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Worth boycotting: Ottawa's plan to put journalism on life support

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Line of newspaper boxes. Photo: Steve Harris/Flickr

When I worked for newspapers, publishers would turn purple if anyone suggested they ought to accept money from the government for anything other than a paid ad. And there were certainly plenty of those back in the day.

We need to be independent from those we cover, they used to say. We will never compromise our journalistic principles or let anyone tell us what to cover or how to cover it.

Well, things sure have changed, haven't they?

Where do I begin.

Governments don't advertise in newspapers anymore. That's one thing. Oh yes, and the whole newspaper business happens to be rapidly going down the drain, with almost all newsrooms furiously shedding journalists' jobs in order to match the exodus of readers.

Those publishers? Now they're holding their begging bowls out at the gates of Parliament, so desperate for handouts they're prepared to give away whatever it takes, including journalism's professional integrity.

I wish I could say that the federal government's $595-million package to sustain Canada's news media will accomplish even one of its stated goals. It won't. Not the innovate part. Not the new business model part. Not the public service part. And not the survival part.

Funding will be available only to "qualified Canadian journalism organizations," and there's the rub. Who do you suppose gets to hand out the qualifications?

Well, according to last month's federal budget, an "independent panel" is supposed to lay out eligibility criteria for all of this. Of course, the government will select the members of that panel, so the word "independent" seems a bit of a stretch.

Presumably, those appointed to this body, which has no name yet but might fittingly be called the You're In If We Say So Commissariat, will be journalists and not business people or bureaucrats. But how could any self-respecting journalist ever agree to sit on such a body? I certainly wouldn't.

Because Ottawa has already decided who will qualify for financial aid. Only news outlets which are "primarily engaged in the production of written content," according to the budget document. Organizations "carrying on a broadcast undertaking" will not qualify for the tax credit. Additionally, these media outlets "must not be primarily focused on a particular topic such as industry-specific news, sports, recreation, arts, lifestyle or entertainment" and must also "employ two or more journalists."

That seems to rule out most of the small digital platforms that have sprung up across the country to take the place of coverage deemed expendable by cost-cutting traditional media outlets.

But there's another reason for journalists to boycott this process. The independent panel is also tasked with defining what professional journalism is, and "defining and promoting core journalism standards."

Wait a minute.

A government-appointed panel is going to dictate what practices journalists should follow when covering the news? There's an implication it will cut off funding to anyone who doesn't comply. How is that going to serve anyone's public interest?

Defining journalistic standards and promoting them should be a job for the news industry, it says here. Governments don't get to define how lawyers do their jobs or who is allowed to call themselves one, do they? Lawyers do that. They're self-governing. So are doctors. So are engineers. In fact, self-governance seems to be a requirement for anyone calling themselves "professionals," as many journalists like to do.

Secondly, Canadian journalists already have their standards written down. The Canadian Association of Journalists has a comprehensive set of ethical and practical standards available to anyone who wants to look here. It is updated from time to time by a highly qualified ethics advisory panel made up of journalists and academics.

Furthermore, Canadian journalism already has a body to adjudicate complaints from members of the public. The National Newsmedia Council was set up by member news organizations across Canada and upholds CAJ standards and any others used by its members.

What's more, these journalistic standards have been recognized by Canadian courts. Whenever I have been asked to deliver expert witness testimony in cases involving the media -- and I have done this more than 15 times over the last 20 years -- I cite these well-recognized journalistic standards so courts can determine whether news outlets are entitled to use the "responsible communication in the public interest" libel defence.

Judging from the enthusiastic response of publishers to Ottawa's funding announcement, they seem to think they've won the lottery. But I'm forced to ask, why did they give up so much to get it?

That seems to be a question for News Media Canada, the industry association that led the push to get a federal bailout. Its website says it represents over 800 trusted titles in every province and territory. It adds: "As an advocate in public policy, News Media Canada enables daily and community media outlets from coast to coast to speak with a unified voice when promoting their interests to governments, regulators and the general public."

Bob Cox is publisher of the Winnipeg Free Press and chair of News Media Canada. In an article for the National Post shortly after the budget announcement, he said: "It was a tough hill to climb. To get to the top, we had to persuade the Liberals they could fund journalism without propping up bad business models, and fund news media to transition to the future, not to maintain the status quo."

He didn't mention that his organization paid big bucks to hire one of Ottawa's leading lobbyists to help achieve the deal. Isabel Metcalfe was once by singled out by Maclean's magazine as the second-busiest lobbyist in Ottawa, and the federal lobbyist register lists 76 meetings she had with government ministers and officials since 2016 on behalf of News Media Canada. She is well connected, having worked for three previous Liberal prime ministers as a research assistant and speechwriter. Her husband Herb is a longtime Liberal insider.

It's no mystery why almost all of the federal cash will go to daily newspapers -- the ones laying off all those reporters to protect their bottom lines -- and none to broadcasters or small digital start-ups.

Cox used rather suspect logic to argue that the promised tax credits will not interfere with journalism's independence. Ottawa, he said, "has a long tradition of directly funding news media without interfering in reporting. It provides more than $1 billion a year to the CBC and $71 million to magazines, community newspapers and ethnic, farm, business and Indigenous publications. This funding did not put Ottawa in charge of journalism in Canada. The new money won't either." 

Well, yes, but the money handed out to magazines, newspapers and Indigenous publications is to subsidize mailing costs. It has nothing to do with news coverage.

Canadian journalist Jen Gerson, writing in the Washington Post, disputes almost everything Cox says. "From what I can see, it will only lead to a national professional standard or credential that will inevitably centralize control over the media in a country where the media is already profoundly consolidated."

I think more journalists should be asking basic journalistic questions about Ottawa's handout. If a federally appointed panel is going to define journalism standards and who gets to call themselves professional journalists, is that not equivalent to being licensed by the state? And is someone licensed by the state even able to produce journalism that serves the public?

And one more good question: who among the publications now lining up for federal cash is even going to think about publishing something like that?

From media executive to media critic, John Miller has seen journalism from all sides (and he often doesn't like what he sees). He draws on his 40 years in news, including five years as deputy managing editor of the Toronto Star, and 10 years as chairman of the School of Journalism at Ryerson University. His 1998 book Yesterday's News documented how newspapers were forfeiting their role as our primary information source. This article originally appeared on John's blog, www.thejournalismdoctor.ca.

Photo: Steve Harris/Flickr

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