A government called it “unacceptable” that funding is going towards a newspaper they didn’t like, implicating Bill C-18 in the process.
Throughout the debate of the Online News Act (formerly Bill C-18), one of the points I (and many other critics) raised was that if a majority of the funding going towards a news organization comes from either the government or government mandated programs, then this harms the journalism outlets credibility. This is because you now become financially unmotivated to question the government after. As I’ve said many times over and over again throughout the years, are you really going to criticize the entity that is writing your paychecks? Not really.
Yet, the always wrong lobbyists pushing for the then called Bill C-18 dismissed such concerns as unrealistic or fearmongering. The bill was ultimately passed based on conspiracy theories and fake talking points, overriding common sense, expert testimony, and mountains upon mountains of evidence pointing out what a horrible mistake the link tax law is.
The warnings us critics were regularly publishing, unsurprisingly, came to fruition. By the time the law came into force, the media wound up losing an estimated $130 million thanks to Meta doing exactly what everyone was warning would happen: dropping news links. The only reason it wasn’t a $230 million per year loss is because the government caved and handed everything over to Google for a $100 million fund model that Google had long been asking for (and was, up to that point, resoundingly rejected by supporters of the legislation).
Of course, the harm is far from being exclusively financial. There’s the credibility loss which is arguably a much more valuable thing for news outlets. With some news organizations seeing 70% of their expenses paid for by government programs, suspicions of a lack of holding power to account grew as there was a major financial motivation to keep quiet about politically inconvenient things.
Of course, for supporters such as Paul Deegan of News Media Canada, this scenario of the silencing of journalism with the threat of funding being pulled would never happen. In 2022, during a House of Commons Heritage committee hearing, Deegan was bold enough to proclaim that if such a scenario were to arise, journalism outlets would tell that entity to take a hike. Other lobbyists that were there were in agreement with his comments on this. Here’s my summary of what was said with my own comments in brackets:
Housefather then turned to Skok and said that there is a lot of myths about the bill. There is a myth that this will stifle innovation (not a myth, that is a fact). Does Skok believe this will stifle innovation?
Skok responded saying that this bill helps innovations exist (no, it removes the need for companies to innovate until the independent revenue streams dry up, making them subservient to the government). He claims that this is about re-litigating the past (the witnesses in question said no such thing), this isn’t about re-litigating the past, these deals have already been struck (ironically without the need for legislation). This has already happened. Google and Meta did not have to strike these deals – they are not link tax deals (this is the very definition of a link tax) – just licensing deals. They didn’t have to do that, they picked their winners already. What this bill does is that it helps to level the playing field (no, it allows the government to pick additional winners and losers, making the situation worse) and preventing those winners from getting a distinct advantage.
Housefather commented that another thing he keeps hearing is the compromising of journalistic independence. Will this compromise the independence of you and the people that work for you? (yes)
Skok responded that it does not and he personally recused himself of any coverage about this bill in September of 2020 when he found out he would have to be involved in this (no worries, leave it to the other journalists in your news rooms to act as cheer leaders). He doesn’t know what they report on, but sometimes they report on things that actually hurt his own personal interest (You know or you don’t, simple as that).
Housefather forwarded the question to Deegan. (the answer is still yes)
Deegan responded not at all. If General Motors were to run an ad in the Globe & Mail or the Toronto Star – he means if someone from GM were to phone up the Globe and said ‘hey I don’t like your coverage. I’m going to pull my advertising’, he thinks the publisher would tell them to go take a hike. (I’ve personally worked in media and that is absolutely not what would happen. Based on my personal experience, if the advertiser is paying big bucks, publishers, especially smaller ones – will bend over backwards to keep things smooth with the advertisers – even to the point of compromising their integrity as journalists. If a huge portion of revenue risks leaving the company – especially in this day and age – they would ask the advertiser how high they should jump. Publishers may have many things, but a spine isn’t one of them.)
Chartier answered the same question and he said no, in no way whatsoever. There is always protection between owners of news companies. Why would there be any problems flowing from this bill? (You are the same companies going to the government, cap in hand, and complaining that you are on the verge of bankruptcy. You tell me how money isn’t a problem.)
Well, as you can tell by the headline of this article, those comments by the lobbyists REALLY didn’t age well (and my comments ended up being downright prophetic). Barely a month after the bill came into force, this very nightmare scenario has actually happened. In a report in the Globe and Mail (probably paywalled) recently, a newspaper that was about to publish a news article that a government official didn’t like. In response, government officials threatened the newspaper with not only a SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) lawsuit, but also threatened to pull the papers funding as well:
A village near Quebec City has threatened to sue a local newspaper and cut its funding to prevent the publication of a story about the municipality’s general manager, who was fired from her previous job over misconduct allegations.
The village of Sainte-Pétronille has also threatened to sue nearly 100 members of the community who raised concerns about the hire at a municipal council meeting.
David Dusseault, a representative of Quebec’s Municipal Commission, said in an interview that the commission opened an investigation on Thursday after media reports about what happened.
The city was apparently not shy about their threat to pull the papers funding as well:
Antoine La Rue, a lawyer with the firm Therrien Couture Joli-Coeur, sent the paper, Autour de l’Île, a letter on Jan. 8 objecting to the forthcoming article.
“We already have the mandate to take legal action against the journalists, the newspaper and its administrators in the event that the article is published despite our numerous warnings,” wrote Mr. La Rue in French.
“It is unacceptable that the newspaper uses public funds given to it by local municipalities to publish articles with the aim of denigrating municipal employees.”
This is about as vivid of an example as you can get of the very scenario us critics have long warned about, but were dismissed as pushing disinformation or perpetuating “myths” about the legislation. Today, we can definitely conclude that it is no longer a myth that something like this would happen, but rather, a fact at this point.
Obviously, the paper has a very small budget. The idea of fighting the government in court is simply an insurmountable idea for a lot of businesses in a similar financial situation. Sadly, the threats an intimidation worked because the newspaper ultimately decided to not run the story because of those threats from the government:
“I’ve been working at the newspaper for almost 20 years. It’s the first time we’ve had a formal notice from a municipality,” said Autour de l’Île director Laure-Marie Vayssairat in an interview Wednesday. The monthly publication is run mostly by volunteer reporters and receives a little more than a quarter of its annual budget of about $200,000 from the regional municipal county, she said.
The legal threats from the Village came after editor-in-chief Marc Cochrane covered the Sainte-Pétronille municipal council meeting on Dec. 11, 2023.
In the story he prepared, Mr. Cochrane described how dozens of residents attended the meeting and used the question period to demand an investigation of the village’s general manager, Nathalie Paquet. Sainte-Pétronille Mayor Jean Côté defended her, according to the draft of Mr. Cochrane’s story, a copy of which was obtained by The Globe and Mail.
The story was never published.
While the silver lining for the newspaper here is that the governments successful attempts to silence a newspaper also resulted in a Streisand Effect (after all, now I’m talking about the incident), this problem is only going to grow more and more apparent.
A major problem in all of this is that not only do you have to trust that the government won’t abuse the financial power they have over newspapers, but also every future government as well. As news organizations are more than aware of, different governments vary in terms of trying to control the messaging and stamp out criticism as well. Some might never exercise that power, but others won’t hesitate.
Now, the problem is the fact that the law has come into force and numerous news organizations will be financially beholden to the government for their revenue streams. It’s an unprecedented amount of power the government wields over the news sector in Canada. As time goes on, this likely won’t be the last time we see something like this.
When people look back to these times years down the road, a major question will be this: why was the media so crazy as to hand over such a massive amount of power over to the government in the first place? People like me will get to answer those questions by saying something along the lines of how we tried to warn them that this would happen, but we were dismissed as crazy and ignored after. This is a massive structural mess that both the government and mainstream media created. I can only suspect that it will take years to clean this up. The first step is for the major news sector to realize they screwed up here. Sadly, even getting an acknowledgement like that across a wide range of major news organizations is still a really tall order even as the sector bleeds money from their failed shakedown attempt.