Worries Continue About the Independence of the Press in Canada

35% of all pay for journalism comes from the government. That is worrying some as they contemplate the independence of the press.

When the Online News Act was still formally referred to as Bill C-18 and working its way through the senate, one of the arguments we heard from lobbyists about the then bill was that this legislation is about finding new sources of revenue without asking taxpayers to fork over any further money. This was part of the core arguments from corporate lobbyists. There are growing news deserts and it’s all the fault of social media (it’s not). So, the solution here is to force platforms like Facebook and Google to fork over huge troves of money to take care of Big Publishing’s shortfalls.

Critics, experts, and anyone who had some basic levels of common sense saw right through that. This was about bailing out players in the news sector who had decided years ago that innovation was a great big waste of time and chose to continue with “business as usual”. That, predictably, bit them in the rear end as readers gradually dried up and moved to the online environment, leaving things like traditional newspapers and radio broadcasts behind. That left those traditional players to beg the government for money to cover up their obvious business mistakes under the premise that they are entitled to be successful forever no matter what they do with their business. What’s more, blaming social media for the downfall of news outlets is complete and utter insanity that really should be dismissed outright as complete nonsense.

Regardless, the argument that Bill C-18 was about subsidizing news organizations without putting taxpayers on the hook for the shortfall aged like fine milk. Meta dropped news links on their platforms, killing $230 million in value for the news outlets. The Canadian government, desperate for things to not go from bad to catastrophic, folded to Google by agreeing to the originally asked for $100 million fund model. That left the sector with an, at best, $130 million loss. This doesn’t even account for existing Google deals being rolled up into that $100 million fund pool.

That left the Canadian government stuck with using the last remaining tool in the tool chest. They issued a massive media bailout and going so far as to bail out some players multiple times. Not only were taxpayers on the hook for the colossal and repeated blunders of the large media companies, but they were on the hook for hundreds of millions to boot. So much for not asking the taxpayers to pay in all of this.

All of this, of course, raises serious questions about the independence of the press. This is something I’ve personally covered multiple times here. One of the common questions I have is: are you really going to ask uncomfortable questions from those who write your paychecks? After all, one of the major reasons for the press to exist is to hold power to account. That is why the independence of the press is so important in the first place.

Now, you might be asking, how bad is the situation on this front? Well, apparently, 35% of the journalists paychecks are now paid for by the government. From Quillette:

In this regard, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government offers the rest of the world a troubling cautionary tale. As reported by Michael Geist of the University of Ottawa, “Qualified Canadian Journalism Organizations” (as that term is defined by the government) can now claim 35 percent of their journalists’ salaries as tax credits—up to a salary limit of $85,000 per employee. Put another way, $29,750 of the annual gross pay earned by senior Canadian journalists—including the ones seeking to put microphones in front of opposition politicians such as Mr. Poilievre—is now effectively provided by the federal government.

And if you’re wondering how the government came up with that figure, there’s a simple answer: It corresponds exactly to what Canada’s newspaper lobby group, News Media Canada, asked for in 2023.

Indeed, Mr Trudeau’s government has exceeded the demands of corporate lobbyists. According to calculations supplied by Rudyard Griffiths—executive director of The Hub, an (unsubsidised) Canadian news and opinion site—additional contributions made under the auspices of Canada’s recent agreement with Google have brought the real annual figure to about $40,000 for every $85,000/year journalist—almost half of his or her salary.

As Prof. Geist writes, all of this “raises enormous concerns about the independence of Canadian media. While the government claims this is being done to ensure a ‘strong and independent’ press, it is not hard to see how the opposite may be true.”

None of this is to suggest that the Globe & Mail, or any other “Qualified Canadian Journalism Organization,” is consistently tailoring its content in a bid to curry favour with government officials. Indeed, that newspaper’s Ottawa bureau chief, Robert Fife, has repeatedly broken stories that embarrassed Mr Trudeau’s governing Liberals. Moreover, the same cash pool that funds the Globe & Mail also provides funding to conservative-leaning outlets such as the National Post, which often publishes scathing columns about the Prime Minister.

But the fact remains that since 2019, many Canadian journalists—including those who regularly cover the country’s federal government—have come to owe their livelihood to the politicians they write about. We know this because newspaper owners themselves have, for years, been forthright in declaring that their continued corporate operations now depend on generous public bailouts.

From an ethical point of view, this is obviously a troubling arrangement, as it creates a clear conflict of interest for journalists, especially with a federal election on the horizon. Polls suggest Mr Poilievre has a good chance of becoming prime minister sometime between now and Fall 2025. And if elected, it is fair to expect, he will revisit many of the Liberals’ pet funding programs—including this one.

Conservative leader, Pierre Poilievre, is well known for attacking the press. He’s suggested in the past that the CBC is little more than an Liberal Party propaganda outlet. His supporters, likewise, have long accused the likes of CTV, Global News, and others, of being part of the ‘Liberal woke mind virus’. For some supporters, the idea of the government completely wiping out the press altogether and replacing them with right wing science denying nonsense peddlers is something of a wet dream for them.

If anything, the media should have spent all this time trying to figure out how to insulate Conservative attacks to undermine their work. Instead, thanks to the Online News Act and the subsequent government bailouts, they have removed that insulation and further exposed themselves to the whims of the government – regardless of who is in power.

All of this sets up the potential for the perfect storm should Poilievre manage to get into power. First, he can, as he vowed to do, repeal the Online News Act (in and of itself, not really bad). Second, he can basically revoke all of the bailouts for the media, causing the floor to fall out for many in the sector (which would be really bad). Such moves would certainly satisfy the small but vocal “defund the CBC” crowd and ultimately leave the population far less informed about the events of today.

All of this, unfortunately, is a possibly largely going ignored by many in the media sector. For many of those players, this is all about trying to pull as much money out of the system as possible at any and all costs. Some supporters of the Online News Act are so ignorant, they don’t even see a problem in any of this. They’re getting more money, what’s the problem here? That ignorance was certainly on full display when they tried to argue that the $100 million fund model was a “victory” and losing $230 million in the process was just “noise” that can be ignored despite the implications that only require basic arithmetic skills to understand. Such concerns can be ignored because they were made by “shills for Big Tech” anyway (lol!).

At any rate, there is definitely the possibility for a lot of blood to be spilled over all of this. Not every business out there are going to pull 35% of wages out of their rear ends to make up the budget shortfalls. The problem here is that the big media types are shouting “full steam ahead” with this plan because money can be pulled in in the short term. If money can be made in the short term, what else is there to be worried about? Everything about this situation is so self-inflicted which is why I’m more inclined to point the finger at the large media companies and say “you brought this on yourself” in the process. I hope things don’t turn out this ugly, but steps were made to point the media companies in that very direction. I don’t like this one bit.

Drew Wilson on Mastodon, Twitter and Facebook.

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