Interview with Josée Bellemare

Mrs. Bellemare currently serves as the Chief of Programming at Espace Musique, a branch of the CBC/Radio Canada (the Canadian national public broadcaster). Prior to this, she worked in the Radio Canada Newsroom for over fifteen years. Drawing on her extensive first-hand experience and personal observations, she was kind enough to answer a few of my questions in regards to the rapidly changing media landscape of today.

[MH] Thanks so much for doing this! So, first question: How has the role of the media in society changed recently?

[JB] I’m not sure it’s the role that has changed. The role today is the same as it used to be, in the sense that it is to inform the public. That hasn’t changed. For example, in the recent case of the Charbonneau Commission, the corruption there came to light because of journalists’ work. Radio Canada, La Presse, Le Devoir…they all pitched in to dig up this story. So the media is still doing what is used to be doing. But what has changed is how we produce news and who produces news. Media has become more of a business in the sense that more and more media organizations are part of big conglomerates. The business side of news is something that has been developing faster recently.

[MH] This leads me into my next question. Do you think media consolidation is a problem?

[JB] Yes I do. In some cases it’s quite evident that with all this convergence, the public space is becoming more and more narrow in the media. Now it’s more likely that a single company will run a radio station, a TV channel, do reviews…all feeding off each other, and covering each others’ news stories. So we end up  seeing less of a variety in the media, which is what I mean by ‘narrowing the public space.’ It seems to me as though this convergence has been increasing in the past couple decades, so it’s getting harder and harder to find stories that represent a smaller segment of society. But here’s the twist: At the same time while this is all happening and the public space seems to be shrinking, we’ve seen a lot of new players enter the media sphere, like citizen journalists and such. However, the already-established players are becoming more and more self-integrated.

[MH] What effect does this self-integration have?

[JB] Let me give you a made-up figure to illustrate a point: it used to be normal for, let’s say, 800,000 people to tune in to the evening news. Now, if you have just 400,000 people tuning in, it’s incredible! You’ve got more channels on TV, people going on the internet…even a small enterprise like a community radio station, for example, needs a presence on all media fronts to reach their audience. Just reaching the audience takes up a majority of their time.

[MH] So what can we do about this media consolidation?

[JB] I think that in keeping an eye on politics and companies on all the media fronts, even phone companies, and internet providers, citizen advocacy groups like yours [OpenMedia] can do help a lot in this sense. It seems like the citizen is finding himself with more and more personal responsibility, and that you need to counter-check your sources even more now to stay properly informed.

[MH] How have the Harper Administrations policies affected the media in Canada, and how have they affected your experience directly?

[JB] Well, I can tell you how it’s affected the CBC. They’ve been making substantial cuts, but cuts at the CBC have been going on for more than a decade, so we can’t really put the blame on one single government. But after so many years of budget cutting, we now have to decide on what we cover and what we don’t. Some tough choices are having to be made. During early cuts, we still managed to cover everything, but we can’t cover everything now.

[MH] What do you think the government’s role in the media should be ideally?

[JB] The government does subsidize the media in many different ways, and I definitely don’t disagree with this. For example, it allows us to get coverage in some of the more rural parts of Canada. If you want to represent some of those smaller communities, you need some help.

[MH] Do you think this gives the government influence in the media?

[JB] Over my 15 years of working in the newsroom of the CBC, which is heavily subsidized by the government, the government virtually never interfered. Maybe there were some exceptions during some really major political situations, like the Quebec referendum, where some would argue that perhaps certain events were broadcast because of political intervention, but nothing big enough to make a proper accusation over. In general, the public media here in Canada is acting totally independently.

[MH] What’s a lesser known fact we as Canadians should know about our current media situation?

[JB] Everybody’s trying to redefine themselves in regards to the new media: to be more present on the web, with an app, on twitter…new content forms. Maybe this is just a phase we have to live through, but really I find that lots of money is put not on the content but on how it’s delivered. Since so many new ways of communicating have arrived all at once, it’s normal that the media has to investigate all these new potential methods. But still, I find that too much energy and money is put into ‘how do I get my message across’ and not what the message actually is.

 By Max Honigmann



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