “Consumers will Pay a Price for Decline in Competition”, Rod Ziegler of the Edmonton Journal wrote about the dangers of this type of monopoly (Ziegler 1994, B4) Ziegler expresses his fear that the prominent business imperative of today is that “you have to be big to compete”( ibid). He then cites the Kent Commission and expresses sympathy with Kent’s lament over the demise of competition in the media.

The renewed interest in the Kent Commission has largely occurred from 1996 onward. This is when the issues raised by the Commission were once again brought to the forefront by the acquisition of 19 small Thomson dailies by Conrad Black and the purchase of Paul Desmarais’s stake in Southam. Dana Flavelle of the Toronto Star reported in 1996 that “Tom Kent feels vindicated 15 years after he warned that ownerships of Canada’s daily newspapers was drifting into the hands of a few powerful corporate interests at the public’s expense” (Flavelle 1996, C1). Kent is quoted as saying he believes the Commission’s recommendations are still relevant today even though he doubts the government has the “political will to do anything about this” (ibid). Flavelle then describes in detail the history of the controversial Commission. Shawn McCarthy, also of the Toronto Start, reported on the Black acquisitions complete with a section on Tom Kent and the Royal Commission (McCarthy 1996a, C1).

As Black’s power grew, Chris Cobb, when he worked for the Ottawa Citizen, became especially concerned about the fate of the Canadian Press’s cooperatively run wire service. Both Southam and Hollinger had told Canadian Press they wanted to pay a lot less for its news service. Southam has threatened to pull out of the cooperative altogether and start its own news agency, a move that could possibly kill “the central nervous system of Canadian journalism” (Cobb 1996b, A1). Cobb cites Tom Kent as regretting the decline of Canadian Press and as opining that so much damage has already been done that “it is impossible that [Canadian Press] will regain its previous stature” (Cobb 1996c, B3).

Chris Cobb had been one of the few members of the print media in Canada whose beat was the Canadian media industry itself. In the mid 1990s, Cobb concentrated much of his reporting on what was the main story at the time, Conrad Black’s emergence on the Canadian newspaper scene. He covered Black’s takeover of Southam Inc. “including developments that Southam management would have preferred kept quiet” (Calamai 1999, 6). When Black gained control of Southam, Cobb quickly found out “that there would be little call in the future for such reporting. He asked to be re-assigned and the media beat disappeared” (Calamai 1999, 6).

When the state of Canada’s newspapers is spotlighted, Tom Kent’s opinion is sought. For example, in his essay on the National Post, “Public Reaction Split on New Paper”, Richard Foot of the Hamilton Spectator features remarks by Tom Kent: “One welcomes competition, but one wishes it weren’t being done by someone who already owns much of the press” (Foot 1998). When Rob Ferguson and John Honderich of the Toronto Star wrote demanding a review of newspaper ownership laws, they refer positively to the Kent Commission’s recommendations and cite Kent as describing the current situation as “a tragedy” (Ferguson 1998a, C1).

Even when commentators defend the principle of corporate takeovers or express admiration for Black, there is none of the sneering dismissal of Kent so typical of the early 1980s. Thus, for example, Christopher Dornan, director of o the Carleton University School of Journalism, defends the role of big corporations in the newspaper business, while granting that the Kent Commission had given a thorough airing to the anxieties rife in the industry (Dornan 1998, B2). Similarly, Duart Farquharson of the Edmonton Journal defends letting the market work itself out in the newspaper industry even when this means increased corporate concentration. At the same time, he grants that the worries expressed in the Kent Commission represent a legitimate point of view (Farquharson 1999, F3).

Conclusion

Buried at birth beneath abuse and neglect, the Kent Commission has experienced a resurrection. The report and its chairperson are key reference points wherever there is debate about media concentration in Canada. At stake are questions fundamental to democracy: 1) What is the role of the media in a well-functioning democracy?; 2) Are newspapers more important to democracy than other media?; 3) Does democracy suffer when the media are owned by a relatively few conglomerates?; 4) Do privately owned newspapers have an obligation to provide balanced coverage of news events and a broad spectrum of editorial comment?; 5) If the answers to the latter two questions are “yes”, is it ever appropriate for a democratic government to enforce divestment or to set up an ombudsperson to ensure fair coverage and commentary? Nearly 20 years ago, the Kent Commission boldly raised, and, according to its own lights, answered these questions. At that time, the debate invited by the Commission did not occur. But developments predicted by the Commission itself have made its report central to the current debate on
newspaper ownership – a debate which Canadians, one hopes, are now more ready to take seriously than they were in the early 1980s.

NOTES

Early in this project, the authors had the help of Ann MacKenzie and the co-operation of Tom Kent (Kent agreed to be interviewed by MacKenzie and he passed on to us several of his unpublished speeches from around the time of the Commission). Neither person has seen or contributed to the final form of this paper. But we would like to thank them for their early help.

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