As It Happens

Heritage minister defends putting anti-Conservative union on $600M journalism fund panel

Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez is defending a decision to give a union that has actively campaigned against the Conservative Party a role in determining which news organizations are eligible for government funding.

Unifor — which represents 12,000 news industry workers — has billed itself as 'the resistance'

Minister of Canadian Heritage and Multiculturalism Pablo Rodriguez. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)
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Transcript

Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez is defending a decision to give a union that has actively campaigned against the Conservative Party a role in determining which news organizations are eligible for government funding.

Eight Canadian organizations will select representatives to sit on an advisory panel that will decide how the government should dole out $600-million media support fund, the government announced Wednesday.

They are News Media Canada, the Association de la presse francophone, the Quebec Community Newspaper Association, the National Ethnic Press and Media Council of Canada, the Canadian Association of Journalists, the Fédération professionnelle des journalistes du Québec, Unifor and the Fédération nationale des communications.

Unifor — a union that has actively campaigned against the Conservatives under both Stephen Harper and Andrew Scheer — represents more than 12,000 journalists and media workers in Canada. 

In a statement posted to Facebook, Unifor said critics are mischaracterizing its role on the panel. The union says it will help define the criteria through which the funds will be allocated, but won't be directly involved in deciding who gets the money.

"There is a lot at stake as we work to protect and preserve our news industry in Canada and after years of discussion we finally have a path forward," the union said.

As It Happens has reached out to Unifor for comment.

Rodriguez spoke to As It Happens host Carol Off about the new panel. Here is part of their conversation. 

I don't know if you had a chance to read Chris Selley at the National Post ... who says that that your putting Unifor on this panel is like putting the fox in charge of the chickens. How do you respond?

We chose different organizations that represent journalists and different media across the country with different regions being represented, both official languages, the ethnic press.

We wanted to make sure that it was representative of the industry, and that's the reason why they're all there.

Why Unifor?

It represents thousands of employees from the news sector. 

But it also represents a very, very strong bias, doesn't it? Because Unifor has made it quite clear that they call themselves "the resistance." They have put out publicity. I'm sure you've seen their publicity: "The resistance: Welcome to Andrew Scheer's worst nightmare." If you want to have a panel that appears to be unbiased, how does that help you?

This is Andrew Scheer's opinion, and ... 

Excuse me. No, no. This is not Andrew Scheer's opinion. I'm looking at a picture put out. This is Unifor Canada's picture.

We're talking about professionals, which is the case of all the groups there are on this list.

And the reason why we wanted to intervene is because professional journalism is one of the pillars of democracy. And the Conservatives may think that, "Well, you know what? We shouldn't do anything and then let them all die." 

On the contrary, we're saying, "No, we have to be there to support them with one clear principle — to respect the freedom and independence of the press."

Unifor posted this image in a November 2018 tweet that read: 'Unifor’s National Executive Board started planning for the federal election today @AndrewScheer #canlab #canpoli.' (@UniforTheUnion/Twitter)

That's not the issue here. The issue is that you said you were going to put together a panel, an advisory panel, to decide who is going to get the funds, the $600 million worth of support to the media in this country, and that you would have an unbiased and an independent panel.

Yes, which is the case.

Mr. Rodriguez, have you not seen the publicity that Unifor is putting out calling themselves "the resistance" and saying, "Welcome to Andrew Scheer's worst nightmare." Have you not seen that?

I know what you're talking about.

The Conservatives are saying that Unifor, any people working or any journalists, can be bought by this program, which is not the case, and I think it's an insult to professional journalists that build their career on integrity and on independence and on professionalism.

We're talking about the people on the panel. We're not talking about the journalists who might be benefiting from these funds. We saw that Unifor, it was quite partisan during the 2015 election campaign, that they put out attack ads against Stephen Harper's Conservatives, which surely helped you get elected. So, again, we're back to this problem of an appearance of bias. That if you have, if you are giving this position to Unifor, to the union, to decide who is going to get this funding, when it's an organization that has clearly come out ... going against your political enemies, that's a problem, isn't it?

This is repeating what Andrew Scheer is saying. And, again, I have to disagree with you, because if you look at the role the associations are playing, the role ... the journalists are playing, they're there to ask the tough questions — just exactly like what you're doing.

And also, this proves my point that we need that type of journalism of tough questions. And maybe the Conservatives, they don't want to hear those questions, but I think they're absolutely necessary in our democracy. So that's why the panel is in place. That's why we're moving forward.

But you've asked this panel to help decide who is a proper journalist and what's a proper news outlet and who is worthy of these funds. And who you've put on the panel that gets to decide that an organization that has a very, very strong, very partisan political statement.

But you keep repeating the same thing.

Because I'm not getting a very good answer from you.

I am answering your question and I'm saying that it's a panel with different people there from different sides of the industry, all representing professional journalists.

I guess what I'm trying to get to ... is that you want people to trust this fund, and Canadians want journalism they can trust. They want to believe that it's unbiased. But if the critics of your fund have always raised the alarm about any possible bias, that's why you wanted to have an independent panel. But haven't you just walked into that trap?

No, these panels represent people from all sides of industry. It represents work as a journalist, it represents the owners, it represents francophones, anglophones, the different regions, the ethnic media. It represents everybody.

And you don't think that there is a bias here, or a perception of bias, if you have as one of your panel members — and I know I'm asking you this once again, and I apologize for that, but I still haven't got a clear answer — do you not think that this is a problem of bias?

But I did answer your question. 

You don't think that there's any bias on the part of Unifor, that Unifor doesn't have a political agenda?

No, you're saying that the journalists they represent have their own agenda.

No, no, I'm not saying that.

Yes, you're saying that. 

I'm sorry, sir, I'm not. The panel you put together has Unifor as one of its members. And the question is that an organization that is clearly partisan and anti-Conservative, and have made that very clear, we're asking if that's an appropriate party to have on this panel?

We're saying that we need people from all walks of life. In this case ... people that represent the workers, the employers, the regions, the official languages and all of that to be represented there to make sure that this panel represents all of them, and that it takes neutral decisions on professional journalism.

Because we need professional journalism in our society. You're there to ask the tough questions. Again, that's exactly what you're doing and this is what we need.

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from CBC News. Produced by Kevin Robertson. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

 

Corrections

  • In earlier version of this story said the advisory panel would will be directly involved in allocating government funding to news organizations. In fact, the government will ask the panel to help establish the criteria to determine which media organizations will be eligible for the tax measures.
    May 24, 2019 5:28 PM ET

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