Federal Media Bailout

Federal Media Bailout

As published in the Victoria Standard: 12 March 2020

Canadian largest media organizations are demanding federal help to protect them from digital advertising competitors like Facebook and Google. Companies like Post Media, Bell and Torstar are seeking tax changes for digital companies, copyright protections for themselves and enhanced competition regulation.

Naturally, these conglomerates expressed few concerns about competition regulations while they worked to dominate Canadian journalism. In spite of this hypocrisy, their concerns highlight the dated nature of Canada’s regulatory framework for media.

The so-called Media Bailout will divide nearly $600 million among three initiatives available to qualified news outlets. Exactly what constitutes a qualified news outlet has yet to be announced by federal authorities, although majority Canadian ownership and a primary commitment to reporting general news and current events have been specified. Those decisions will be made by a federally-appointed but as yet unidentified “panel of independent journalists” most likely recruited from the corporate press.

The most costly item is a 25 per cent refundable labor tax credit designed to increase the pay of working journalists to a maximum of $55,000 by granting employers a $13,500 tax credit. Next is an opportunity allowing not-for-profit news organizations to gain charitable status from Canada Revenue Agency. This would permit smaller advocacy organizations like Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East to receive donations and issue tax receipts. As well, Canadians will receive a 15% tax credit if they buy a digital news subscription from a qualified news media outlet.

Media bailout commentary from Post Media’s Andrew Coyne is fairly representative of opinion from the right side of the ideological spectrum. It has been suggested by pundits like Coyne that the vetting process associated with federal subsidies may harm the independence of Canadian media by introducing an inevitable bias toward more progressive views. The obvious suggestion here is that these undefined progressive views represent a vague but genuine danger to public discourse.

Coyness’s critique of the admitted sketchy notion of federal panels vetting potential subsidy recipients is based on the assumption that profit-driven media corporations might suffer if they don’t apply for funding. There is no law or scientific principle that establishes financial gain as the finest motive for competent news gathering, reporting and commentary. He mentions the dreadful possibility of a “…whole industry of CBCs”. Could that really be worse than two dozen National Posts, for instance?

Coyne’s hostility to media subsidies is less interesting than his defense of what he calls unorthodox, unsettling, and radical opinion. His expressed fears about the possible exclusion of such views implies that they were already present. Instead, I would suggest that the corporate media tends to exclude genuinely radical writing, particularly when it exposes how participatory democracy is constantly undermined by the powerful.

Harmful phenomenon like elite tax evasion, insider trading and the legislative influence of corporate lobbyists receives only scant attention. I am certain that consistent public attention to such matters would be very unsettling to those who dominate the stock market as well as the real economy.

Corporate welfare critiques emanating from mainstream commentators distract people from the institutional nature of private profit at public risk. For decades, all Canadian governments have so deeply committed themselves to corporate subsidy that it has become a permanent part of the economy.

In 2015 for example, the Canadian government and the governments of Ontario, Quebec, Alberta and British Columbia made a collective investment of about $29 billion public dollars in tax benefits and direct grants to various business enterprises. By comparison, Canada spent approximately $18.6 billion on defense in the same fiscal year.
Few would deny the vital role of a free and vibrant press in a healthy democracy. Rather than a right to public discourse, press freedom literally means the right to establish a publication according to your resources. Since larger publications have greater reach and influence, it seems fair but unlikely that they would voluntarily open their pages to articulate critiques of power and privilege from a variety of perspectives.

It is worth remembering that today’s dissident opinion is tomorrow’s accepted wisdom. In a world of convenient expediency, there is no substitute for courage and determination when advocating for fairness and even decorum in public discourse.