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One Person's Synergy is a Columnist's Nightmare

One time, when I was on the phone with Sympatico customer service, I shamelessly abused my privilege as a writer for this newspaper. "Look," I said, "I'm a columnist with The Globe and Mail and I need e-mail access now."

Of course, this was an extreme situation: I had tried and retried the connection, reconfigured my settings, reinstalled my modem software, and shut down and restarted my computer 16 times. Only then, when I still couldn't file my column, did I mention The Globe.

And let me tell you, things change. I wouldn't dream of threatening journalistic retaliation in exchange for better service, but it seemed to occur to the person to whom I was talking that, if I'm a columnist with The Globe, I might just write one of those columns about Sympatico. And in this purely hypothetical column, I might ask some uncomfortable questions: Why is it that I have to dial long-distance to check my e-mail when I'm outside of Canada—and even when I'm in Vancouver? How come AOL customers are able to make a local call to get on-line in Uzbekistan? And why doesn't the Sympatico toll-free service number work outside of Canada, forcing customers to dial long-distance just to complain about how their long-distance dial-up isn't working?

In this imaginary column about the myth of communication mobility, I might even put forward a theory that all this inconvenience could have something to do with the fact that every time I make a long-distance call on my Bell calling card, Sympatico's parent company, BCE, gets a little richer. I might speculate that the problem began when a national long-distance carrier acquired a near monopoly on high-speed Internet access over the phone lines.

Now, as I've said, I have never actually written this column, but I have taken great comfort in the idea that some day I could. Which is why I was a little taken aback to learn that, if the gargantuan deal between BCE and Thomson goes through, Sympatico and The Globe and Mail might be part of the same company.

Now will I ever be able to write that Sympatico column? And I wonder what else won't get written if this newspaper becomes part of a conglomerate that includes CTV, Bell Canada, Bell Mobility, The Sports Network and maybe, if the rumours are true, the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Raptors and the Air Canada Centre.

It's nothing new for media outlets to have to tiptoe around the interests of the corporations that own them. Most newspapers and television stations avoid covering their parent company as much as possible, often explaining that their coverage would lack "credibility" in the minds of readers and viewers. They take comfort in the fact that it's a big world out there, with plenty to cover. Turning a blind eye to one company is a relatively minor concession to corporate influence.

But the ethical implications of that small compromise are changing, and changing quickly. As the conglomerates that own newspapers and TV channels dramatically expand their holdings, the zones where journalists are expected to tread cautiously are also stretching. It becomes awkward to cover not only one's parent company, for fear of being accused of boosterism, but all of their holdings, and their competitors' as well, for fear that it will seem like sour grapes.

Soon, entire industries aren't worth the trouble, and if you are part of Rupert Murdoch's empire, entire countries can become no-go zones. For instance, News Corp. has made expanding into China a major corporate priority and, according to Jonathan Minsky, former East Asia editor for the Murdoch-owned Times of London, the paper "has simply decided, because of Murdoch's interests, not to cover China in a serious way."

Not every media baron is as interventionist as Mr. Murdoch, but it doesn't take active meddling to make journalists aware of the priorities and dangers of the new media landscape. Yesterday, The Globe quoted a Bay Street analyst praising a possible BCE-Thomson conglomerate because it would allow the company to "cross-purpose and cross-promote your product."

This crisscrossing is the very essence of synergy, the business principle fuelling all the media-communications mergers of the past eight years. Companies such as BCE aren't just buying new media holdings, they're buying "branded media content" to push through their networks. The question that faces all the media outlets being "bundled" into synergy-driven communication conglomerates (and that includes CTV, Global, Maclean's magazine, Rogers television, and all of Conrad Black's papers sold to CanWest) is whether journalism can survive in this climate of corporate convergence. The very essence of good journalism, after all, is fierce independence and freedom from entangling conflicts of interest. How can that be reconciled with synergy's quest for integration and cross-promotion?

It remains to be seen. In the meantime, there's this column I've been meaning to write about Air Canada. Last time I checked, it hadn't been bought up by BCE. I figure I'd better write that one soon.

This article first appeared in The Globe and Mail.

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