News that the federal government has unveiled a $595-million package over five years to help Canada’s ailing media sector has many crying foul. Worries about the loss of impartiality or, more precisely, the perception of media bias, top the list of concerns and have divided the media community. If the government is subsidizing them, would media outlets lose their independence when it comes to critically analyzing the government’s policies?
The Conservative Party of Canada has been the most vocal critic, arguing financial help should not be awarded when federal elections are just around the corner.
Under Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s proposal, an independent media panel comprised of members of the news and journalism industry will flesh out the application of the moves announced. In particular, the group will recommend eligibility and parameters for the media package.
It’s understandable that unanswered questions about who gets to decide and how this money will be allocated has caused concerns. The notion, however, that supporting public interest journalism is tantamount to undermining it, is false.
Journalism has long been supported in a variety of ways around the world and right here at home. Choosing to make this a partisan issue, instead of a well-intentioned attempt to find a solution to a real problem affecting the industry, is both disingenuous and counter-productive in a democracy that depends on a healthy, vibrant, and ever-present press to cover the news.
Subsidized media is nothing new
In our concern for media credibility and objectivity, let’s not make the mistake of confusing state-owned media (think Pravda in the time of the Soviet Union or China’s CCTV) with public-sector media, which is funded by the state but has editorial independence.
Canada already has a government-funded broadcaster, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation/Société Radio-Canada, which operates as a Crown Corporation in English, French, and Inuktitut. Despite some citizens’ concerns about government funding affecting its editorial leanings, it consistently produces excellent and diverse content.
Why would media outlets that would be getting a fraction of the support the CBC receives over a five-year period be that much more susceptible to interference?
In the United States, broadcasters like PBS and NPR receive their funding through donations and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which requests and receives appropriations from the federal government of almost half a billion dollars. In the United Kingdom, the BBC has built one of the largest collaborative journalism efforts focused entirely on local news — and it’s done so while being a public service broadcaster funded by a yearly license fee.
Aside from state-assisted broadcasters, there are also well-respected and accomplished media outlets that operate as non-profits and benefit from wealthy donors and foundations. U.K.-based The Guardian, and in the U.S. ProPublica operate like this. Are they compromised because of the help that allows them to produce world-class journalism? ProPublica has won four Pulitzer Prizes for its stellar reporting since it began publishing in 2008.
You tell me.
Here in Canada, The Walrus, a critically acclaimed magazine which publishes long-form journalism on Canadian and international affairs, has been operating with a charitable status since 2005.
Alternate solutions need to be explored
Why would government assistance undermine the credibility of newspapers when the periodical fund (administered under both the Liberals and Conservative governments) didn’t undermine magazines and non-daily papers, and the book fund didn’t undermine book publishing?
Canada’s third-most-read newspaper, French-language daily La Presse, raised eyebrows earlier this year when it announced it would become a not-for-profit charitable entity, essentially bargaining on the government coming through with aid. The goal is to, ultimately, expand the newspaper’s support base, from the federal government, to major charitable donors, foundations, advertisers and the general public.
There is no real reason why the ‘social trust’ model shouldn’t be explored as a legitimate alternative to corporate ownership. Will we have to iron out the details and figure out how to ensure transparency and fairness? Yes. Are there mechanisms that can be put in place to ensure that local, public interest journalism benefits the most? Of course. Do we know what the long-term outcome will be? No. But something needs to be attempted and it’s not by sitting around solely worrying about optics that solutions will be found.
Those who love to cry “fake news” will continue to cry “fake news” regardless of where the funding is coming from, and those who critically and knowledgeably look to the media for information will continue to do so too.
Journalism is required to point our attention to what is important and why. Information, in the form of hard news, investigative reporting, and knowledgeable and thought-provoking analyses and opinion writing, is currency. It helps us navigate our way around the world, cast our vote, and casts a light on what would otherwise remain hidden. The press is not a special interest group that will be bailed out for the benefit of a few stockholders (even if in some cases it might be); it’s the primary means by which the public is kept abreast of the activities of its elected officials. The dissemination of information is a public good, and essential to a healthy and functional democracy.
The media has long relied on an outdated model of funding that, with the rise of the internet and the demise of all revenue-generating opportunities, is no longer viable. Solutions need to be found — and fast. And yet, when the Canadian government finally reacts to repeated requests for financial assistance, Conservatives and various other right-wing factions and supporters are treating it as a sinister ploy to buy the press.
It is particularly odious coming from a party which, under the Harper years, consistently undermined the media and kept it at bay, preventing it from doing its job adequately. While much of the outcry is a deliberate partisan attempt to discredit the move as hopelessly flawed and biased, much of the angst is earnest, but also based on the naive assumption the media hasn’t already been compromised.
Criticism has been selective and partial
Where were those critics, now so worried about the perception of bias or a conflict of interest, when study upon study started raising red flags about the concentration of media ownership, as is currently happening with Postmedia? This topic has been the subject of commissions going back to the 1960s. The Royal Commission on Newspapers in 1969, headed by Senator Keith Davey, sparked lively public discussions on the state of the Canadian press and the dangers of media concentration. In 1980, the Kent Commission again looked into the Canadian newspaper industry and concluded that “corporate profitability was in opposition to social responsibility, bluntly stating “industrial conglomerates produce poor newspapers” (Kent Commission, 177).
Both those commissions operated under the basic principle that the public has the right to a free flow of information and opinion from a diversity of sources. The Kent commission suggested tax measures and subsidies to offset the effects of concentration, because they concluded that “such undue concentration mocks the guarantee of freedom of expression, and freedom of the press and other media of communication, now entrenched in the Canadian Constitution.”
Is it so unthinkable that this proposed media bailout might facilitate such diversity by allowing smaller, independent players to remain in the game and per chance change it from within? As journalism has suffered, we have seen the undeniable proof of publishers influenced by advertisers and clickbait leading to the deterioration of quality journalism and the need to be first out of the gate.
When Pierre-Karl Péladeau made his foray into provincial Quebec politics and was elected leader of the Parti Québécois while owning most of Quebec’s media, where was the Conservatives' concern regarding Québecor, which had former prime minister Brian Mulroney at the helm of its board? Where was the pearl clutching about media impartiality and conflict of interest then? While the media mogul stepped down as CEO of his company to run as a candidate at the time, he was still its largest shareholder and chairman of its media and television branches..
Accepting financial aid from the government is understandably a major concern for the media’s credibility, but it’s certainly not the only one. But, this specific concern, I believe, could be greatly assuaged by ensuring transparency throughout the selection process.
This past January, a Nanos/Globe & Mail poll found that 55 per cent of Canadians support or somewhat support "additional government funding to keep local news sources open."
Predicting the exact criticism that would befall the Liberals the minute they announced financial support for Canadian media, pollster Nik Nanos warned the federal government at the time that it needed to highlight the positive impact on the production of news at the local and regional levels to make subsidizing it more palatable to the public.
“The Liberals have to be careful on this from a political standpoint, because they are at risk of falling victim to the default narrative that the media are Liberals and that this is a way to support the Liberal-oriented media," Nanos said in an interview.
"To do this, a focus on local TV, radio and newspapers is quite important. Canadians see that as less partisan."
Solutions to fund media while ensuring transparency and impartiality have been proposed in a variety of forms. Creating charitable status for media is one, as are tax credits and incentives, and the creation of publicly funded grants.
Some, like the Senate Inquiry into the Future of Public Interest Journalism, have suggested that some of that money could be funded by taxing media conglomerates like Google and Facebook since they are most responsible for diverting advertising revenue from mainstream and alternative media without focusing on the public good. The money and the willingness are there; why not figure out a way to benefit and improve the industry?
Local and public-interest journalism needs help
Over the years I have seen the reporting of local news diminish and die. The local papers, where I got my start, and which no longer exist, would report on every little minor derogation and zoning bylaw that affected a community and objectively and earnestly hold local government’s feet to the proverbial fire. They reported on the very governments that packed their papers with ads. A lot of this reporting was unsexy, but most of it was important and downright vital to a community. And there’s less and less of it every day, and we’re worse off for it.
Most journalists I know are working more hours than their income merits. People in this business, particularly the ones focusing on files like the environment, social issues, justice, women’s issues, social and racial discrimination, and unions, share a relentless and single-minded tenaciousness. They want the truth, they want to be able to tell it, and they want to be able to make a living while doing it.
Most journalists I know don’t consider their publishers or management their ultimate bosses; their loyalty lies with their readers. They work for you. And as a skeptical, cynical, ever-inquiring bunch they are hard-wired not to take kindly to interference or constant meddling in their copy. Add social media’s increased role in “call-out culture” and I can’t see how anyone could drop the ball on a story without it being pointed out by both readers and competitors. Checks and balances are, in essence, already built into the system.
Legacy media is hemorrhaging, and good, conscientious, hard-working journalists are leaving the profession daily because they can’t afford to stay. All this as the rise of “fake news” and populism is making it even more essential that we have something solid and of value to fight with. Different solutions need to be explored.
Giving Canadians incentives to subscribe to Canadian publications and allowing non-profits to issue charitable receipts doesn’t in any way interfere with the journalistic process, but it does give media a fighting chance to figure out some possible long-term solutions. There are people in the industry right now coming up with some interesting ones and we should, at the very least, hear them out.
Are we seriously worried that a little bit of financial aid is going to change the editorial voices of most mainstream and alternative media outlets, when media convergence and corporate dollars have been much more instrumental in controlling and shaping the narrative already?
Am I essentially arguing for my own job here, and for the journalists and publications I collaborate with? Certainly; but I feel no ambivalence about that. I see some stellar and necessary reporting coming out of alternative media outlets these days. Those earnestly seeking fair and transparent solutions for the media’s survival should not be derailed because of misguided accusations or concerns over optics.