There is no shortage of journalists with integrity in Canada. But it is naive to suppose that the corporate world in which most journalists operate does not exercise a great influence on how the news is selected and presented by the for-profit media. It is equally naïve to suppose that for-profit corporations are suddenly infused with ethics or a sense of public service when they invest in print and broadcast media.
The status quo is profitable for corporations. Above all else, corporations seek to make the status quo even more profitable for themselves. One way this is done is by using the news to proclaim or reinforce what might be called the ‘corporate meta-narrative.’
This ‘meta-narrative’ is the corporate world view – the corporate sector’s foundational myths – that determines how the for-profit media presents the so-called news. This meta-narrative is quite familiar: it says that what is profitable for corporate Canada is synonymous with the public interest; that the so-called ‘free market system’ – itself a myth – is the best way to determine anything’s and everything’s true value; and that the savagery of unregulated financial capitalism, contrary to all appearances, actually serves the best interests of both local and global communities.
The news all too often becomes just another way of upholding and buttressing the corporate sector’s own self-serving story. Print space and broadcast time devoted to news and views that contradict or undermine the corporate meta-narrative is minimal or non-existent.
Events in Kent County last year, culminating in the RCMP Rexton riot on October 17, are a text-book illustration of how the news is managed in order to generate support for the for-profit corporate media’s meta-narrative. A populist struggle for justice in Kent Count was regularly portrayed by the for-profit media as an attack on democracy and the rule of law by a noisy minority opposed to all the benefits that flow from allowing shale gas companies to frack us.
To illustrate, let’s consider three news stories that went under-reported or or were ignored:
1. The ‘Amnesty International Story’ was reported, and then the for-profit media outlet moved on to other stories with indecent haste. Amnesty International is the foremost human rights organization, has won a Nobel Peace Prize; and speaks with an internationally respected and credible voice.
Following the RCMP riot in Rexton, Amnesty said, quote “this conflict could have been avoided by a rigorous commitment on the part of government to respect and uphold the rights of Indigenous peoples as set out in Canadian and international law” end-quote. And it warned of possible further violence if the province continued on its provocative course.
There was no serious attempt by the for-profit media to explore the implications of what Amnesty said. There were no stories comparing Alward government to repressive governments elsewhere that ride roughshod over the democratic and human rights of their citizens; ignore the inherent land rights of Indigenous peoples; jail citizens who peacefully protest; and use of force to stifle dissent. There was no discussion about the morality or legality of such government conduct.
Instead, the meta-narrative portrayed protesters as dangerous radicals threatening the rule of law. The province’s role in provoking violence was studiously ignored, as was the use of the RCMP to force a corporate agenda on an unwilling populace.
The Amnesty International story was never developed because it was contrary to the for-profit meta-narrative that says corporations and their government agents always respect the public interest.
Yet, for six long months, the RCMP aggressively protected the property of a foreign corporation imposing its will on residents of Kent County. There was never any police or government presence to protect the rights of citizens standing up for public health, or the environment that is the font of life itself. The corporate media’s meta-narrative consistently accords private property and corporate profit priority over public health, and democratic and human rights.
2. Another ‘under reported’ story was the ‘Petitions Story.’ At first glance, it may not seem significant. Last year petitions against shale gas in communities like St. Louis, Acadieville, Rogersville, and Bass River got mind-boggling support.
Across Kent County, voter opposition to shale gas consistently ran about 70-80%. The petitions demonstrated conclusively that there was massive, unprecedented public opposition to shale gas in Kent County. Yet all summer the corporate media dutifully reported government claims of support for its shale gas policy in Kent County, and that protesters were only a radical, noisy minority.
The overwhelming opposition to shale gas was evident to all but the willfully blind. Yet, again and again, the for-profit media simply choose not to investigate or ‘background’ what were obviously untrue government claims.
I note for the record that there were reporters who did individual stories showing that protesters were citizens seeking to protect their families and communities. They did a good job! But the vast majority of the for-profit media’s reportage on the peaceful protest conformed itself to the meta-narrative script that equates any action jeopardizing corporate profit with an attack on democracy and the rule of law itself. Citizens who peacefully objected to placing private profit ahead of public health were jailed.
3. The third under-reported story was an award to New Brunswick’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Eilish Cleary. Normally, a prestigious award to a civil servant is ‘big news’ … but not when such an award undermines the for-profit meta-narrative contention that the corporate agenda always serves the public interest.
Dr. Louis LaPierre’s report supporting shale gas received extensive, prolonged media coverage – before it was revealed that Mr. LaPierre wasn’t the doctor he claimed to be! Yet, when the province’s own Chief Medical Officer of Health raised serious public health concerns about provincial shale gas policy, the print media in particular seemed anxious to minimize or ignore the story.
When Mr. Howe was first arrested, I called the Canadian Journalists for Freedom of Expression. Following an investigation, they condemned the arrest and called for the charges should be dropped. But the attempts to silence Mr. Howe continued, and were treated very casually by the for-profit media.
The threat to freedom of speech by the harassment of Mr. Howe was never explored, and the voice of an independent third party that investigated was all but ignored.
Consider these stories together:
1. The Amnesty Internatioanl story contradicted the meta-narrative story of government and corporations being confronted by a radical minority. Editorials urged protesters to obey the law as if protesters were the ones acting violently. I don’t know of one editorial – not a single one! – that took the government to task for its failure to respect the rule of law or the rights of its citizens.
2. The petition story contradicted the meta-narrative story that citizens always welcome the arrival of industry. Yet, the Alward government has never had any support for its shale gas policy in Kent County, and is quite prepared to jail citizens who peacefully protest its abuse of the public trust.
So far as I know, no for-profit media outlet ever raised the question of whether private profit should take priority over public health and safety.
3. The Miles Howe story demonstrated that, in the crunch, the so-called right of Canadians to ‘freedom of expression’ does not include the right of journalists to report freely on government or corporate actions suppressing democratic and human rights.
The filtering of news through the lens of the meta-narrative extends beyond the news itself to editorials and commentaries purporting to background or explain the events of the day. Apart from the occasional exception, the bulk of such commentary also serves the corporate meta-narrative.
After the RCMP riot in Rexton, one newspaper editorial was headlined “Don’t negotiate ‘til threats end.” The ‘threats’ the editorial condemned were, predictably, those threats posed by peaceful protesters worried about the threat to their families and communities. The government’s failure to respect the human and democratic rights of its citizens and its shameful provision of exemptions on demand for corporations circumventing already inadequate environmental legislation was ignored. The overwhelming public opposition to shale gas in Kent Country, along with the failed attempts to intimidate a non-conformist reporter consistently escaped the notice of daily editorial writers across the province.
To this day, questions about the RCMP riot go unanswered: Who burned those RCMP vehicles? There is ample evidence to suggest it wasn’t a camp regular.
Despite ample historical precedent, the for-profit media was silent about the possible use of agent provocateurs by the RCMP, government, or a third party trying to discredit a peaceful protest to protect public health and safety. The list of parties who stood to benefit from such an action is extremely limited, and you don’t need me to connect the dots for you.
Second, last year scientists with the New Brunswick Anti-Shale Gas Alliance – NBASGA – produced The Citizens’ Guide to Shale Gas. I played a very small role in its technical production. The Guide reports what independent scientists say about shale gas, and it examines the actual impact of shale gas development elsewhere.
The Guide details the actual effect of shale gas development in the U.S. on local roads, hospitals and health, air pollution, tourism, jobs, increasing municipal tax burdens, climate change and so on. Those should be obvious stories for the mass media, but you won’t find the for-profit media in New Brunswick talking about these shale gas issues.
In the U.S., shale gas has create huge tax burdens for local governments, caused serious health problems, and failed to deliver more than a few jobs. But you’d never know that from for-profit media coverage of shale gas here.
A third example of news management distorting the ‘on the ground’ reality has been the portrayal of the shale gas protest in Kent County as an Aboriginal issue. While it is that, it is much, more than than that, and it is both dangerously myopic and deliberately disingenuous to pretend otherwise.
NBASGA, for example, is made up of about 30 non-Aboriginal community groups across the province, and it has been fighting shale for a very long time. The reality of the shale gas protest is that it is a united front of Aboriginal, Anglophone and Francophone people seeking to protect their families, communities and environment.
The corporate meta-narrative didn’t tell people outside Kent County the truth about the shale gas protest being a unified English, French and Aboriginal affair with massive public support. Far better, at least for the corporate agenda, to portray the issue as something else that concerns ‘them’ and not the rest of ‘us.’
I’ll finish with a final personal observation. During the struggle for justice in Kent County last year, I was startled to see how many journalists were prepared to let the RCMP choreograph their movements and, in so doing, keep them away from the events about which they would later be reporting.
In those ensuing reports, the fact that the RCMP forcibly prevented reporters from actually witnessing the events being reported was rarely, if ever, highlighted.
Again and again, the RCMP would close highways. Again and again it was reported that protesters had closed the roads. Time and again, reporters were kept away from events and thus could not give eye-witness reports on what had happened … but that fact wasn’t noted in the news either. Yet, alternative routes into protest sites were almost always available. Just ask Mr. Howe!
I am not aware of a single mainstream media outlet that took the RCMP to task for its determined, and largely successful, attempts to prevent the public from seeing video of what was what was really going on. Imagine a sports journalist reporting on the Stanley Cup hockey games from outside the hockey rinks! That’s what much of the for-profit media’s coverage of the struggle for justice in Kent Country amounts to.
My wife Susan and I were arrested with 10 other people last June on Highway 126. Fortunately, a protester from Fredericton filmed events that day and made her video available to the otherwise absentee media.
The struggle for justice in Kent Count is ample illustration of the need for independent media to balance the corporate, for-profit media presentation of its own meta-narrative. Indeed, independent media is the only alternative we have to the filtered, processed and refined version of the news generated daily by the for-profit media meta-narrative.
We fail to support independent media at our own peril.
Dallas McQuarrie is a news writer with the NB Media Co-op, former CBC journalist and organizer with Notre Environnement, Notre Choix, a Kent County-based anti-shale gas group. He delivered this speech at the Elsipogtog & the Media: a conversation from the frontlines of shale gas resistance on Feb. 3, 2014 at St. Thomas University in Fredericton.