If asked to come up with a metaphor for the current state of Canada’s media, most people would default to something bleaker than the tangled garden that appears in the title of the latest book from Richard Stursberg. The former federal bureaucrat, Telefilm Canada and CBC executive, and author of The Tower of Babble is admirably hopeful that there is still some way to salvage the most endangered parts of the imperilled industry. But his proposals seem highly unlikely to solve Canadian media’s many issues.
Stursberg’s narrative covers the last 35 years of cultural policy, with chapters on the Mulroney, Chrétien, Harper, and Trudeau years all building to the titular manifesto. The chapters on the more distant past provide some interesting insight into cultural policy-making during their respective periods. The recent material relies more heavily on opinion. And there is little in Stursberg’s analysis of international digital media superpowers (Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, and Google) or their influence on Canadian culture that will be unfamiliar to those well-versed in these topics. Stursberg, who co-wrote the book with Stephen Armstrong, relies on clichés like “change is constant” and “content is king” that are meant to be profound but aren’t, especially when peppered throughout the “manifesto” chapter.
More generally, The Tangled Garden reveals the gaps in Stursberg’s perspective on Canadian cultural industries. Specifically, Stursberg doesn’t assign the appropriate amount of blame to the people who have been running media companies in this country for decades. Instead, he notes that increased government funding for TV news, newspapers, and magazines might “create opportunities to bring back many papers and shows that had been cancelled in the last many years of aggressive cost cutting.”
This sort of utopian dreaming overlooks the countless ways owners and managers in those industries implemented ruinous cutbacks to their newsrooms and products long before they needed to be worried about Netflix and at a time when they were only seeking to increase their already considerable profit margins. Given that history, it’s hard to imagine that a new tax-credit regime for media companies will translate into the rebirth of, say, the Guelph Mercury or Saturday Night magazine. Such wishful thinking only makes sense if you believe that media woes in this country are a problem that merely needs to be untangled rather than an indication of an industry that needs to be rebuilt and reimagined entirely.