Andrew Coyne’s Column on Bill C-11/Bill C-18 is a Much Needed Breath of Fresh Air

In a media landscape focused on selling Bill C-11 and Bill C-18 to the public, Andrew Coyne offered a nice change.

In the ocean of bad media coverage of Bill C-11 (Online Streaming Act) and Bill C-18 (Online News Act), seeing half decent coverage outside of websites like ours, TechDirt, and Michael Geist has been a very tall order. It’s certainly possible to find good coverage, but it is easier to find great games on the Atari 2600 by random selection than it is to find actual good coverage. As a result, the credibility of large media outlets has sunk to new lows. What’s more, the continued poor quality in journalism was like the large media outlets were straight up saying, “Yeah, we’re lying to our audience, you got a problem with that?”

You could go on and on about how many ways the large media outlets in Canada are just straight up shamelessly lying to their audience. One example is the accusation that TikTok was secretly opposing Bill C-11 by funding astroturfing campaigns and pushing disinformation campaigns while not taking an official stance themselves – which was easily debunked by us. A second example is the accusation that Google is blocking Canadians from accessing news outright – which we thoroughly debunked with ease. A third example is the disgusting accusation that Facebook started blocking news links in response to the Yellowknife wildfires – a simple timeline easily debunks that claim.

Then there is the more famous examples of the media straight up lying to the public. This includes the famous Big Lie 1.0 where the media outlets said that linking to them on their platforms was akin to the platforms “stealing” their content. Then there was Big Lie 2.0 where the media accused the platforms of “censoring” news content when the platforms decided to just block news links altogether. The two biggest lies are not only very easily debunked by the most basic levels of research, but also directly contradict each other on top of it all.

Other examples include the “disappearing headline” which said that the platforms are causing news outlets to die out and that the then legislation was only about platforms ‘paying their fair share’ and the ongoing lie that Bill C-18 is about requiring platforms to pay for “reposting” their work and the ongoing propaganda that Bill C-11 is only about platforms ‘paying their fair share’ which is regurgitated over and over again as if it were an established fact – even though it is far from that. This along with how platforms removing news links was a “bluff”, the idea that platforms depend solely on news content to keep themselves afloat (which requires quite the ignorant perspective in order to believe that), and that all of Canada was behind the media companies and it’s just a couple of paid shills making up the noise that is the opposition to all of this (insert audience laughter here).

The worst part about all of this is that the media legitimately believing their own lies and acting accordingly to extremely embarrassing results.

On the face of all of this, large media companies are going as far as to say that everything is fine. For many of them, Meta rolling out news links and Google not only announcing that they’d be dropping news links, but also saying this month that their position is unchanged and will likely drop news links by December is just a “negotiating tactic”. Even worse, editorials that offer even the slightest criticism towards the legislation have gotten spiked even when the editorial is overall supportive of the legislation. We’ve gone from extreme ignorance to the situation to wilful blindness at that stage.

Now, to be fair, there are a couple of mainstream media outlets out there that will at least allow the odd criticism of the legislation to be published here and there. Two outlets include LeDevoir and The Globe and Mail. In those cases, there are executives who are willing to acknowledge that there is a chance that things might not go exactly as intended here. It’s about the equivalent of someone finally acknowledging that there is a chance that the sky is blue in a cloudless day instead of green, but it is, nevertheless, refreshing to see outlets actually making it over a bar so low, you could trip over it.

Nevertheless, we are seeing the rare example of something being allowed to be published on large media outlets from none other than Andrew Coyne. Coyne, to be fair, has been critical of Bill C-11 and Bill C-18 in the past and is a rare example of a critic actually having a mainstream media outlet platform to speak from. His recent column (sadly paywalled) was a welcome change from the usual sifting of the propaganda:

The government dug a deep hole for itself with Bills C-11 and C-18. And it’s only digging deeper

Yeah, I know. Since when was anyone in the large publishing business allowed to acknowledge that the Canadian government might have screwed up when they pushed for Bill C-11 and Bill C-18? The column itself also offers a lot as well:

The government had hoped to force the platforms to pay the Canadian news media for linking to their content or, in the shamelessly Orwellian language of the publishers’ lobby, “stealing” it: as if sending millions of readers our way every day, for free, was somehow a form of theft.

Instead they have complied with the law by ceasing to link to us – rather than, as the government evidently intended, to go on providing us with free advertising but to pay us a fee for doing so.

Ostensibly the amount of the fee was to be left to negotiations between the platforms and the publishers. But if it was not already evident what a sham this was – the negotiations were to be backstopped by that most impartial of arbiters, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission – it became clear with the release of regulations setting a minimum fee of 4 per cent of revenues for linking. Minimum, mind you: There is a floor, but no ceiling.

Surprise, surprise: The platforms refuse to play. Not only have they declined to enter into the shotgun deals the government had prepared for them, but they have begun cancelling their existing deals with Canadian media outlets – the ones in which they willingly pay for content they actually use.

An acknowledgement that there might be some problems with either the thinking or the legislation is extremely unusual in a piece published in a large media outlet – let alone laying out so many all at once like this. This is basically seeing an actual unicorn. This sort of publication just doesn’t happen, yet, here we are seeing it with our own eyes. It’s quite incredible. Another impressive thing about all of this is the fact that the piece also points to the political elephant in the room:

But the government-orchestrated ban on links has not just hurt the moribund, mismanaged legacy media. It has caused immeasurable damage to the dozens of nimble little startups that populate this country’s thriving new media ecosystem. In its desperate attempt to prop up the media’s past, the government has instead conspired to destroy its future. Indeed, I have heard it suggested that was the point.

And it doesn’t end there. The attempt to shake down Facebook and Google having failed, the publishers have turned their sights back on the government. The “temporary” bailout they received in the 2019 budget would, if the publishers have their way, be made permanent. Indeed, even if the link tax can somehow be made to stick, the publishers want the bailout to continue. By some calculations the combined effect would be to leave the taxpayer footing the bill for fully 70 per cent of the publishers’ costs.

But don’t worry: In any future election campaign in which one party was promising to take away the publishers’ lolly while another was promising to keep it, rest assured the media would show the same scrupulous neutrality in their coverage that they have to date. Which I’m guessing means no party will campaign against it.

Indeed, many in the Conservative Party ranks – not to mention the far right supporting the party – have long made calls like “defund the CBC” and accused mainstream media outlets – especially after the terroristic occupation of Ottawa’s city streets (which saw the media fearing for their own personal safety so much that they went to the extreme of removing the logo’s from their vehicles) – of being the enemy of the people. A more extreme example would be the “Murder the Media” graffiti scrawled on a door during the January 6th terrorist attack on the US Capitol buildings. Anyone not passing right wing purity tests and publishing articles that doesn’t neatly fit with far right wing narratives and conspiracy theories should be run out of business for the crimes of being part of some global conspiracy or being too “woke” (whatever the heck that means).

Today, the Conservative Party of Canada is headed up by one of the darlings of the far right movement, Pierre Poilievre, who has no problem saying how the media is just a propaganda arm of the Trudeau government. For the far right, if most, if not, all the media shut down overnight, they would celebrate that as the biggest wins ever. With the platforms on the way to dropping news links and 70% of the media costs expected to be footed by the government, if the Conservative party wins the next election (God help us all), it would be the world easiest thing for the party to just pull the funding and gleefully watch several outlets close their doors one at a time. Those far right supporters would have Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, for weakening the media to such an extreme extent to thank, and Poilivre to thank for delivering the final knockout punch.

The political reality is that the idea that the government continues to write the journalists paychecks indefinitely is a best case scenario in the realm of plausible outcomes. The credibility of the media would be further tarnished and all it takes is one Conservative party win to make matters potentially lethal for the media companies. Things should have never gotten to this point, yet here we are seeing such very real threats to media outlets as a whole.

Now, there’s going to be some out there who will say that my enthusiasm towards the column is only because I happen to agree with it. The main thing this article displays is an actual acknowledgement of actual risks that us critics have been saying all along (and virtually everything that has happened up to this point has pretty been what people like us have been saying all along would happen). You would otherwise be hard pressed to find a mainstream news article that would even tackle a question like, “What if the platforms aren’t bluffing? What happens when Google also pulls news links in Canada and the media companies have to make do without?” A question like that is like Kryptonite for these media companies. They either don’t want to even acknowledge this is a possibility or the media companies would treat it as some silly little theory that is unlikely to play out.

What’s more, even when the odd quote manages to make its way to a publication, suggesting that the situation is even remotely problematic, it is often paired with supporters of the legislation saying that their version of events is superior. This while intentionally leaving the impression that anyone questioning the situation is just a vocal minority that can’t really be taken seriously.

What we are seeing with Coyne’s piece is a situation where other media companies are saying that it’s sunny outside while critics are saying it’s raining outside. Coyne is cracking open a window, turning around, and saying, “Uh, it’s clearly raining outside” after seeing the rain come down. It has people like us screaming, “Thank you!” and giving a relieved sigh. That is ultimately why this article is such a breath of fresh air. It seriously entertains the possibility that the platforms aren’t going to actually partake in these so-called “deals” and doesn’t rely heavily on the notion that all you have to do is “believe”.

The article does go further and warns of the very real risk posed by the Online News Act (Bill C-11) as well as impressively being skeptical about the forthcoming Online Harms bill. Let’s face it, that’s just gravy on top. Yes, I just happen to agree with the position and ultimate conclusions he raised, but the fact that there was even acknowledgement that there is a serious problem with the legislative course the government has taken with its three anti-internet bills is borderline revolutionary thinking in and of itself. At least someone out there in those large office buildings is listening.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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