If the heritage minister had explicitly set out to bolster the notion that Canadian media are bought and paid for by the Liberals, he could have done no better
It is difficult to know where to begin to deplore the process by which the federal government will decide which media organizations to subsidize and which not to. So let’s start with Unifor’s involvement.
“Unifor?” you may ask. “The flamboyantly anti-Conservative labour union?”
Indeed. The mega-union representing 315,000 workers across the country, including a large percentage of anglophone Canadian journalists at legacy media outlets — and also autoworkers, because that totally makes sense — will nominate one of eight people to an “independent panel of experts.” The panel will decide the criteria for divvying up tax breaks adding up to some $600 million in public funding.
It is questionable of the government to ask any journalists’ union to weigh in on this — the Féderation nationale des communications (FNC), which counts many francophone journalists among its members, also gets a vote. After all, the idea here is supposed to be to help media organizations adapt to new market conditions, and these unions represent people who have every interest in riding dying business models to retirement.
But Unifor is the union that turned nakedly partisan during the 2015 election campaign, funding lie-filled attack ads against Stephen Harper’s Conservatives and mortifying many journalist members whose credibility depends on their perceived political independence. More recently, Unifor’s executives have collectively styled themselves “Andrew Scheer’s worst nightmare,” eliciting more futile pleas from journalists to shut up.
Well, those were the days. Now the government that benefited from Unifor’s partisan largesse has asked it for help deciding who’s a proper journalist and what’s a proper news outlet, and thus worthy of government largesse! If Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez had explicitly set out to bolster the notion that Canadian media are bought and paid for by the Liberal Party of Canada, he could have done no better.
So, who else? The Quebec Community Newspaper Association, the Association de la presse francophone (which represents French-language publications outside Quebec) and the National Ethnic Press and Media Council get relatively inoffensive votes. But then there’s News Media Canada. Whereas Unifor dubiously claims to represent the interests of journalists at legacy media outlets, News Media Canada most definitely represents the interests of those outlets’ publishers — and has lobbied the feds fulsomely on their behalf.
Having successfully obtained a taxpayer bailout for their struggling companies, they now get to decide the terms. Nice.
And then there’s the Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ) and the Fédération professionnelle des journalistes du Québec (FPJQ), which ostensibly exist to promote excellence in journalism and therefore ought to be ashamed to go anywhere near this farce. But the latter has long flirted with pernicious views about journalistic independence. In 2011, Université Laval professor Dominique Payette released a report full of bad ideas to bolster journalism in an age of digital disruption. They included restricting government advertising to outlets that were members of the Quebec Press Council and, most notably, certifying “professional journalists” and offering them privileged access to government information and sources.
The CAJ opposed the idea, arguing — correctly — that “divid(ing) journalists into classes, backed by legislation, and giving one group rights and privileges denied to the other is a fundamental interference by government in true freedom of the press.” But the FPJQ initially supported it , when it thought it would be allowed to decide who got the badges and decoder rings. It only backed out when it emerged the government itself wanted a say in that.
Other groups, including the FNC, sometimes lack even those most basic qualms. In a 2016 “brief regarding the future of regional news,” submitted to the federal heritage committee, it recommended not just that the government distribute giant wads of cash to struggling media outlets, but also that it “strengthen the regulation of the media and their responsibility to inform.” These people now have a seat at the table deciding how to distribute government money, ostensibly in the name of strengthening press freedom. The mind boggles.
Back in the day, credentialism and preferential government advertising rules struck people like me as terrible incentives for journalists and their employers to stay in the government’s good books, and serious risks to their independence and perception thereof. How young and naïve we were: Now the Liberals literally want to cut media organizations cheques, and people claiming to act in journalists’ and journalism’s best interests are climbing all over each other not just to be first in line, but to decide who goes home empty-handed. It’s a nightmare, and Rodriguez seems to have found the worst conceivable way to make it come true. If the Liberals actually want to help the media they should use the blowback as an opportunity to ditch the whole idea.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019