By Dom Serafini
One could easily say that the sun never sets on Rupert Murdoch’s media empire. His grip on the media world is so vast that daylight overlaps in a way that no part of his empire is ever in the dark. Except one place: Canada. Murdoch is sorely absent in Canada, except for a small direct mail operation and the right-wing Fox News, which, after political pressures from conservatives, was reluctantly approved by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) in 2004 to enter digital cable bouquets. Canada doesn’t have a Murdoch paper, a Murdoch film-TV production company or a Murdoch-owned television network.
The frustration could require aspirin pill-popping for Murdoch, considering that the country lies just a few hundred kilometers north of his New York City headquarters; it is a rich market and it speaks English and French, the latter of which could come in handy one day to gain entrance into France. Currently Murdoch has only a minor (13 percent) stake in TV Breizh (Breton), France, with little chance of expanding any further — even under the conservative government of President Nicolas Sarkozy. As the French president told both George W. Bush and Tony Blair, “one needs to listen to the people’s voice and the people don’t like controlling multinationals.”
However, for Murdoch, this could be a good opportunity to enter Canada. With the country now governed by a conservative (yet minority) government, Murdoch could well have a field day in Canadian media if not for the troublesome CRTC and other typically Canadian honest business practices and strict journalistic standards. Even if a CRTC decision can be appealed in Cabinet (the executive committee of the Canadian government), it rarely challenges a CRTC decision.
Canada has seven major media groups*, all of them public (although these are mostly controlled by the founding families). The exception is CTV Globe Media, a private company owned by the Kenneth R. Thomson family. But for Murdoch, the natural fit could be the Winnipeg, Manitoba-based Canwest Global Communications. It is one of the country’s largest publicly traded media groups, and has become almost a penny stock (trading at about 50 Canadian cents). Plus, it carries Fox Sports as a category two specialty channel and owns 56.4 percent of the TEN TV network in Australia. In Canada, Canwest owns 14 dailies (including the national newspaper, National Post) and 21 weeklies, as well as the Global TV network and several specialty channels. Founded by the late Izzy Asper, Canwest is now controlled by his sons Leonard and David and daughter Gail. Since only 11.05 percent of the group is traded, the family can decide things with little public interference.
An Asper-Murdoch plan would first have to persuade the conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper to change the law and allow a foreign takeover of one of Canada’s largest television companies. The Aspers have been lobbying various governments to change the Canadian ownership rules to allow for such foreign media ownership for years to no avail. This could be an easier task now since Harper, a basher of “liberal” media, would most likely welcome Murdoch. But then, the Canadian government would also have to change the rules on newspaper ownership to allow Canadian companies to write off advertising in foreign-owned publications on the same basis as they do with advertising costs in Canadian-owned publications. This would conflict with the other media groups, who will surely object. Plus, the CRTC would have to change the rules that protect existing Canadian English and French-language channels.
In the past, Murdoch has been successful in entering markets such as Italy, the U.K. and the U.S. mostly due to political actions leveraging those countries’ weaknesses. This is something that would be more difficult to pull off in Canada. The U.S. has the distinction of being a country where politicians can be legally “paid off” as long it is a matter of public record. In the U.K., Murdoch managed to intimidate politicians from all parties into submission, while in Italy he leveraged a mix of ineptitude and press manipulation.
It is not surprising then, when various press watchdog organizations such as the Washington D.C.-based Freedom House (that monitors the level of press freedom around the world) ranked Italy at 65 in 2008 –– below South Africa and Papua New Guinea. Canada, on the other hand, is ranked 25, on par with the U.K. and below the U.S. In terms of corruption, in 2008, Transparency International listed Canada as the least affected by corruption (ranked as number one), the U.K. ranked fifth, the U.S. ninth and Italy 17, on par with Brazil.
Finally, the CRTC is considered fiercely independent with public servants who tend to be guided by such principles as to “increase the diversity of media ownership,” for the good of the nation. Conversely, the FCC, the U.S. telecommunications authority, tends to be motivated by special interests.
*Astral Media, Canwest Global, CTV Globe Media, Newcap Broadcasting, Rogers Communications, Shaw Communications, Quebecor.