News reporting and election coverage in Canada and Japan
Marc Beliveau (GLOCOM Fellow)
(This paper was presented in a Canadian Studies Seminar at Kwansai Gakuin University, November 17 – 18.)
Thank you very much for the invitation to participate in your seminar today. This is the first time that I visit this region of Japan.
A few years ago, I produced a TV documentary for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, or the CBC, about television programs in Japan. When you go to a new country, there is no better way to learn about its popular culture than turning on your TV set. So, I decided to feature some programs such as "Hey, Hey, Hey" and "Smap, Smap." And I interviewed people like Shinohara Tomoe, Shimizu Key and Yamada Kuniko, in addition to some of the news casters at NHK.
I have been told that the way to speak proper Japanese is to speak the way they do on NHK. However, I also know that people on the most popular TV programs often speak in the Osaka dialect -- which, I understand, is more friendly and colorful. So, now that I'm in the Kansai region, I can't help but say Mokari makka.
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When I saw the theme of this seminar, "Politics and the Mass Media in Canada and in Japan," the first question I asked myself was: "If I had only one minute to talk about the relationship between politics and the mass media in Canada and Japan, what would I say?"
- From a journalistic point of view, politicians in both Canada and Japan, are individuals that rarely see reality the way ordinary people do. For them, every action they do is related to their own re-election. They visit electoral districts that are for or against their political party, they speak to people who will or will not vote for them, or they think that in meeting that person, his family or the members of his association will vote for him. Nowadays, very few politicians take a long-term view of their own political mandate.
- From a politician's point of view, journalists are just trouble makers who are always trying to find something negative or critical to say about them. Or, they ask ignorant or biased questions.
Indeed, these may be stereotypes but they do reflect a little bit of truth. The reality is that the adversarial role between politicians and the media is probably a desirable thing.
Democracy cannot exist without freedom of the press. We call the media the Fourth Estate, and the role it plays, along with Parliament and the judicial system, is to protect and expand our democratic rights and values.
The role of the press is to report the facts. This means that editorial independence and high journalistic standards are very important in order to accurately inform citizens, keep our politicians accountable and make our societies a better place in which to live.
Freedom of the press was not a concept that was firmly rooted in Japan before the war. The Americans, under General MacArthur, imposed the principle of freedom of the press after the war as an important means for Japan to regain its sense of balance as a peaceful nation. Democratic reforms were meant to lead Japan away from its feudal and military past to a more open society where people with widely differing ideas could express themselves more freely.
Despite historical differences between Canada and Japan, freedom of the press is a fundamental principle shared by both democratic nations today. No political system is perfect, but what is important is the belief that the voice of the people is a vital component in the creation of a better society. Even when that society breeds cynicism among its citizens through periodic scandals, abuses of power and corruption.
I would like to discuss three different inter-related topics: the challenges of news reporting in Canada, the importance of journalistic standards and election coverage in Canada and Japan. I have to mention that these views reflect my own observations, as a journalist for over twenty years, and they are not necessarily those of the Délégation générale du Quebec à Tokyo.
News reporting in Canada faces many challenges and difficulties.
- First of all, Canada is a huge territory, the second largest in the world after Russia. There are six time zones, consisting of a four-and-one-half hours time difference between the province of Newfoundland on the Atlantic coast and British Columbia on the Pacific. The distance between the two is almost three times the distance from Hokkaido to Okinawa.
- Canada also has two official languages: English and French. Most French-speaking people live in Quebec, and account for about 6 million people. An additional one million francophones live outside Quebec, with 60% of them still using French at home. It is interesting to note that Montreal is the second largest French-speaking city in the world, after Paris.
- In addition, more than 50% of Canada's population lives in what is called central Canada, or the provinces of Ontario and Quebec. This means that a high percentage of national public figures such as politicians, business leaders and artists live in or are originally from central Canada.
- Canada has become a multicultural society. This means that a high percentage of Canadians come from differing linguistic, racial, religious and ethnic backgrounds. For example, more than 50% of all the students entering the school system in Toronto and Vancouver do not speak English as their native language. In other words, they speak another language at home.
- Because Canadians are scattered over a huge territory, they have a very strong regional focus which is reflected in their regional, rather than the national, media. As a result, there are very few real "national debates" in Canada, apart from constitutional issues or free trade.
- And finally, the Canadian economy is becoming increasingly integrated with the US economy which has resulted in an increased North-South economic focus rather than an East-West domestic economic focus.
All of these peculiarities are reflected, one way or another, in the structure of the Canadian media.
- Here in Japan, there is only one official language. People have a choice between five national television stations, including the public broadcaster NHK. There are three major newspapers, Yumiori, Asahi and Mainichi, plus the Nikkei Shimbum and some very strong regional newspapers.
- Canada has two "national" English- language newspapers; the Globe and Mail and The National Post. Both are published in Toronto. There are also three television networks - CTV, Global-TV and the CBC, which is a public broadcaster like NHK.
- In Quebec, there are three daily French-language newspapers published in Montreal; La Presse, Le Journal de Montreal and Le Devoir plus the Montreal Gazette, an English-language newspaper. There are also four French-language television networks; TVA, TQS, Télé-Quebec and Radio-Canada, the French counterpart of the CBC.
- There are also radio and television services of the CBC/Radio-Canada which broadcast in aboriginal and Inuit languages in Canada's far north.
With all these news outlets, you'd assume that Canadians are very well informed. Unfortunately, Canada suffers from its separate English and French cultural, linguistic and regional identities and from a confusion about national unity.
Let me give you a concrete example. If you are an English Canadian living in Nova Scotia and you decide to go to Toronto or Vancouver to study or work, it's easy. You just go. But if you are a francophone living in Québec, you have to know English if you want to work or study in the rest of the country. Sometimes, this can make you feel like you're an immigrant in your own country.
o despite the fact that both English and French are Canada's official languages, the reality is that French is a minority language that is not spoken publicly everywhere in the country, except in Quebec where French is the official language. This accounts for why les Québécois look to their provincial government, rather than to the Canadian government, to protect their language and culture.
These two separate linguistic and cultural identities in Canada are reflected in the media in a variety of ways.
- For example, editorials in Quebec newspapers are always signed by their authors, as they are in France. In English-language newspapers in the rest of Canada, however, editorials are not signed but rather reflect the position of editorial boards, as they do in the United Kingdom and the United States.
- Canadians, generally, don't know much about their own history, especially about the history of the aboriginal people. There are some differences, however, between the history taught in Quebec and the rest of Canada. Les Québécois, for example, learn about the actions by the English majority that were taken in the past to eliminate their culture. This sense of history, or lack of a sense of history, heavily influences how people understand complex constitutional or aboriginal issues in Canada.
- English-speaking Canadians see "Canadian identity" as a question of shared beliefs and social values, such as living in a non-violent society or being tolerant. Quebec, on the other hand, sees its culture and language as being at the center of its identity, with a long history starting with the creation of Quebec City in 1608.
- Interestingly, Canadians are known to be less patriotic than their American counterparts but in fact, they express differently their sense of belonging to their country. For example, many young Canadian travellers are using the Canadian flag attached on their backpack, as a way not to be mistaken for an American tourist.
- As most Canadians live very close to the American border, they have access to American television programs which are very popular. This reality become a dilemma for English Canadian artists and broadcasters who must decide to stay in Canada or to go to the United States where the entertainment industry is larger and more lucrative. One famous example is Peter Jennings, the news anchor at ABC television network. Despite all the years that he has spent in the United States, he has always kept his Canadian passport and nationality.
- In Quebec, however, people identify with their French-speaking artists and poets, and the artistic community there is active and widely supported. The survival of the French language and culture has always been an important reality in Quebec because it defines its identity as being separate and distinct from that of the United States.
- Cultural differences and political beliefs are often reflected in the Canadian media. For example, English-Canadian journalists generally favor a stronger central government than their counterparts in Quebec. So the ethno-cultural or linguistic group one belongs to can present challenges to being factual, accurate and providing a balanced view.
- It is interesting to note that the Quebec government has decided to publish on a website English translations of major stories and editorials written in French in Quebec because few Canadian journalists covering national politics are bilingual.
The American media exerts a big influence on Canadian journalism. However, there are some fundamental differences between Canadian and American news coverage.
- First, the media environment in the United States is very competitive. News reporting is more aggressive and quick to pass judgement: who's right and who's wrong, or who's the winner and who's the looser? This black and white approach, unfortunately, provides very little background to understand why something is right or wrong. You are either a Republican or a Democrat. There is no grey area.
- Expressing personal opinions and fighting for your beliefs are deeply rooted in the American psyche. In fact, the American constitution protects individual freedoms against the power of the State. The constitution's first Amendment states that no law shall infringe upon freedom of speech, or freedom of the press. Among other things, this has resulted in the existence of more pornographic material in the US than in Canada.
- Canada, in contrast, has what is called a "Charter of Rights and Freedoms" which is a blend of individual and collective rights. In other words, individual rights are balanced against the broader good of society in general. This has resulted in it being illegal to import pornographic material from the US into Canada because it is believed to be more important to protect society as a whole from the offensive material than it is to protect the individual's right to self expression.
There are many other examples of Americans' and Canadians' differing attitudes towards individual rights and freedoms.
- Not long ago, Americans were addicted to the "live" broadcasts of the OJ Simpson murder trial in the United States.
- In contrast, cameras are not allowed in Canadian courtrooms. Journalists have to use hand sketches to show what is happening.
- The Bill Clinton- Monika Lewinsky affair is yet another example. For months, the American public watched this melodramatic saga of sex and power evolve on television. In its competition for advertising dollars, the US media often entertains or titilates viewers rather than informs them.
- In Canada, this kind of story would have been covered much differently. Indeed, it probably would not have been covered at all. Occasionally, a politician might announce publicly that he is gay. But Canadians tend to feel that public figures are entitled to a private life. As Canada's former Prime Minister Pierre-Elliot Trudeau once said when he was minister of justice, "the State has no business in the bedrooms of the nation".
Canada, like Japan, has a national public broadcaster: the CBC/Radio-Canada. In addition there are private-sector newspapers and broadcasters, whose objective is to make profits. Consequently, freedom of the press is affected by the profitability of newspapers and the broadcasting media because it is easier to resist outside influences when you are financially strong. To maintain editorial independence, news organisations have to do a balancing act between their advertisers and the interests of their viewers and subscribers.
About ten years ago, the CBC/Radio-Canada initiated a consultation process with its journalists that resulted in its Journalist Standards and Practices. It is an important document that contains guidelines about everything from the use of public opinion surveys, to ethical aspects regarding the identification of crime victims to the use of hidden cameras and microphones. To maintain these journalistic standards, the CBC appointed an Ombudsman, a person who independently investigates complaints about unfair news reporting.
Recently, there was a case concerning the coverage of the 1998 APEC meeting in Vancouver. The police had used force against some protesters and an inquiry was held. During the inquiry, the police gained access to a private e-mail sent to protestors by a CBC reporter covering events , in which he described the police and the government as "forces of darkness". The Prime Minister's office complained to the CBC, then to the Ombudsman of biased reporting and the journalist was suspended for three days without pay. This action sent shock waves through the media.
After reviewing the case, the Ombudsman concluded that the journalist had done a good job and that "critical journalism doesn't mean biased journalism". This was an important decision upholding freedom of the press in Canada.
Keeping high journalistic standards is quite essential, especially during the coverage of election campaigns, which provide many examples on the relationship between the media and politics.
- Japanese newspapers don't take an editorial position in support of one party over another during elections. They prefer neutrality. In Canada, however, newspapers openly support one political party at the end of the electoral campaign, explaining their reasons in one editorial.
Nowadays, in many countries, the personality of the leader has become often more important than a variety of electoral issues.
- Last summer, the popularity of Junichiro Koizumi, the new LDP leader, reminded Canadians of a similar phenomenon in Canada in 1968, called Trudeaumania, which brought Pierre Elliott Trudeau to power. But electing someone to public office without understanding where a candidate stands on various issues can be very short-sighted and in this regard the media has an important role to play.
Next, a few words on the electoral system and ridings.
- There are no perfect electoral systems. We all observed the last presidential elections in the United States where Al Gore was defeated despite winning more votes than George W. Bush. Imbalances in electoral representation exist in many countries including Canada and Japan. And it is important that the media addresses the issue.
- In Canada, the Electoral Reform Commission has the mandate to study the mobility of the population and to propose modifications accordingly to demographic changes. Its strength comes from its independence from the government and political influence. In Canada, candidates obtaining the majority of the votes in their ridings get elected.
- On many occasions, the Japanese media have stressed the need for electoral reform. Since the designation of electoral boundaries in 1946, the population of Japan has moved from rural areas into the cities. Nevertheless, the electoral system has remained much the same. As a result, votes in some rural areas carry more weight than urban areas. The press has a role to play in pointing out this abnormality.
Another issue is the regional representation
In Canada, party leaders and their big electoral machines have become so powerful that they often impose their choice of candidate on a regional riding. This is a dangerous practice because a member of parliament should speak on behalf of the people and the region they represent and be accountable to them.
Election campaigns regularly use surveys to test fluctuations in public opinion. When a party is doing well in the polls, a party leader is often protected in a bubble effect to prevent contact with the media or the public that could lead to mistakes. In addition, it is often party strategists, not leaders, who decide what issues are up for discussion. Democracy is weakened when regional issues are not discussed during campaigns and when candidates are parachuted into ridings. The media has an important role to play in bringing these issues to the electorate.
In Japan, politics has always been a family affair. About 40% of politicians are following in the footsteps of their fathers or grandfathers. For example, Prime Minister Koizumi is a third generation politician, and the daughter of former Prime Minister Obuchi took over when her father died. Foreign Minister Tanaka is also the daughter of a former prime minister.
This type of family politics is not likely to occur in Canada. Traditionally, members of Parliament in English- and French-Canada tend to be lawyers. And increasingly, we see more business people, union leaders and women involved in politics.
Public participation in elections
The sharp decline in the voter turnout in municipal, provincial, prefectural or national elections should be a concern for all journalists because democracy is in danger when citizens loose interest in the political process.
During the federal election in Canada last year, only 63% of registered voters turned out, the lowest showing in 75 years. This reflects a sad reality where the Canadian political scene has become very fragmentated. Electors feel that there is only one national party, the Liberal party of Canada, as all four other political parties represent a split of the country into many regions.
Here in Japan, voter participation in municipal elections is also very low.
On the national level, the LDP has dominated Japanese politics for so long that it may have weaken the dynamics of a more vibrant democracy. Some Japanese journalists argue that Japan would be better served if there would be only two national parties like in the United States. The existence of many political factions within one party with its complicated alliances suggest the need for modernization and more accountability.
Funding of political parties
The power of lobby groups has increased considerably over the years. They can easily influence the national agenda or find a way to focus the attention of the electors on specific issues during electoral campaigns. All political parties need money to run in an election. But how should they get it and how much is enough?
The recent election of the US billionaire, Michael Bloomberg, who has spent 50 millions US dollars of his own money to get elected as Mayor of New York City has raised by itself a whole new series of questions.
In both Canada and in Japan, limits on spending are imposed during the elections. However, there are major differences in the way political parties acquire their funding.
- In Canada, any contributions to a political party, whether from a company or an individual, must be made public. Of course, there are dangers of influence peddling if a company subscribes a big amount.
- In Quebec, the government offers some funding to political parties, according to the percentage of the popular vote. Individual contributions are also permitted up to a certain limit of Cdn $ 3,000.00, but no funding is allowed from the corporate sector.
- In Japan, the system is similar to the one in Quebec and France where the government distributes some public funding to various political parties. However, there are in Japan some groups of individuals that provide additional funding.
The media has a vital role to play in ensuring that influence peddling by large corporations and special-interest groups during elections is kept to a minimal.
Interesting as it may be to discuss the differences between how the political system works or how journalism is practised in Japan or Canada, in reality, what is probably more important is to know if there are still, in our societies, some values and idealism that bring the best in people. What are the standards of achievement that politicians set for themselves or how journalists are able and willing to accomplish his job at the best of its ability ?
Nowadays, politics and the media have both become big machines. We may feel sometimes that the system has become too complicated or too insensitive. This is why the population is entitled to question the integrity and the honesty of their elected representatives and those whose role is to inform them. In that sense, Japan and Canada have a lot in common.