FIPA, Franklin & Harper: Ethical Journalism

As I said in a previous post, when one compares the zeal and fanfare with which Stephen Harper proclaimed the finding of the Franklin ship to the effective silence and disingenuous announcement of the Foreign Investment and Protection Agreement (FIPA) with China, the world’s second largest economy, our government’s respect for public awareness of critical issues becomes apparent. I am now equally disheartened by our media’s compliance in this regard. Observing the differing levels of coverage of the two events, I was reminded of Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky’s “Manufacturing Consent,” in which the authors write:

CanadianJournalismThe mass media serve as a system for communicating messages and symbols to the general populace. It is their function to amuse, entertain, and inform, and to inculcate individuals with the values, beliefs, and codes of behaviour that will integrate them into the institutional structures of the larger society. In a world of concentrated wealth and major conflicts of class interest, to fulfil this role requires systematic propaganda.

In countries where the levers of power are in the hands of a state bureaucracy, the monopolistic control over the media, often supplemented by official censorship, makes it clear that the media serve the ends of the dominant elite. It is much more difficult to see a propaganda system at work where the media are private and formal censorship is absent. This is especially true where the media actively compete… and aggressively portray themselves as spokesmen for free speech and the general community interest. What is not evident (and remains undiscussed in the media) is the limited nature of such critiques, as well as the huge inequality in command resources, and its effect both on access to a private media system and on its behaviour and performance.

The raw material of news must pass through successive filters, leaving only the cleansed residue fit to print. They fix the premises of discourse and interpretation, and the definition of what is newsworthy in the first place, and they explain the basis and operations of what amounts to propaganda campaigns.

The elite domination of the media and marginalization of dissidents that results from the operation of these filters occurs so naturally that media news people, frequently operating with complete integrity and goodwill, are able to convince themselves that they choose and interpret the news “objectively” and on the basis of professional news values.

I apologize for the lengthy quote, and I apologize for returning to a previously covered issue, but the differing degrees that Canada’s two main media outlets gave the finding of the Franklin ship and the FIPA ratification is startling. (If you don’t find that a 31-year imbalanced trade deal with the world’s second largest economy is of greater importance than a 160-year-old ship frozen under the Artic, feel free to stop reading and replace your head in the sand.)

“Manufacturing Consent” should be required reading for responsible citizenship. In it, Herman and Chomsky chart the incredible disparity in journalistic attention given to victims of dictatorial oppression. The disparity is striking, clearly divided between victims of U.S. enemy states vs. client states. The instance of the FIPA trade deal and the Franklin ship is nowhere near as harsh. Regardless, it is an interesting demonstration of questionable journalistic ethics.

Canada has a number of news outlets, but I focused on the National Post and The Globe & Mail. Searching the word ‘FIPA,’ you will find that since the ratification of FIPA on Sept.12th, the Globe has published one article (“Canada ratifies controversial deal with China,” Sept. 12th), while the Post published two (“Ottawa ratifies contentious foreign investment deal with China despite tensions,” Sept. 12th, “Tories versus the left on China,” Sept. 15th).

While both the Globe and the Post recognize the deal as being “controversial” and “contentious,” neither seems to feel that the deal – which favours foreign multinational corporations investing in Canada over Canadian companies, and investor profits over public interest – is worthy of further debate or focused editorials. As Herman and Chomsky note, it’s a sure sign of “the marginalization of dissidents” in favour of elite interests. If you push the search further back to November 2012 (just after the FIPA deal was first signed), you’ll find that the Post published five articles total that mention FIPA but don’t directly focus on the issue. The Globe published nine. That’s three articles published since ratification (14 in over two years) in Canada’s two major mainstream papers concerning an issue that will have significant financial, political, and legislative consequences for decades to come.

Contrast this bare coverage with the attention afforded the search and subsequent finding of the Franklin ship, and the difference is stark. Since 2013, the Post has published 17 articles, most of them directly focused on the ill-fated expedition, while the Globe has published roughly 20, depending on what you’d consider to be focusing on the issue (Franklin is mentioned many times). That’s 35 to 40 articles, many of them in the last couple weeks, about an issue that, while important to Canadian history, will mean little to the nation’s economic and legislative future. While remaining mum on the ratification of FIPA, Harper himself wrote an article for the Globe in which he declared: “Franklin discovery strengthens Canada’s Arctic sovereignty.” Published Sept. 12th – the very day he ratified FIPA.

I discussed the questionable nature of FIPA in a previous post, where I emphasized the Canadian government’s lack of candour on the matter. By revealing the ratification late on a Friday in a two-paragraph press release that would be quickly swallowed by the weekend news cycle, the Harper government clearly meant to stifle public debate and awareness.

The point of today’s post is to demonstrate a troubling thought: Why was this issue so readily swept aside by the Canadian mainstream media? Why did our journalists favour a fluff piece like the Franklin ship over a substantial issue such as a major “controversial” and “contentious” trade deal with China? When the government obviously doesn’t want to discuss an issue, isn’t that where journalists come in? Not when investors trump public awareness, apparently.

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3 comments

  1. I learned the phrase “media self-censorship” because of the Sino-Forest case.

    At the beginning, Sino-Forest case obtained vast media coverage, G&M alone published about 40 articles helping to “prove” Sino-Forest is fraud.

    However, since Ned Goodman revealed that the OSC had no evidence for the fraud allegation and he blamed the OSC for destroying the company with groundless accusations, media is getting silent about the case. Especially media is silent on any evidence that can prove the OSC’s allegations are wrong.

    Media is also silent about that the OSC is insisting “we can’t accept how things are done in China”, as a reason to let Canadian investors lose billions of dollars.

    The OSC’s claim itself is a solid proof for the uselessness and ridiculousness of the Canada-China FIPA.

    Canadian public needs more information about the disagreements between governments of Canada and China, and be warned that the consequence of the disagreements can be disastrous for Canadians, especially Canadian investors in China.

    • Thanks for the reply, Heidi. You are quite right, the Sino-Forest case is a great example of why Canadian businesses shouldn’t expect the same protection under Chinese law as Chinese investors under Canadian law. There is much doubt about the value of FIPA for Canadians. Rather FIPA is meant to encourage Chinese corporations to invest in Canada, while limiting Canadian legislation (environmental/labour, etc) to protect the public interest over corporate profit.

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