What a difference some 50 years have made in one of Canada’s most important and powerful industries.
Back in 1969, the Senate of Canada called an inquiry to investigate the exorbitant profits made by Canada’s handful of media barons.
Skinflint media mogul Roy Thomson had famously remarked that having a broadcast license was like “having a licence to print money.” (Thomson reportedly thought owning a newspaper “was even better, because a licence was not required.”)
The senators hemmed and hawed, and made some recommendations that were mostly ignored by the powerful media owners, who continued to make big profits.
How times have changed.
In a press release announcing their new report released last week on media in Canada, the Public Policy Forum of Montreal described the Canadian news industry as “reaching a crisis point as the decline of traditional media, fragmentation of audiences and the rise of fake news pose a growing threat to the health of our democracy.”
Whereas the 1970 report was entitled The Uncertain Mirror, the new appeal for support is called The Shattered Mirror. Now mainstream media are unable to sell enough advertising to provide the amount and quality of news coverage that once seemed routine. So the giant corporations are humbly appealing to the federal government to provide support for various media and make adjustments to the media landscape.
The report does not provide a specific prescription to bring corporate media back to health. Nothing in the report could even begin to provide the billions of dollars that would be needed to restore newspapers to what they were, say, 10 years ago. That was before corporations fired more than 10,000 journalists.
Written by Eddie Greenspon, former editor-in-chief of the Globe and Mail, the report’s most important request urges the federal government to impose a sales tax on U.S.-owned Internet media outlets, including Google and Facebook, operating in Canada.
The estimated $400,000 raised would be used to create a Journalism and Democracy Fund, which would be managed independently from the government. The fund would be used to develop digital technology and pay for local news and investigative journalism. The federal government is likely to balk at this suggestion because most of the money would end up in the bank accounts of much-maligned media corporations.
The report also suggests changes to the Copyright Act to protect original content from being picked up on aggregator websites. Look out, Huffington Post.
There are several other interesting suggestions in the report. Greenspon’s bias toward corporate media is obvious when he says the CBC should not be allowed to run digital ads on its news sites. That would open up a measly $25 million for the rest of the media. Greenspon says the federal government should make up the shortfall for the CBC, but that’s not going to happen.
The author also says that CBC news content should be made available free of charge to outside news organizations. Hmmm, perhaps he hasn’t noticed that media sites already do this.
Corporate media whines that others are responsible for its woes. But a big part of the problem is now that Canadians are able to access a great many information sites, many have grown to mistrust mainstream media.
A public poll carried out for the study showed all media sectors performing poorly. Only 11 per cent of those polled said they totally trusted newspapers.
Greenspon has the nerve to write that Canada needs mainstream media to protect democracy. In reality, mainstream media has a corporate and conservative bias that began with the introduction of neo-liberalism in the early 1980s. All but one Canadian daily endorsed the election of Stephen Harper, who headed the most right-wing government in modern times.
Greenspon also says the mainstream needs support to help weed out “false news,” hinting it comes from places such as Google and Facebook.
Yes, false news is a problem, but there’s also the problem that stories produced by mainstream media are seriously biased and ignore whole groups in society.
What will happen to Greenspon’s 100-page appeal?
It will be one of several salvos that will help slide the federal government toward providing some kind of support that is publicly acceptable.
But there’s a warning buried deep in the report.
Pollster Allan Gregg says that a majority of people polled in connection with the Public Policy Forum report are dead set against taxpayers propping up the media industry.
Perhaps the most disliked person in the business is Paul Godfrey, who, by chopping and borrowing millions, still controls more than 200 Postmedia news outlets , including several big city dailies. Godfrey’s total income in 2015 was $1.7 million.
With Godfrey pulling down this kind of money, it would not look good to have Postmedia dipping into a Journalism and Democracy Fund.
For sure, Trudeau wants the still powerful big media to support him, just like it supported Stephen Harper. Even so, the government will pussyfoot along many more months before deciding what actions are safe to take.
Meanwhile, the once mighty big media companies will continue to twist in the wind.
Nick Fillmore is a Toronto freelance journalist and media critic. In an earlier life, in 1970, when he was publisher of the upstart Halifax weekly, The 4th Estate, his presentation to the Special Senate Committee on Mass Media rocked the staid and backward corporate newspapers in the Maritimes. He described how they censored the news, paid low wages and treated staff with disdain. In response, the Halifax Chronicle-Herald published one of its few front page editorials with the headline: “A denigration of good men.”