Multiple Outlets Band Together to Not Take Government Bailout Money

A controversial aspect of the Online News Act is how media companies are taking bailout money. Some outlets are saying “no thanks”.

There is a term that can be a rather hot button topic. That term is “state sponsored media” or “government funded media”. While some people might think of outlets like Chinese outlets being state funded media, apply that label to any media outlet in Canada and it doesn’t take long for fireworks to ensue.

Probably one of the most vivid examples of this was when Twitter labelled the CBC as “Government-funded Media” last year. At the time, it was largely a political move by Elon Musk to support right wingers in Canada in a quest to discredit the media. Conservative leader, Pierre Poilievre, took advantage and essentially accused the CBC of being a Liberal propaganda machine. The CBC, for their part, furiously disputed this, arguing that it was a deceptive label at the time:

Yesterday, CBC’s Twitter account @cbc was labelled “Government-funded Media”, which to Twitter means the government “may have varying degrees of government involvement over editorial content.” In the case of CBC/Radio-Canada this labeling is untrue and deceptive.

Canadians know that CBC/Radio-Canada is publicly funded through a parliamentary appropriation that is voted upon by all members of Parliament. Its editorial independence is protected by law in the Broadcasting Act, as we said in our statement from last week.

In addition, our journalism is independent and subject to our Journalistic Standards and Practices, as well as an independent complaints process through the ombudsmen for CBC and Radio-Canada.

Twitter can be a powerful tool for our journalists to communicate with Canadians, but it undermines the accuracy and professionalism of the work they do to allow our independence to be falsely described in this way. Consequently, we will be pausing our activity on our corporate Twitter account and all CBC and Radio-Canada news-related accounts.

The thing is, the other part of the definition provided by X/Twitter at the time also states this:

Government-funded media is defined as outlets where the government provides some or all of the outlet’s funding

Technically, it’s not as though the term was entirely inaccurate either. As the CBC also admits, they get considerable funding from the government as well:

Government funding: This year, operating funding was $1,098.1 million, capital funding recognized in income was $106.9 million and working capital was $4.0 million.

When the Online News Act ended up failing in spectacular fashion, the government issued massive media bailouts. The CBC then went on to be bailed out again in exchange of not issuing massive layoffs as originally planned. While the label was ultimately removed, it did contribute to the discussion of whether or not outlets heavily subsidized by the government can be trusted – especially after several instances of outlets like the CBC publishing successive misleading articles about the link tax and the Online Streaming Act.

While the arguments are, indeed, much more strong for publicly funding the CBC, the case for other privately held outlets receiving massive amounts of public funding is much more weak. Bell, for instance, after receiving a huge chunk of money from the Online News Act and the bailouts slashed their workforce by 9% anyway. This despite claims that the funding was needed to save those jobs. The moves became even more indefensible when the company proceeded to hand that money over to their shareholders after. The move pissed off the government who would later compel Bell to appear before committee where pretty much everyone was angry at Bell executives.

Let’s not kid ourselves, though. The CBC and Bell aren’t the only ones receiving bailout money at this point as other outlets were lining up at the trough for their additional paydays from the government. Combine that with some pretty shoddy reporting over the last few years when it comes to tech related stories, the independence of the press has been under intense questioning. Examples of misleading articles from the major media outlets include Big Lie 1.0, Big Lie 2.0, and social media moral panics among others. The perception only grew that the mainstream media isn’t exactly the most trustworthy source out there. Being willing to lie to their audience as well as taking funding from public coffers really sets up a toxic combination as far as trustworthiness is concerned. Would the media lie to the public to support the government? The conditions today don’t definitively lead to “no”.

In that increasing vacuum of trust, some outlets are making a rather interesting move. They are calling it the “Ottawa Declaration” where they are promoting the fact that they aren’t being subsidized by the government. The Hub is one such outlet doing so:

As the declaration sets out, less than 40 percent of English-speaking Canadians currently tell pollsters that they trust the news media. It’s hard to see how causing the industry to become dependent on government will do anything but hasten a further decline. People will understandably come to question whether the news stories that we’re seeing (or not seeing) are motivated by the industry’s growing reliance on the state to finance its day-to-day operations. Will it pull punches? Will it choose its stories differently? Will it succumb to the government’s particular interests and preferences?

Even if the answer to these questions isn’t yes, the perception that it might be is hugely detrimental. It risks raising questions in the public’s mind about the independence of the press and the veracity of its reporting.

The consequences won’t be limited to subsidy recipients either. The spillovers will extend across the entire industry. Those receiving government subsidies, in other words, may be trading off their short-term interests for the rest of us—for the future of journalism itself.

Consider for instance that the next federal election will be held in an information environment in which the majority of journalism that voters consume is either directly or indirectly subsidized by the government and where the subsidies themselves are the subject of political debate. It strikes us as a toxic environment for the news media. There’s no ultimate victory. Either outcome undoubtedly does damage to journalism.

The solution, in our minds, is to eschew the government subsidies—to protect The Hub’s independence and forgo as a qualified Canadian journalism organization hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding. This option of course comes with its own risks. Subjecting oneself to the vagaries of the market is complicated and uncertain. But on balance we believe that it’s better than subjecting ourselves to the whims of the state. And that’s why we ultimately decided to sign the Ottawa Declaration on Canadian Journalism.

The move itself is, honestly, a smart one. By stating that they aren’t publicly funded, they do thwart any perception that they may, at some point, be influenced from government meddling or influence. It recognizes the fact that being paid by the government to publish news damages credibility in the long term – especially when there is coverage that generally favours whoever happens to be in power at the time.

Muddying the waters somewhat is probably the fact that some of the signatories are known right wing rags which some accuse of being funded by wealthy organizations trying to influence the political realm. For me, an outlet like True North is not exactly a source I would personally trust in the first place.

Still, the situation does highlight a more broad problem here. That is the influence government money is having on the marketplace. Would some of these larger outlets be able to survive on their own without massive media bailouts? There’s certainly an argument that some wouldn’t. Is that fair to upstarts trying to shake things up and renew that trust in journalism? Not really. I mean, if I got $100,000, operations here would be vastly improved almost overnight. Yet, the way things work today, legacy media outlets do enjoy something of a free ride thanks to free money while other outlets like Freezenet have to earn every dollar they get their hands on (often, every dollar is much harder to earn as a small independent outlet). If anything, this offers a disincentive both for legacy outlets to improve and better serve their audience and a disincentive for startups to even try to break into the field given that they are constantly working against government funding to get both public outreach and ad funding/reader funding.

For these reasons, I can’t say I blame the outlets making these moves in the first place. By not taking any government funding and advertising it out to the world that they don’t take such funding, they are, at least, showcasing that direct government influence is much less of a thing for them. There really needs to be more innovative startups in the journalism sector willing to take on the risks and providing a better journalistic product to readers. In these rough times in the journalism sector, that is more needed then ever before. The problem is, the environment has also never been more hostile to those trying to innovate in this field.

(Via @MGeist)

Drew Wilson on Mastodon, Twitter and Facebook.

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