Occupying the media

By Aaren Madden, May 2012

Jack Etkin is intent on presenting alternative voices to those we hear in corporate-controlled media.

"Let me ask you a question,” says Jack Etkin, as we sit over steaming plates of beef teriyaki in a bustling Japanese restaurant. He has been patiently connecting the dots for me in what he considers the deeply problematic power structure that is constantly eroding our rights, environment, and quality of life as citizens. We’ll get to that, but first, his question. “What’s the definition of the word democracy?” he asks.

I mumble something about by the people, for the people. “Not bad,” he nods, before offering his preferred analysis. “Democracy comes from two Greek words: deimos, meaning the people, and kratos, power. So it means the people rule.” 

“I don’t think many people here in Canada would say we have a country where the people rule,” Etkin further suggests. What we have is corporate control of politics, enabled by a popular media owned and therefore also controlled by the very same corporations. He offers up another term to describe our current power structure: “Fascism,” he asserts, “is simply the mixing of corporate and government power, and that’s what we have now.”

Independent media is essential to countering that and fostering a rigourous democracy, he says. And so, as something of an antidote, Etkin hosts a talk show on Shaw Cable channel 11 called Face to Face with Jack Etkin. For three years now he has interviewed union leaders, environmental experts, scientists and activists about regional, national and international issues. Ranging in length from about a half hour to an hour, the interviews allow a depth that you will not find on commercial networks, where 30-second sound bites can easily skew the truth simply by omission. 

Etkin’s previous guests include Canadian nationalist, author and organic farmer David Orchard; Green Party leader Elizabeth May; Elizabeth Woodworth, cofounder of Consensus 9/11, who challenges the official story on 9/11; MP Peter Julian on the Security and Prosperity Partnership; and Ben Parfitt, resource policy analyst with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives on the use of fracking in BC’s natural gas industry.

All of this happens on a shoestring—small appearance fees and donations. “We literally go from week to week never knowing if there’s going to be another [show]. But there always is,” Etkin smiles. He and a handful of devoted volunteers work around their day jobs (which he prefers to keep private) in the name of thorough critical discourse. To that end, Etkin also publishes The Bridge, an independent newspaper available in limited circulation and online at www.thebridgenewspaper.info. A link will take you to his blog. 

Etkin’s oeuvre revolves around exposing and challenging a power structure in which corporations are the true ruling forces, controlling both the media and the political parties to their own advantage to the great detriment of us, the great unwashed. Otherwise known as The Taxpayers—a group, he points out, that used to be referred to as “citizens,” a word denoting a decidedly nobler role than simply handing over cash. “We’ve been demoted,” he observes. “The citizens are supposed to be the ones who run the place. Taxpayers are a step down. We even call ourselves taxpayers now,” he says, noting how repeated use of the term in the media has led to its adoption.

He didn’t always feel this way. Back when he studied business at university in his hometown of Winnipeg, the Vietnam War was raging. “I was so happy [America was] in there, saving the world for democracy,” he admits. Then he attended a debate on the subject. “I came away absolutely shocked,” he recalls. “My guy had nothing to say, and the other guy, who was sort of a ‘commie’—now they are terrorists, but back then they were only commies—he had reams of information, all of which seemed to be true, and that I had never heard of before. That was the first crack in the door.”

The real turning point came when he arrived in Victoria in the ’90s and joined The Sierra Club. The government and corporate line at the time was “Forests Forever,” he remembers. “It was based on the idea that you can cut down the trees over and over again on the steepest mountainsides in BC and there will never be any soil erosion. It’s all fraud, lies, disinformation, whatever it takes. You begin to see where the real power is, that it’s corporate. It was a shock. I thought the government was working for our general best interest—and back then it was, more so than now. And I thought the media was interested in good stories.” 

Seldom, he noticed, was anything questioned in the media, since they are controlled by the same people who own the corporations doing the logging—or today, the fracking or pipeline laying. “The banks, the oils companies, the manufacturers (if we have any left), the miners, the loggers, the fish farmers, the big real estate developers…They are the people who control the media,” Etkin says. “If you look at the board of directors of Bell Media or Postmedia, they are tied into the banks, the big companies; that’s who they are,” he states. Go to www.ceocouncil.ca for further enlightenment, he urges. 

Since we only hear what they want us to, they control what is said about each political party, and hence control the power seats and essentially decide who gets elected, Etkin concludes. You can be sure it will be the party who panders most to the corporations. This corporate-political-media love triangle is problematic in many ways. In all examples, it’s the people trying to make ends meet day to day who suffer. Take the teachers’ dispute. The government insists on net-zero over three years, while the BC Teachers’ Federation wanted to start bargaining at a 15 percent pay raise over three years. The government, citing a deficit, would not budge. 

But what of this deficit? In an article in The Bridge, Etkin does some math and suggests that if the government hadn’t cut tax rates in 2001, “we would have a surplus of at least a couple of a billion dollars.” That 25 percent tax cut costs the province about $6 billion each year.

In another article, he proposes creating a citizen’s assembly on democratic reform composed of three groups: one in the north, one in the interior, and one on the coast. One suggestion he would have in that regard is for each political party to have a position akin to an auditor general to ensure rules are followed. “In the last leadership race,” Etkin elaborates, “I think for both parties there were thousands of questionable memberships. But who do you turn to? The parties regulate themselves. You can’t hold them to any account.” It appears he’s right, since we seem to be ok with the fact that Christy Clark’s chief of staff, Ken Boessenkool, used to lobby for Enbridge—and Enbridge was one of the largest donors to the BC Liberals in 2011.

Etkin says we must reunite the deimos with the kratos. He concludes simply, “all we need is more democracy.” Critical to that is an independent media. 

Face to Face is on channel 11 Saturdays at 11 and 11:30 am, Sundays at 10 am and 9:30 pm, and online (search on Youtube or Vimeo). For further reading, Etkin suggests Fixing Canadian Democracy, published by (“of all people!”) The Fraser Institute.

Aaren Madden is a Victoria writer who hopes we can all get what we need.