In his final speech as Australia’s race discrimination commissioner in 2018, Tim Soutphommasane pointed the finger at his country’s media. He claimed that broadcasters, in particular, have promoted hatred against racialized groups.
Soutphommasane, now the chief diversity officer at Oxford University, offered a few examples. In particular, he mentioned that race-baiting commentators on national television sometimes told people on the air to go back to where they came from. These media loudmouths suffered no sanctions from their networks.
“Sections of a fracturing media industry, under the strain of technological disruption, seem to be using racism as part of their business model,” Soutphommasane said. “Faced with competition from a proliferation of news and entertainment sources, some media outlets are using racial controversies to grab attention—as a means of clinging on to their audiences.”
As a long-time columnist and writer and presenter of a six-part documentary series on diversity, Soutphommasane has considerable media experience. In essence, as Australia’s race discrimination commissioner, he accused some media corporations of monetizing racism.
He recognized that by whipping up controversy about racialized groups, these companies could attract eyeballs to programs and their websites.
The business of media
More web traffic results in more “programmatic advertising buys”. For those unfamiliar with advertising jargon, this refers to the automated purchase of digital ad inventory. Computers buy ads on platforms and websites based on a client’s specifications.
It’s become a critical lifeline for the media. Especially as advertising continues migrating from print and broadcast media to the digital sphere.
Nowadays, Google and Meta gobble upwards of 80 percent of digital ad buys in Canada, according to News Media Canada.
That leaves less money available for Postmedia, Corus Entertainment, and other Canadian media organizations.
Meanwhile, overall Canadian advertising revenue plunged by 11.4 percent in 2020 as a result of the pandemic, according to Statistics Canada.
Were it not for a federal wage subsidy and rent subsidies, more Canadian media companies likely would have gone bankrupt that year.
This financial squeeze coincided with a stunning increase in hate directed at people of Asian ancestry in 2020.
Report focuses on social media
Meanwhile, a new 478-page report by the Office of the B.C. Human Rights Commissioner documents the rising number of reported hate crimes. This followed its inquiry into hate during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Moreover, the report noted that Statistics Canada consistently underreports police-reported hate crimes. Human Rights Commissioner Kasari Govender demonstrated this by seeking data directly from police services on “police-reported hate incidents in B.C. between 2015-2021”.
This explains why the percentage increase is higher in the chart for B.C. in comparison to the nationwide figures above.
Naturally, I wondered if Soutphommasane’s comments on media were in the report. I searched the entire document for his name. Not a word. Nada.
I was also curious whether Govender examined how the Canadian media might have “othered” residents of Asian ancestry in the years leading up to the pandemic. Not a word. Nada.
However, the report included an onslaught of commentary on the role of social media companies in promoting hatred. And Govender issued several recommendations to this industry.
But I couldn’t find a word in the report about how antiracism activists have used social media to prevent mainstream media from promoting anti-Asian hatred.
In fact, one had to dig deeply into Govender’s report to find any criticism of the mainstream media. This was one of the very few comments along those lines:
“We heard that misinformation and conspiracy theories were often spread through mainstream institutions and the media,” the report states. “For example, we heard from Hua Foundation about how the media played a role in perpetuating narratives of blame (scapegoating, fearmongering) towards China. For example, The Province newspaper put ‘China Virus’ in one headline. Hua Foundation was also critical of ‘disproportionate media coverage’ of the hate-based rhetoric and no recognition of community support efforts.”
Where was the follow-up? The report did not reveal if Postmedia took any action internally after “China virus” appeared in giant letters on the Province front page.
Most outlets not named
There was also this comment from someone who filed a submission to the Office of the B.C. Human Rights Commission: “perpetrator accused me of being a savage by culture and nature due to my ethnicity and where I come from. He accused me based on misinformation and myth created by media propaganda against Middle Easterners.”
Govender did not report on the degree of misinformation and myth created by Canadian media outlets against Middle Easterners.
Elsewhere, the report included this clunky 59-word sentence, based on a 2019 paper in Justice Quarterly:
“The number of hate incidents following jihadist terrorist attacks is closely linked to media coverage of the attack, which is especially concerning considering research which finds that terrorist attacks committed by Muslim perpetrators garner on average 357% more media coverage than terrorist attacks committed by other perpetrators, even when controlling for the number of fatalities and other factors.”
The report has more long sentences like this. But I digress.
Then there was this paragraph in the report: “The Commissioner also heard how people of Asian descent are often blamed for high real estate prices across B.C. This blame is highly pervasive and often legitimized by academics and mainstream media outlets. project1907 shared that real estate was a recurring theme in the anti-Asian racism reported on their platform during the pandemic.”
Govender did not name any individual B.C. academics and mainstream media outlets that have legitimized the blaming of people of Asian ancestry for high housing costs. On this, the report is silent.
Did corporations monetize racism?
This is notwithstanding a litany of other factors driving up real estate prices. They include sustained low interest rates, an increase in the money supply, transfer of intergenerational wealth, rate of millennial household formation, municipal zoning, and shortage of housing.
These other factors received far less media coverage than a relatively puny amount of foreign buying in B.C., which still generated monumental attention. The media misdiagnosed the roots of high home prices.
The commissioner chose not to address whether the Canadian media, like their Australian counterparts, have been monetizing racism.
Did the relentless focus on foreign buying of housing from 2015 to 2020 increase mistrust of people of Asian ancestry? Was this done in pursuit of page views, which could yield financial returns? You won’t find the answer in this report, let alone any serious examination of the subject.
It’s worth noting that Premier David Eby has since apologized for his role in a 2015 study on a small number of homeowners in Vancouver with non-anglicized Chinese names. This generated enormous attention at the time. That reinforced a false media narrative that foreign money from China was making it impossible to buy a home for less than $1 million.
Nor did Govender focus any attention on Eby’s previous conflation of money laundering in casinos with the fentanyl crisis and high housing prices. She also didn’t examine how the media eagerly lapped it up—no doubt generating more revenue through programmatic ad buys.
Yet Govender still included this comment in the report: “More than half of the people who responded to the Commissioner’s public survey reported that the hate they experienced, witnessed or were affected by was caused by hateful political commentary. Hate flourishes when it is legitimized by public figures and the media. This sends a broader message that hate is acceptable or even encouraged.”
Cullen Commission sent similar message
All things considered, it’s a very good report for the media. It’s also a blessing for individual journalists who’ve written a great deal about casino money laundering and foreign buying of real estate.
This is the second major report that’s given the media a free pass for its coverage of Asian Canadians in recent years.
The Cullen Commission of Inquiry into Money Laundering in British Columbia also resisted blasting the media. The commissioner, Austin Cullen, said he could not conclude that money laundering was a significant cause of unaffordable housing. An avalanche of media reports suggested the contrary.
Former Vancouver mayor Sam Sullivan focused on academics in this video.
Perhaps when Govender’s contract expires, someone with more media experience will become the next human rights commissioner. Then we might get a more fulsome examination into why Bloomberg identified Vancouver as the Anti-Asian hate crime capital of North America in 2021.
In case you’re wondering, that impressive article by Bloomberg investigative reporter Natalie Obiko Pearson was not cited in the report. Nor was the work of journalists Ng Weng Hoong and Travis Lupick, former Vancouver mayor Sam Sullivan, and others who’ve raised the alarm about the media’s troubling obsession with foreign buying from 2015 to 2020.
Where’s Tim Soutphommasane when you need him?
After this article appeared, Pancouver published a follow-up, “Elimin8Hate zeroed in on irrresponsible reporting as driver of anti-Asian sentiment in testimony to human rights commissioner”. It noted that the Office of the Human Rights Commissioner is a co-founder of the Never Accept Hate campaign along with the Broadcasters of British Columbia and the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade.