Size doesn’t matter? A small population may enhance Canada’s media — and its democracy

The federal government’s recent announcement that it would boost annual immigration to half a million people per year by 2025 coincides with conflicts over Ottawa’s Online News Act and the Competition Bureau’s blocking of a proposed merger between telecommunications giants Shaw and Rogers.

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While these developments may appear to be unrelated, they aren’t. They raise questions about how Canada’s population growth might affect the changing media landscape and its ability to inform and underpin our democracy.

Few policy prescriptions have more transformative potential than the deceptively simple idea of doubling or tripling our population.

An influential slice of elite opinion — represented by a non-profit group called the Century Initiative — was echoed in a 2017 report by the federal government’s Advisory Council on Economic Growth and detailed in the book Maximum Canada: Why 35 Million Canadians Are Not Enough by journalist Doug Saunders.

It urged Canadians to consider increasing our immigration rate by as much as 50 per cent and to aim at having a population of 100 million by the year 2100. This, we are told, will mean more economic growth, more innovation, more domestic autonomy and more international clout.

But is bigger better for the truth? In particular, is it conducive to the kind of shared truths about basic facts and norms, spread through the media, that make meaningful discussions about public policy possible?

‘Thin on the ground’

In Canada, Saunders argues those in Canadian media, publishing, the arts and broadcasting are the most acutely aware of the limitations of under-population.

A dispersed population stretched across 10 provinces in six time zones means that “we have never had the size of audience to support the level of culture that befits a G7 nation … we are very thin on the ground as far as our ability to talk to ourselves.”

A bigger Canada would have the economies of scale to facilitate “national conversation” and “our ability to talk to ourselves” — and that surely spells more and better democracy, right?

Unfortunately, not if the American experience is any guide.

The current media ecology in the United States has allowed extreme and false conspiracy theories to become normalized, with disturbing implications for the legitimacy of political and civic institutions.

That’s because media silos are big enough to incubate people like Donald Trump, the Q-Anon movement and baseless voter fraud allegations without having their “truths” tested and effectively disproven in a common national forum.

Former president Donald Trump, right, sings ‘God Bless America’ at the 16th tee during the final round of a golf tournament in Bedminster, N.J., in July 2022.
(AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Operating in a larger country did little to save America’s newspaper industry, with its accumulated expertise and generally high standards of investigative reporting. The number of working journalists has been cut in half over the past 25 years.

If anything, more resources and greater economies of scale on the internet and in think-tank networks have merely facilitated the growth of news and information silos.

They cater to what some citizen-consumers like to read (ideologically slanted analysis or partisan infotainment carefully micro-targeted to appeal to cognitive biases) or what powerful advertisers or devious hackers want them to read (news that is more congenial to foreign powers or economic elites) rather than what they need to read (quality, fact-based journalism).

The enhanced ability to “talk to themselves” takes place in the proverbial echo chamber of as much as half of the country , plus countless smaller ones. That makes a truly national conversation more difficult to achieve, not less.

Public broadcasters

PBS and NPR offer a quality of national programming that is comparable to the CBC at its best, without regular commercial interruption.

But they’re simply too small relative to the size of the marketplace to provide the influential standard-setting function that the CBC has historically provided for Canadian broadcast journalism or that public broadcasters have achieved for the United Kingdom, France, Australia and other nations.

There are concerns about our cultural institutions’ dependence upon public subsidy, yet public funding has arguably enabled the CBC to serve as an authoritative national forum that has no equivalent in the United States.

How the question of scale might be intersecting with technology and public policy right now can be illustrated by the attempts to provide “alternative” news and sources of policy-relevant information and opinion here in Canada.

Consider the failures of the Sun News Network to achieve its goal of becoming “Fox News North” or of its online successor, Rebel Media, to become Canada’s Breitbart News.

A television screen shows a dark-haired man speaking with a large Sun News logo behind him.
‘The Source with Ezra Levant’ program is shown on a television in February 2015. The Sun News Network shut down after negotiations to sell the troubled television network failed.

The Sun News Network tried to get around the problem of a small market for its product by obtaining a basic cable licence across the country. The CRTC did not oblige them.

Rebel Media then suffered from its mistake of having a reporter provide favourable live coverage of the infamous Charlottesville Unite the Right rally that spun out of control, killing a counter-protester and injuring 19 others.

Larger markets aren’t always beneficial

Some progressive nationalists have been self-congratulatory about these setbacks, surmising that Canada’s political culture is essentially different from America’s in being less receptive to extreme right-wing politics.

Yet supporters of the Sun TV model and Rebel Media can plausibly argue that all they really need to do in order to be more successful is to wait for an increase in the size of their potential audience. A more favourable political environment could also enable them to achieve a larger market share.

This serves to remind us why a larger domestic market for political news would not necessarily yield an improved public sphere. Social cohesion — and the encouragement of dialogue and debate in a good faith common effort to arrive at the truth — are public goods that require something more than demographic or economic growth to survive.

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These qualities may even be easier to come by in a smaller Canada.

Paying closer attention to the dangers of growth, especially the modern threats to democracy posed by the internet, allows us to best plan for a brighter future — not just a bigger one.

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