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The Implications of Media Bias


An overview of the manifestations of bias in Canadian media.


C. Gwendolyn Landolt

 Author Notes

National Vice President, REAL Women of Canada

 Essay - 3/24/2001

Canada proudly proclaims itself to be a nation that respects, promotes and enforces freedom of speech. Freedom of speech is included in Section 2 of the Charter of Rights, but it is not, of course, an absolute right. There are several ways in which this freedom is modified in Canada.

Criminal and Civil Restrictions on Free Speech

Everyone in Canada, individuals, as well as the media, both broadcast and print, are subject to the provisions in the Criminal Code, which limit free speech. Section 319 of the Criminal Code prohibits communicating statements in any public place or inciting hatred by way of prohibiting communicating statements, other than in private conversation, against those groups distinguished by colour, race, religion or ethnic origin. It should be noted, however, that this section provides that truth, good faith, religious opinion, sincerity of belief and comments that are relevant to any subject of public interest are all defenses to any complaints laid under this section of the Code. This may well explain why there have been only a handful of convictions over the years under this section.

Provincial legislation also prohibits libel and slander against individuals or organizations. That is, there is a civil remedy available (as opposed to criminal remedy set out in the Code) to protect individuals from extreme comment.

The media in Canada, however, has other restrictions in its ability to express free opinion. In fact, broadcasting in Canada is more tightly controlled for content than anywhere else in the western world.

The Broadcast Media

The freedom to speak freely by the broadcast media, that is, radio and television, is subject to provisions of the Broadcast Act 1991. This Act has some very important sections. For example, Section 3(d) provides that Canadian broadcasting must

i) serve to safeguard, enrich and strengthen the cultural, political, social and economic fabric of Canada.

ii) encourage the development of Canadian expression by providing a wide range of programming that reflects Canadian attitudes, opinions, ideas, values and artistic creativity, ….

iii) [the media] [must] … reflect the circumstances and aspirations, of Canadian men, women and children, including equal rights, the linguistic duality and multicultural and multiracial nature of Canadian society and the special place of aboriginal peoples within that society, ...

Also, the Broadcast Act requires, according to Section 3(4), that broadcasters

iii) provide a reasonable opportunity for the public to be exposed to the expression of differing views on matters of public concern,

and Section 6 of the Act provides that broadcasting in Canada be varied and comprehensive providing a balance of information, enlightenment and entertainment for men, women and children of all ages …

One wishes that these latter provisions of the Broadcasting Act were enforced. In fact, these provisions in the Act are mere noble sounding expressions which signify nothing. The reality is that the Broadcasting Act is not properly enforced in regard to providing a balance of views on matters of public debate. Rather, broadcasters in Canada, both radio and television, both in the private and public sector, especially in the public sector of the CBC, continue to “do their own thing” by promoting their own perspectives, which are inevitably to the left of the fiscal and social agenda and fail dismally in providing balanced programming.

The enforcement of the Broadcasting Act is the responsibility of the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), which, regrettably, has failed to require that Broadcasters provide objective and fair and balanced programming in Canada.


The CRTC is one of Canada’s numerous patronage appointments and it consists of political appointees appointed by the federal government (i.e., the Prime Minister). Consequently it is no accident that the views generally of the CRTC reflect the views of the government. The Broadcasters in turn receive their licenses to operate from the CRTC, so that they, too, do not often stray from or criticize to any large extent, government policies.

The CRTC has a budget of nearly $22 million annually and the public appointees on this Board are quite happily deciding what is good and bad for Canadians to watch. In short, the CRTC serves more as an arbiter in Canada of what is considered “good taste.” It is “good taste” to interpret its regulations in such a way that the policies of the federal Liberal party are supported and those with different views are ignored. In short, I know from practical experience that it is a waste of time to complain to the CRTC about the lack of balance apparent in programming.

The good news, however, is that technological advances mean today that the power and might of the CRTC cannot be maintained much longer. Within the next decade, television signals will change to a digital form, which means not only superior picture and sound, but also places no limits to the channels available. That is, the CRTC’s licensing power up until now has been dependent on the scarcity of available channels, which will be lost with digital programming. Under the latter, anyone who wants to, can start up a radio or television station. The CRTC will then have no control over which channels people watch than it has control, today, over which magazines people read. This, however, may create new problems. Much as the internet today is vast and complex and difficult to control, so, too, will the digital television signals be vast and unmanageable. New problems for a new age.

Another factor which modifies broadcasting is the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council (CBSC).

The Canadian Broadcast Standards Council (CBSC)

The CBSC was established in 1990, and it is a volunteer, self-regulating association which monitors private sector radio and television broadcasting in Canada. It has the “whole-hearted support” and endorsement of the CRTC. More than 430 radio and television stations and specialty services across Canada are members of the CBSC. It has its own code of ethics by which its members are required to abide. However, since its membership is voluntary, it does not have the power to penalize those who contravene its code – instead, it relies on the CRTC to do that. In short, the CRTC is the enforcer for the CBSC’s sometimes skewered guidelines.

CBSC’s guidelines, for example, on sex-role stereotyping were developed in consultation with, among others, a bevy of feminist groups, including the National Action Committee on the Status of Women (NAC), the Canadian Advisory Council on the Status of Women, and the National Watch on Images of Women in the Media Inc. All but the Canadian Advisory Council on the Status of Women (which was disbanded by the government in 1995) are funded by the federal government’s Status of Women, Women’s Program. The CBSC gender guidelines requires that men and women be portrayed in programming in a wide range of roles, both traditional and non-traditional, in paid work, social, family and leisure activities. In actual fact, however, broadcasters don’t dare portray women in any traditional role such as mother or homemaker, or the father as the provider and concerned parent – unless, of course, it is done in such a way to denigrate them and their roles.

Other guidelines in the CBSC code of ethics include the provision that “since society has evolved, there is no single contemporary structure, but rather a range of family lifestyles and family arrangements that must be portrayed.” This apparently is interpreted as ignoring the traditional family, which, according to Statistics Canada, is the safest, most secure and healthiest place of men, women and children. According to Statistics Canada, it is the family break-up that leads to increased poverty. Four times the number of common law couples break-up within ten years when compared with married couples. Common law couples are also four times more likely to engage in domestic violence than married couples. Sociologist Judith Wallerstein’s 25-year follow-up of the children of divorced parents shows the long-lasting negative effects of divorce, which she claims are due to the deprivation of a “couple template” of mother and father. You’d never know this from our television channels, that only 13% of family’s are single parent (the same as in 1930) and that only 14% of couples live common law. The vast majority of couples live in a traditional family of mother, father, and child. Instead, dysfunctional family portrayals are the order of the day.

Further, the guidelines provide that broadcasters must avoid depictions of gratuitous harm towards individuals in a sexual context, as well as any promotion of sexual “hatred and degradation.” However, the Code does provide that its guidelines should not be interpreted so as to censor the depiction of “healthy sex” (undefined). Heaven forbid the CBSC’s guidelines would restrict the portrayal of uninhibited, free-ranging sex. What a thought.

Canadian Broadcasting Corporation

The CBC was established in the early 1930s in order to nurture and develop our national culture and identity.

CBC today has massively failed in its mission. Instead of promoting a national sense of unity and identity, it has become a divisive element in Canadian society. This is due to the fact that CBC has become, not a source of factual information, but rather, a source of indoctrination for the left-of-centre political and social agenda. CBC’s constant parade of left of center reporters, commentators and guest speakers is almost laughable – if it were not so damaging. The CBC is quite remarkable in its determination to keep any conservative perspective out of the information loop. Even on those rare occasions when the CBC does not include the views of a conservative group, according to study by The Fraser Institute, it nonetheless labels these groups in such a way as to undermine their credibility but at the same time provides labels for left-of-centre groups so as to legitimize them and their statements. [1] This is hardly a fair or reasonable use of taxpayers’ money.

Moreover, although all women support equality, there are nonetheless different ways of achieving it. However, the only women’s opinions heard on CBC are that of feminists. Women, however, differ according to their social, economic, educational and cultural backgrounds. Women do not all think alike! To represent only the views of one ideology on the CBC is an insult to the intelligence, dignity and independence of women.

Print Media

The print media is subject to its own voluntary provincial press councils which arbitrate public complaints against it. The problem with the provincial press councils, however, is that its members consist of members of the print media itself, with only one or two token lay members. Not surprisingly the decisions of the press council serve more to protect the media from the public than the other way around, to protect the public from the media. In effect, the print media has full sway to print what it wishes, of course, providing it stays within the provisions of the Criminal Code and the provincial libel and slander acts.

This, in effect, means that the print media takes positions and issues in accordance with the owners and publishers’ views, rather than providing fair and balanced commentary and news analysis. It is an established fact in Canada, speaking federally at least, until the arrival of the Alliance Party, all three main political parties had policies left of center, whether on fiscal or social policies, i.e., whether issues in immigration, taxation, or child care. Moreover, the owners of Canada’s newspapers, that is, Southam and Thompson chains, with a few independent newspapers, also held views left of center.

The arrival on the newspaper scene of the National Post, as well as the ownership of the Southam news chain, by the more conservative Conrad Black, has resulted in a somewhat more conservative and balanced approach in Canadian newspapers. I should comment, however, that although Southam and the National Post reflects a more conservative editorial perspective, it also provides a better balance of views than have the other newspapers in Canada have done previously.

The recent purchase of Southam News by Winnipeg-based Liberal supporter, Izzy Asper, may move the political perspective of our print media again to the left. Certainly, there has been an attempt to infuse the newspapers with more support for Liberal Leader, Jean Chrétien by the demand of Mr. Aspers’ son that the Southam newspapers include an article he penned supporting Mr. Chrétien in the Shawinigan Affair. The journalists of the newspapers, who were required to print his article, did raise their objections to this – thank heavens. However, the next time there is direct interference by the owners – will the journalists dare object to their paymaster once again?

In summary, it is clear that Canada’s media, both print and broadcast, have occupied the left-of-centre perspective for many years. This has inhibited the growth of public debate on issues. Those who support a more conservative approach, both fiscal and more significantly, social, have not seen a reflection of their view in the media nor have they had a vehicle in which to express their views, apart from an occasional winsome letter to the editor (which is usually immediately followed by several other letters contradicting them).

Are Canadian influenced by the consistent left-wing views of our media in Canada? I would have to say yes, with exceptions, of course, such as the Charlottetown Accord in 1992, when the federal and provincial governments, the corporate world aided and abetted by the media, supported the Accord, but Canadians, in a rare spirit of independence, rejected the referendum.

Until the media in Canada becomes at least, balanced in its reporting, conservatives in Canada remain at a distinct disadvantage in the public debate.


1. “Who’s Right, Who’s Left?” A Catalogue of Television’s Naming Conventions, On Balance, Fraser Forum, Volume 7, Number 7, October 1994; Media Labelling and the Legitimacy of Organizations, On Balance, Volume 7, Number 8, Fraser Forum, November 1994.

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