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COYNE: It's when you read details of media bailout that the chill sets in

A stack of newspapers
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If you weren’t careful, you might have missed it: a brief 160-word item, tucked deep inside the budget, labelled Supporting Canadian Journalism.

Andrew Coyne
Andrew Coyne

Mostly it was a rehash of the measures already announced in November’s Fall Economic Statement: a labour cost subsidy (in the form of a tax credit — presumably this sounds more palatable) for journalism organizations, a tax credit/subsidy for digital news subscribers, and charitable tax status for news organizations that register as non-profits. Only if you turned back further still, to an annex marked Tax Measures: Supplementary Information, would you find the details.

What you would discover, if you did, was how a bad idea in principle was likely to be infinitely worse in practice.

There are any number of objections to the government getting into the game of propping up failing news organizations: that taking money from the people we cover will place us in a permanent and inescapable conflict of interest; that it will produce newspapers concerned less with appealing to readers than to grantsmen; that it will not only leave us dependent on government, but without standing to oppose such dependence in others; that it will solve none of our problems, but only encourage us to put off dealing with them; that it is all so bloody unnecessary.

But the most potent objection is that, as the government cannot possibly bail out everybody — for in the internet age what was formerly a tidy little constellation of newspapers and other outlets has exploded into a vast universe of what could plausibly be called news organizations — it must inevitably get into choosing who should receive its blessing and who should not.

Whether this is done directly by the prime minister or by his designates, whether the preference is based on partisanship, or ideology, or connections, or mere incumbency, it is not an appropriate role for government in a democracy. Subsidizing speech the government likes is not materially different from suppressing speech it doesn’t like, and indeed may have much the same effect.

You might understand that in the abstract, but it’s when you see the details of how they propose to go about it that the chill really sets in.

Henceforth, if this goes ahead, the Canadian journalism business will be divided into two groups: on the one hand, a coterie of government-approved trough-feeders adorned with little merit badges identifying them as Qualified Canadian Journalism Organizations, and on the other, everyone else. Eligibility for QCJO status is ostensibly to be decided by an “independent panel” of journalists, but the government has already dictated a list of its own not-so-independent criteria in advance.

Thus, a QCJO would have to be “organized as a corporation, partnership or trust” (no sole proprietorships), incorporated in Canada and 75 per cent Canadian-owned (no foreign-based or -owned publications); and “primarily engaged,” not only in producing “original news content,” but news content of a particular kind: “matters of general interest and reports of current events, including coverage of democratic institutions and processes,” but not “primarily focused on a particular topic such as industry-specific news, sports, recreation, arts, lifestyle or entertainment.”

So: the government will subsidize department stores, but not boutiques. Why? The same reason the 25 per cent wage subsidy, like the 15 per cent subscription subsidy, is restricted to news organizations that “primarily” produce “written content.” Because that description neatly excludes anyone outside the existing Canadian newspaper industry. And that’s who this policy is designed for: not the future of news but the past; not the scrappy startups who might save the business, but the lumbering dinosaurs who are taking it down.

That’s, as I say, before the independent panel has even been struck. What additional criteria its members will come up with can only be guessed at — the November statement suggested they would also be asked to “define and promote core journalism standards” and “define professional journalism,” which sounds even more ominous.

How independent will the panel be? How will its members be chosen, and by whom? If previous such exercises, for example the Senate selection model, are any guide, they will not be partisan Liberals, as such — just reliably progressive in outlook. Of course they will be. For they will have already selected themselves: not just by their enthusiasm for the idea of a government body picking which news organizations live or die, but by the firm conviction that they are just the sort of person who ought to be a member of that body.

And why not? Membership on the panel, as on the (presumably separate) administrative body that will “evaluate” organizations according to how well they adhere to the panel’s criteria, will carry with it extraordinary power — over businesses, over careers. Possibly news organizations will be prohibited from lobbying panel members, but nothing can prevent them from sucking up to them, whether in the issues they cover or the stances they take.

But then, again, their work would be half-done before they had started: self-selection would have already winnowed the field. What sort of news organization do you think would operate as a non-profit, the kind that charitable tax status would benefit? Would it be likely to be, say, a strong believer in the profit motive? What sort of organization would be most likely to apply for the labour subsidy? The kind that advocates for less government intervention in the economy? And yet, those organizations that refused to apply would find themselves at a competitive disadvantage relative to those that did.

The inevitable result will be to tilt the field, gradually perhaps but irreversibly, in favour of progressives and of progressive views — not necessarily congenial to the government of the day, but certainly to government, and absolutely certainly within the ambit of “acceptable” opinion. The radical, the unorthodox, the unsettling or unappealing — to some, though not to others — need not apply.

You say something like this is already in place, in broadcasting? Yes it is. I’m not sure the CBC is really an advertisement for the wonders of subsidized newsgathering. But that’s not the point. Maybe there’s a place for the CBC, or something like it, as one offering among others. The point is, if this goes through, everything will be subsidized: print, broadcast, the works — a whole industry of CBCs. If you were searching for a way to kill the news business, you couldn’t do a better job.

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