Media Concentration Is Not A Threat to Free Expression, Government Is

Ilana Mercer, June 25, 2001

I have no reason to celebrate the transfer of more than 100 Canadian newspapers including half-ownership of the National Post from Conrad Black’s Hollinger Inc. to Izzy Asper’s CanWest Global Communications Corp. Shortly after the CanWest media acquisition flurry, I was fired by the new owner of the Vancouver-based North Shore News, after writing a successful weekly column there for two years. On the heels of the same press purge, I was booted from a perch I’d held at the Calgary Herald for a year.

My American readers will recognize Conrad Black as the Chairman and CEO of one of the world’s largest newspaper groups. Among its more than 200 publications, Hollinger International counts The Daily Telegraph in the UK, The Jerusalem Post in Israel, and the Chicago Sun-Times. Conrad Black is a conservative and a relatively hands-off proprietor. When he pens the occasional op-ed piece, it is always a wonderfully wrought tour de force. The new media boss’ lesser facility with ideas and words has not prevented him and his progeny from tirelessly agitating in editorials for the governing liberal party. Mr. Asper is becoming known for his editorial activism, an accusation that has revived the Canadian apoplexy over “media concentration” or “cross ownership”—always a familiar bugaboo in the minds of bureaucrats and other befuddled statists.

Still, my firing, likely due to my libertarian politics, had little to do with “media concentration” per se and its alleged effects on freedom and diversity of expression.

Free speech rights are not suppressed when certain opinions are expunged from privately owned media. Government alone has the power to violate speech rights by using the force of the law. When government bans a publication or an opinion, it disappears or goes underground. You procure the publication or voice the opinion at your peril! A private outlet has no such power. Unless we presume we have a right to his property, Izzy Asper’s misguided editorial strictures are entirely his affair.

The only true monopolies are government monopolies. A company is a monopoly only when it can forcibly prohibit competitors from entering the market, a feat only ever made possible by state edict. In the free market, competition makes monopoly impossible. If Canadians don’t like Izzy Enterprises, they ought to vote with their cash and stop buying the Vancouver Sun and the National Post and stop watching BCTV. “Galaxy 500” doesn’t lack for TV channels. Radio, magazines and, above all, the Internet, render moot concerns over media concentration and freedom of speech.

A large market share is not a monopoly. If a Hollinger or CanWest expands without regulations, subsidies, licenses, or franchises, then they’ve done so fair and square. They’ve supplied at good prices products and services consumers want. Indeed, the notion that business concentration has anything to do with monopoly power is based on discredited theories. Free-market competition is a dynamic process, and market share is in constant flux. One day it’s Conrad; the next it’s Izzy—unfortunately.

It is also an unfortunate reality, however, that Canada is home to incontinent legislators. And they have been out marking their territory. To the extent that it is the beneficiary of a regulated broadcasting monopoly, CanWest receives government largesse. To the extent that government has partially nationalized newspapers in Canada, CanWest suffers the malign effects of the Regulator. What else would you call legislation that prohibits an owner from selling more than 25 percent of any newspaper to a foreign owner? Izzy’s empire would certainly not be as large if non-citizens could buy Canadian newspapers. If Canadians enjoyed freedom of association and contract, no one would complain of too much concentration and too little diversity.

So we must not allow the Regulator—and this applies in the US, which has draconian cross-ownership laws—to manage the problem created by his very existence. Do we propose to stop theft by placing the thief in charge of his stolen booty? The correct remedy, of course, is to chop off both the thief’s hands. This would make it impossible for government to confiscate our wealth and hand it over in the form of privileges to Izzy of CanWest, but would free Izzy Asper to dispose of his assets as he sees fit.

Besides being a morally bankrupt assault on property, “antitrust” laws that break up “concentrated” industries penalize entrepreneurs for their exceptional productivity. The resulting loss of efficiencies—such as the economies of scale and superior management that are instrumental in the successful concentration—does consumers no good.

To understand why there is a demand for the flaccid fare that Canadian and American media purvey—why there is such an eerie uniformity of opinion across our nations, the kind Izzy Asper’s conglomerate only reflects—we must look to the effects of the government-regulated, taxpayer-funded public school monopoly. Why are Canadians and—to a lesser extent—Americans so partial to collectivism? Why have we no concept of freedom other than sexual? Why do we fear private enterprise and love Big Brother? Because the public school system monopolizes the dissemination of ideas. John Dewey and his progressive acolytes founded modern public education with the express intention of forcibly reconstructing society. Monopoly schools remain instruments of coercion designed to strengthen “correct” social-democratic welfarism at the expense of traditional communities. Unlike libertarians, conservatives, unfortunately, have seldom objected to this monopoly; they have chosen to fight only for their values to prevail within it.

Public Broadcasting is another cultural foot and mouth that ought to be the proper focus for those who cavil about monopoly. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation is an undisputed enemy of self-government. Its multimedia tendrils, nourished with taxpayer dollars, choke the national psyche and propagate the Nanny State. Canadians practically live and die with this icon. CBC dominance, moreover, is nurtured by the protectionism of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission. Any group seeking broadcasting rights must convince CRTC bureaucrats of the “public interest” inherent in their endeavor. Not only can it restrict access to the electromagnetic spectrum, but the CRTC also enforces and censors content.

The Canadian counterparts to Ralph Nader, the meddlesome Maude Barlow of the Council of Canadians, and Robert Hackett of NewsWatch Canada, perennially excoriate the Regulator to step in to ensure chain-owned newspapers don’t abuse “the public agenda.” These busybodies forever invoke the force of the law in the service of a tyranny they term the “public good.” It is when they enlist “our children,” or declare, “It takes a village,” that my own instinct is to grab the kids and head for the hills. Pravda Inc. is far more sinister than Izzy Inc.

©2001 By Ilana Mercer
Ludwig von Mises Institute
A version of this column was first published by “The Report” Newsmagazine
June 25

CATEGORIES: Canada, Free Markets, Free speech, Media, Regulation