Opinion

The government just made its toxic media bailout plan even worse

The general expectation was the Liberals would follow their established script for these sorts of things and find a widely respected and reasonably non-partisan public figure to head it up. That's not what happened

People in line for media bailout dollars shouldn't be the ones deciding who gets media dollars

The government's panel will be staffed by pretty much the same legacy news organizations and vested interests that have spent the last three years demanding the government bail them out in the first place. (Patrick Doyle/Canadian Press)

The news release put out Wednesday by Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez begins well: "The Government of Canada understands that for a democracy to function properly, it needs to have solid, independent news media."

If only he had stopped there. But instead, the release goes on for another 700 words to outline a plan whose principal effect will be to undermine the independence of the news media.

The purpose of the release was to announce the plan for the "independent panel of experts" who will be tasked with helping figure out the toughest part of the government's $600 million bailout of the print news business: namely, who should be eligible for the money?

Making a list of State Approved Media Outlets For Purposes of Getting Public Money was always going to be a Pravda-y sort of business.

The general expectation was the Liberals would follow their established script for these sorts of things and find a widely respected and reasonably non-partisan public figure to head it up. Maybe a former governor general or retired Supreme Court justice could be cajoled into doing it, though a former newspaper publisher or head of a journalism school might do in a pinch. In any event, the icky politics of the gig would be laundered through some eminence's reputation.  

Instead, Rodriguez has handed deciding the membership of the panel over to eight associations, a group that includes News Media Canada (a newspaper industry lobby group), a handful of press councils and professional organizations, and two media unions including Unifor, an organisation whose leadership has actively campaigned essentially on behalf of the Liberals.

That is, the panel will be staffed by pretty much the same legacy news organizations and vested interests that have spent the last three years demanding the government bail them out in the first place.

Each organization is invited to name a member to the panel, and that member's job will be to advise the minister on the eligibility criteria for the tax measures in order to ensure that they are "efficient, transparent and fair."

The rationale that the news release gives for the choice of these groups is that they "represent the majority of Canadian news media publishers and journalists" — but this only underscores how bizarre it is. When handing out public money, it's not normal practice to invite the expected prime beneficiaries of the handout to determine the criteria for who ought to get the handout. Try asking your kids to hand out Halloween candy sometime and see how that goes.

It boggles the mind that the Liberals have chosen this route in helping them decide who will be eligible for the money. (Erik White/CBC )

If there's any good news here, it is that it is now dead clear to everyone just why the Liberals' bailout package is such a toxic initiative. The news media play a number of useful roles in a healthy democracy, but one that is often cited is the job of "holding power to account." One very common way journalists do this is by pointing out conflicts of interest — in particular, the conflicts that arise when public money is being handed out by people who stand to gain by handing it out.

There's a tendency at this point for both supporters and opponents of the media bailout to point to the existence of the CBC as support for their respective positions. There is certainly a conversation to be had about the independence of public broadcasting and the place of the CBC's particular funding model in that conversation. But the point here is not to debate state funding for media or to re-litigate the merits of the bailout — those horses are running free.

What is at issue is the proposed composition of the panel, and there is no question that the members of any organization that plays along with this panel are in principle ceding their right to object to these sorts of conflicts of interest. Which is to say, they are abandoning one of the prime democratic functions of a free press.

That is why none of these organizations should agree to be on the panel. Of course most of them probably don't see it that way — people in blatant conflicts rarely do. That is why it falls to the only actually independent national organization named to the panel, the Canadian Association of Journalists, to step up.

In its corporate "aims and objectives" the CAJ describes itself as "the national voice of Canadian journalists" and declares that it "upholds the public's right to know" and supports investigative journalism.  In the name of these principles, the CAJ leadership must refuse to participate in this panel.

It would have been better if this bailout had never happened. Having been put in the budget, it would have been better if the bailout had been set up in a way that didn't involve having some official government-appointed panel help decide who is in and who is out. But having gone this far down the path, it boggles the mind that the Liberals have chosen this route in helping them decide who will be eligible for the money.

You could spend some time coming up with suggestions to expand the diversity of the panel's membership (someone from academia, more digital representation, a civil liberties watchdog, etc.) but that would miss the point. Because compared to this actual plan, literally any other method of choosing the panel's membership would be less inclined to undermine public trust in the media's independence.

Calm down, you might say, the panel is in the end just advisory, and the final decision about who gets the bailout money will be decided by the politicians. To this, the only response is that it's a sign of how much we've lost our bearings when a politician deciding who in the media gets a cheque is seen as the more principled alternative to leaving it up to a bunch of conflicted stakeholders.


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About the Author

Andrew Potter is former Editor of the Ottawa Citizen.

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