Right-wing newspaper owners want your tax money to subsidize their obsolete, mismanaged, and highly biased publications -- and it's starting to look as if they're going to get it.
As predicted in this space nine months ago when the Trudeau-government-commissioned report of the so-called Public Policy Forum urging corporate welfare for foundering mainstream media first appeared, the full court press is now being vigorously applied to get your tax dollars to bail out Canada's newspaper industry.
Don't assume that just because Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has loudly ruled out a tax on Internet providers to finance this boondoggle that his federal Liberals don't view the boondoggle itself with favour.
On Friday, a newspaper publishers' lobby group called "News Media Canada" put on a push for the federal government fork over $350 million to create a fund to bail out the print industry and its spectacularly unsuccessful online advertising business, from which no one wants to buy ads.
This was clearly timed to coincide with the release the day before of the report of Parliament's Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage, "Disruption: Change and Churning in Canada's Media Landscape." That report, intoned The Globe and Mail, a potential beneficiary of a newspaper industry bailout, "represents the federal government's attempt to find a sustainable model for funding Canadian journalism."
The newspaper publishers want you to pay up to 35 per cent of the salary of every journalist working for a mainstream media publisher, to be capped (for now) at $85,000 a year. Not all of them, of course, will actually be "journalists." Many will be managers or writers of advertising copy disguised as journalism.
Paul Godfrey, CEO of Postmedia, which likely stands to be the largest beneficiary of such a scheme, praised the Parliamentary report. "They were smart enough to notice that if they did nothing there will be no media in Canada," he said. (Emphasis added.) This statement, of course, is obvious baloney. Godfrey also asked: "You think we like cutting people because we just don't need them?" That quote may have been garbled, or it may be unintentionally telling.
Either way, count on it, industry bosses also expect to be able to continue mismanaging their newspapers as they have for generations, including their near total exclusion of progressive voices and their union busting and other appalling human resources practices.
Notwithstanding the latest details, what the Parliamentary committee and the publishers have in mind is pretty much the same thing proposed by last year's report of the so-called Public Policy Forum. The PPF is led by Edward Greenspon, a former senior Globe and Mail manager. The proposals in the PPF's "Shattered Mirror" clearly originated in the corporate boardrooms of the media industry long before the likes of you and I heard anything about them.
Arguments in favour of the planned bailout -- which the industry, of course, insists is not a bailout -- can be summarized as follows:
1. It's not our fault; the Internet did it
2. Real and responsible news is worth saving
3. There will be a catastrophe if you don't bail us out
4. Canadian democracy will suffer
There are four things wrong with this argument:
1. It is their fault, at least it's not just the Internet
2. Real and responsible news hasn't been provided by Canadian mainstream media for 20 years
3. Not bailing them out won't be a catastrophe, or even much of a problem
4. Giving them money and letting them carry on as they do now likely will harm Canadian democracy
Consider: As I wrote nine months ago, nobody had more warning of the extent and nature of the coming digital revolution than the Canadian newspaper industry, and it has turned the wrong direction at every step along the way to its current disastrous destination.
Or, as Andrew Coyne put it in a surprisingly on-point commentary in the National Post Friday, "this is not a case of market failure, but industry failure. Nothing whatever prevents readers from buying what we are selling. There is only our own proven incompetence at providing them with a product worth paying for. As an industry we have made every mistake it is possible to make, sometimes twice. Now we're going to make you pay for them." (You'd almost think Coyne reads this blog!)
Consider: The anti-social role played here in Alberta by spectacularly mismanaged Postmedia, whose shares are now worth about two-thirds of a penny each, but whose executives are paid millions in salary and bonuses. As English Canada's largest newspaper publisher, Postmedia will likely be the principal beneficiary of this scheme, even though its biased news coverage, hysterical denunciations of Rachel Notley and her government's polices, and daily support of the far-right Opposition parties have now gone completely over the top.
Newspaper owners will no doubt promise to use their free money deliver just a little bit more than their current formula of crime, crime, more crime and anti-NDP propaganda provided free by the shills at the Fraser Institute, but don't count on that ever actually happening.
Meanwhile, in another of the many articles softening us up for this idea, former CBC and Globe and Mail journalist Paul Adams, now a Carleton University journalism teacher, wrote in iPolitics that "in the steady coverage of their beats, newspaper reporters don't only act as 'watchdogs' -- calling out problems when they intrude. They also function as 'scarecrows' -- deterring trouble at city halls and legislatures by their mere presence."
The trouble with this is that most Canadian newspapers -- and in particular Postmedia's -- all but eliminated the beat system the better part of 20 years ago. There are no watchdogs, and damn few scarecrows. There is no shortage of corporate cheerleaders and right-wing shills, however.
And what about those of us who have already successfully invested in digital platforms -- especially small independents? Naturally, there will be nothing for us. This scheme is meant to favour the big players, and so it will.
Coyne frets needlessly that the government handouts his industry is demanding will inexorably lead to newspapers "much less interested in free markets, limited government, and … much more congenial to arguments for state intervention."
If only it were so! Alas, I'm afraid what we'll get instead is the same old stream of market-fundamentalist drivel and front-page editorials penned in Toronto demanding that we ignorant provincials in "the regions" vote for Stephen Harper 2.0 when next we have the chance to exercise our franchise.
Progressive voices will remain tightly shut out and a great cry of "freedom of the press" will go up if anyone dares to suggest that he who pays the piper should get to call the tune.
We have come a long way from 1970 and 1981, when a Senate Committee and a Royal Commission on the newspaper industry recommended solid measures that would have gone a long way to prevent the decline of news and make newspapers sustainable. The industry fought hard to protect its right to corporate concentration, plus the stream of unmarketable right-wing drivel it promoted as a result.
Now they are demanding a handout to float the pro-market claptrap and right-wing propaganda no one will voluntarily pay for. This is ironic, to say the least.
This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.
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