Listen Up! The government should not be giving money to independent news organizations

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Hugh Mackenzie
Huntsville Doppler

A Brief Rant

Every once in a while, I get really tired of governments messing around in things they really have no right to get involved in. They all do it at one time or another and they do it with impunity and of course, with other people’s money.

Take for example, the $600 million smackaroos the Federal Government is shelling out to subsidize the news media. They are setting up a “panel” to decide who should get the goodies. It has about as much chance of being impartial as the process that Prime Minister Trudeau developed to select so-called Independent Senators.  You just have to look at their voting record to see how “independent” they really are. The panel for subsidizing journalism will be no different. Just watch.

What is especially illuminating, is that Unifor, the largest public sector Union in Canada, has been given an important role to play in picking the Panel of representatives who will advise the Government on who should be eligible for their media handouts. This is the same Unifor that actively and openly campaigns against the Conservative Party and Andrew Scheer. What a coincidence!

Warren Kinsella is a lawyer and a former Liberal back-room boy. He is no fan of our current Prime Minister, but a Liberal all the same. He is a pundit and a Public Affairs Consultant. Here is what he has to say about government handouts to media.

“As someone who is a columnist for two great newspapers and as someone who is acutely aware that newspapers have been and remain in serious financial trouble, I say it is a mistake and a conflict of interest for media organizations to take money from the governments they cover.”

Kinsella is right. It is an even greater mistake for the Government to give out the money in the first place. It smacks of potential favouritism and manipulation. It is a roadmap to buy votes with taxpayer dollars. And is it just another coincidence that the process is underway just before a federal election when political media coverage is at its height? Sometimes politics stink!

I have a problem with government subsidies in the first place, except in rare occasions, where drought or tariffs or other national disasters affect an entire sector of the economy. They should be the exception and not the rule.  The bar should be very high and always in the public interest and never for personal gain or political purposes. In my view, subsidizing the news media comes nowhere near to reaching that bar.

With the exception of the CBC, most news outlets in Canada are privately owned. They compete in the marketplace, just like everyone else. When the marketplace changes, they must change to meet those realities, just like everyone else. For some to get handouts from government, especially on a subjective basis, when others do not, is simply not the way things should be done.

John Honderich is Chairman of Torstar, whose flagship publication is the Toronto Star, probably Canada’s most significant left of centre newspaper.  They also own Metroland, whose community publications across Ontario, include weeklies in Gravenhurst, Bracebridge and Huntsville.

John Honderich was one of the loudest voices when it came to lobbying the Trudeau Government for subsidies for the news media, utilizing not only the Toronto Star, but also their Metroland community papers. He is a Liberal, lobbying a Liberal Government and obviously, he was heard.

It will be interesting to see how much of the $600 million in Government media subsidies go to Torstar. It will also be interesting to see over time, how this affects non-subsidized, local news sources in small communities, that have to compete on the same playing field without the benefit of the subsidy.

Somehow, it just doesn’t seem right.

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15 Comments

  1. Greg Reuvekamp on

    any left of center person who thinks this Liberal plan is sound, just imagine how things could change in the near future? How would you like to see the Koch Brothers funded Fraser Institute get the same chance to decide who gets the money? How would you like to see several millions of dollars given to Ezra Levant so he can improve the Rebel Media’s reach? If those scenarios are offensive to you, then perhaps you’re starting to come around as to why this is wrong.

  2. Government , all Governments , should be funding only needs and not wants until balanced budgets are a reality . Ludicrous spending !

  3. Ralph Cliff on

    You control the news media. You control the propaganda. You control the people.
    We are told all the other forms of government are bad?
    Mr. Trudeau’s finest moment.

  4. Rob Millman on

    Of course, there are no end of precedent-setting, political subsidies; chief among them being the Liberals’ steadfast support of Bombardier. Would this be the case if Bombardier’s headquarters were in Ontario? One thinks not. Furthermore, CBC radio is annually threatened with extinction; owing to shrinking subsidies from the federal government. As an apolitical medium, which unites and informs all Canadians, it is the only news/opinion source worthy of our tax dollars.

  5. Murray Christenson on

    It’s no wonder the budget isn’t balancing itself. This is outrageous. Combined with the $400 million+ increase Trudeau gave the CBC, we the taxpayers, are in for over a billion so Justin can buy his op eds. To do this in an election year is beyond comprehension, he clearly has zero moral or ethical compass.

  6. Brian Tapley on

    Hugh is right. No government giveaways needed, not any!
    They never seem to be fairly given away.

  7. Paul Kuebler on

    It is unbelievable that $600 Million could be going to the media, in a totally partisan way. IT IS DISGUSTING!
    If a paper costs $5 to operate and to take a profit, then so be it. We the Public have been hoodwinked into thinking that gas at the station actually costs $1.25/L, when we are also paying MASSIVE subsidies to the oil industry as a whole.
    We need to start paying what it really costs to buy a paper, buy gas, buy milk and stop these subsidies, unless as Mr. Mackenzie suggests in cases of unusual occurrences for a specific sector of the economy.
    Thanks for the heads up on this one, Mr. Mackenzie.

  8. Karen Wehrstein on

    If this measure does anything to solve the problem of concentration of media ownership, I’m for it. When one person or business can own hundreds of newspapers or TV stations, what the public gets to see is limited to what the owner considers acceptable. That makes perspectives counter the owners’ interests — however pertinent and valuable — invisible.
    .
    (One thing it is crucial for the public to understand about how media manipulation of the public discourse actually happens: it’s not usually through false facts (at least outside of Fox “News”) or even the slant of stories (which is easy to detect). It is through ***story selection and emphasis***… what gets on the front page, what goes on page 44, and what is left out completely even though it might affect your life. This is why your best bet is taking in a multiplicity of media, including ones outside the mainstream and/or not corporate owned.)
    .
    Concentration of media ownership was identified as a crisis in journalism by a Royal Commission in 1980, when I was taking it at Ryerson, and has only gotten worse. Not seeing anything about it in this column, are there measures against it that are being left out? Let’s see…
    .
    “It’s expected most of the expense will be for a new tax credit for media organizations to support the labour costs of producing original news content, but finance officials said specific amounts won’t be available until eligibility details have been decided.” CBC https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/news-industry-economic-update-1.4915113 This would be good, because one of the first things that struggling media do is cut reporter jobs. (They sure as heck don’t cut the advertising sales department.) The less original news content, the more they ape each other and the fewer perspectives the public sees. Investigative journalism especially is very labour-intensive and therefore pricey — but we all know it is very much needed!
    .
    Aha — “Plus, the government will allow non-profit media organizations to apply for charitable status, enabling them to seek donations for which they could issue tax receipts.” (Same article.) Definitely a way to ease concentration of ownership. Why didn’t you mention that, Hugh?
    .
    You are absolutely right to note that there is no such thing as objectivity in media — what must be striven for is *accuracy* and *relevance* — but that belies your argument that Unifor should not be represented on the selection panel because they’re opposed to Conservative policies and therefore somehow not independent. It’s as specious as implying that only Liberal governments appoint people who agree with them to the Senate, as if the Tories have never done that, or demonizing the Star because they’re “left of centre,” as if that makes them evil somehow, or they even are (I see the Star as centrist, actually). Everyone involved in this process is going to have political opinions, and if they disagree with each other, that’s diversity, which you should *want*, Hugh. (After all, Doppler commentary has it!)
    .
    Apropos of striving for accuracy, Hugh, Unifor is not the largest public sector union in Canada, but the largest *private*-sector union in Canada. They have journalists as members, which I presume is why they were invited. Incidentally, anyone heard of a labour reporter? A reporter whose beat is unions and what they’re doing? To younger people: there used to be such a creature, and a lot more coverage of unions. That has changed. See above paragraphs about concentration of media ownership and story selection.
    .
    Here’s a perspective you don’t see much: unions preserve nations and societies. Why? Because their job is to oppose the increase of income inequality, which when allowed to become extreme, destroys nations and societies. Unions should be appreciated, lauded and encouraged for this reason!
    .
    Government subsidies of business initiatives that are in the public interest are a longstanding Canadian tradition and a big part of how the nation was built, so I can’t agree with blanket criticism of them. However for the taxpayers to get appropriate bang for our bucks they should be effective. That’s my one concern about this one, that the government might be throwing good money after bad in the Internet age, that news media perhaps could thrive through somehow using the Net better, and should be figuring out how. I wonder if any analysis has been undertaken determining exactly why which news media are struggling, i.e. how much it relates to people’s attention being drawn away by the Internet, or something else. The best answer might not be an injection of bucks but eliminating the use of paper.
    .
    One last note, re this: “It will also be interesting to see over time, how this affects non-subsidized, local news sources in small communities, that have to compete on the same playing field without the benefit of the subsidy.” Yes, it will, so I hope there’s some representation of such outlets — like this one — in the process.

  9. I agree Hugh.

    What has also bothered me for some time (decades) is the increasing loss of independent media ownership and growth/concentration of mega-media ownership. How many independently owned print newspapers are left in Muskoka? One? I glance over many general media news items but focus on CBC https://www.cbc.ca/news and RT https://www.rt.com/ – besides they are both free. Most major US news media are extremely biased and too frequently much of their so called “impartial” news is filled with biased lies. It’s sad that people put up with this. Sadder still that many do not even see the lies.

  10. Charles Wilson on

    Dear Hugh

    Governments have been spending millions supporting media since media first started influencing voting. Subsidized postage rates for printed matter being just the most pervasive. In the days when news was printed rural media depended on this for its very existence.

    The massive tax pass given to Netflix, arguably not media at all, being but the latest.

    The quid pro quo is all the free aditorial space allocated. I know you know what I mean as one if the early aditorial stories is being freighted currently in your columns about the local mayor potentially seeking the Tory nomination to replace Mr $140 million legacy G20 funding
    Aitchison himself tells you this is not a real story when he says “…. everybody knows what I am going to do if I get the nomination.”
    Snouts down, trotters in boys. Election ads on the horizon.
    And don’t worry, Hugh you’ll get your share.

  11. Edward Johnson on

    Well Hugh, I guess it depends on whether you want print media (particularly, broadsheet newspapers) in Canada.

    Every broadsheet paper in Canada is in trouble. And a primary factor is the syphoning off of advertising revenue by the big-name social media companies – the FANGs (Facebook, Amazon, Netflix,Google). These companies make little contribution to economy and our society, and pay effectively no tax here.

    I believe an important driver of the Federal Government’s initiative is the near-collapse of La Presse, the only significant broadsheet paper left in Quebec. It was placed in a trust a couple of years ago to stave off bankruptcy, and it continues to need help to survive. Had it failed, Quebec’s sole major French language media group would have been Quebecor, whose newspapers, TV network and cable system are controlled by the Separatist Pierre-Karl Peladeau.

    So we can do nothing about it, or we can take a shot at staving off the silencing of important Canadian print media by using the few public policy tools available.

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