Why Bill C-18 Needs Protections from Large Media Misusing Funding

A lot of focus on the debate surrounding Bill C-18 has been about rail guards for platforms, what about rail guards for media outlets?

If there is one overarching problem with Bill C-18, it’s the problem with credibility. Whether it is credibility from a copyright perspective, credibility from a technological perspective, or even credibility that it is actually a solution to a problem at all, the lack of credibility of Bill C-18 has been a very longstanding problem.

In fact, the credibility problems are so severe, that the media outlets themselves are losing credibility thanks to their poor coverage of the bill. To put it bluntly, the larger outlets have, long ago, traded neutral, balanced, and fact driven reporting for corporate propaganda and disinformation aimed at serving what they think is in their business interests. Throughout the debate, the biggest source of misinformation and disinformation either comes from the traditional media outlets or the government itself. This leaves only a handful of smaller outlets like ours to give you the straight facts and offer the reporting that the big players should have done.

In the midst of the fire hose of misinformation we are having to deal with in this debate, one question has been lurking in the background, hoping to get unnoticed. That question is, what safeguards are in place to ensure that the funding media would supposedly get from this bill would actually go to promoting or bolstering journalism? In reading the text of the bill, we were unable to locate a provision that ensures that the funding outlets receive in this bill actually goes to journalism. What we were able to find is Section 86 which reads as follows:

Annual report — independent auditor

86 (1) The Commission must cause an independent auditor to prepare an annual auditor’s report in respect of the impact of this Act on the Canadian digital news marketplace.

(2) The report must set out an analysis of the impact of the agreements entered into under this Act on the Canadian digital news marketplace and include the following:

(a) information relating to the total commercial value of the agreements entered into under this Act;

(b) information relating to the distribution of the commercial value of those agreements among eligible news businesses, including relative to the expenditures of those businesses on their newsrooms;

(c) information relating to the effect of the agreements on those expenditures;

(c.‍1) if the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation has provided an annual report under section 53.‍1 in the 12 months preceding the preparation of the auditor’s report, information related to that annual report; and

(d) any other element that, in the opinion of the auditor, supports the transparency of the impact of this Act on the Canadian digital news marketplace.

Confidential information

(3) The report must not contain any information that is likely to reveal information designated as confidential under subsection 55(1).
Publication of report

(4) The Commission must publish the report on its website within 30 days after the day on which it receives it.

Often, what is left unsaid in a bill can be just as revealing as what is said in the bill. In short, the bill focuses on showcasing total dollar values of these deals. So, how much money did CTV get or CBC, Global, Toronto Star, etc.? The real question is, how do we know that the additional funds went to increasing the budget of news rooms, hiring extra journalists, or used to actually further the quality of journalism (i.e. new camera equipment, new computer hardware, etc.) and didn’t just, say, wind up in the hands of executives and hedge funds instead? Simply put, that aspect is a giant black hole of information where accountability goes to die.

Indeed, Section 55 does say that what is disclosed publicly shouldn’t result in financial loss or result in the public release of trade secrets. The thing is, such information can easily be disclosed without divulging such secrets. For example, a generalized “receipt” of sorts could look something like this:

Annual Value of Agreements With Platforms: $150,000

Resulting expenditures:
Staff hiring and salaries: $100,000
Vehicle Maintenance and transport: $5,000
Software licensing and computer equipment: $15,000
Recording Equipment/Drone Equipment: $25,000
Miscellaneous expenditures: $5,000

I’m sure you could meddle with the numbers to be more accurate, but the general idea is there. If such transparency was a thing with such reports, I firmly believe that it would decrease the fears of what Bill C-18 would do.

Some might read this and wonder why we need such a level of transparency in the first place. Well, as so many supporters of the bill so often do, they compare Bill C-18 with the Australian model. The thing is, the Australian model is fraught with problems. Last month, one of those problems was highlighted through internal conversations among media outlets about the Australian News Bargaining Code. One large problem with the Code is the fact that there is little transparency surrounding where the money actually went. The pink slips kept continuing, closures continue to remain stubbornly a feature in the media landscape, and there is no way to know if media executives effectively took the money and ran – though given the facts, that seems to be the most plausible explanation in all of this.

That is precisely why, throughout these hearings, I am personally calling for the additional funding to have full justification. If a media organization receives an additional dollar value thanks to these deals, what additional expenses is that media company going to incur to help bolster journalism in the first place? If the whole purpose of Bill C-18 is supposed to be about “saving” journalism, then why not put in place guard rails that ensures that the bill does exactly what it says on the tin rather than handing large media companies a blank check to do whatever they want?

Indeed, this is one angle I can see the bill improving. It’s not necessarily tackling the biggest problems of the bill, but it does offer a way of improving the bill.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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