Today, many believe that the media and the news are in crisis. In that environment, the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage undertook a year-long study of the media and local communities. The witnesses gave ample evidence of dynamic change in the media and news environment. Sources and outlets have proliferated online, while the old carriers were eroding in the face of new competition.
In the evidence of many witnesses before the committee, a yearning for the ‘good ole days’ of TV news and newspapers was unmistakeable. Overwhelmingly, the recommendations of the majority on the committee have embraced an effort to turn back the clock, and keep things the way they were – to try and replicate the ways of the analogue world in the new digital world. This is a fool’s errand.
The world is changing. Change brings disruption. Some see this disruption as a problem.
But higher taxes and government control of the news is not the answer to the problem. Efforts to turn back the clock to an earlier era are doomed to meet with failure.
In the early days of Canada’s Confederation, newspapers were numerous, and generally spoke from a clear political perspective. Their ‘news’ was delivered through that partisan lens. Political parties even published lists for their supports of the newspapers that could be ‘trusted.’
Over time, journalism evolved. Newspapers (later joined by radio and television) strived to represent themselves as ‘objective’ and ‘fact-driven’. Different perspectives, however, continued, as the agenda-setting role of the limited media outlets served as a filter. Evidence of the power of the media in our society could be seen from its nickname “the fourth estate” – setting it up as an institutional pillar of society. Mark Twain observed this power positon of the media when he said, “never pick a fight with people who buy ink by the barrel.”
But with the transformations of the digital world, the media is genuinely democratizing for the first time. No longer is a citizen’s influence limited to choosing which newspaper to read or which television news to watch. Now, every citizen can use the online digital world to report news and opinion and distribute it.
This is a welcome environment.
People are not stupid. They adapt to change. They have learned what sources to trust in an analogue world and, over time, they are demonstrating a growing ability to critically evaluate news and what to trust in an online, digital world.
It is true that many people who grow up in the old world of four major newspapers and a few trusted news outlets might tend to be credulous and instinctively inclined to believe all they see that initially appears as news. But the skeptical eye develops quickly – and most online consumers of news have already developed a healthy ability to distinguish credible stories from the outlandish and the false, however entertaining, or however much the reader might wish the story to be true.
The Conservative members of the Committee do not agree with the evidence and recommendations that foresee a larger role for government in controlling the news. This is contrary to the notion of a free press in society.
In George Orwell’s world, a Ministry of Truth was the answer to ‘fake news,’ which of course it produced – but only news deemed acceptable to the authorities.
The alternative answer to fake news is the marketplace of ideas flowing from John Milton. It stands for the principle that the public is capable of making informed and wise choices in their interests.
Some have called on the Committee to – in one way or another – insert the state as the arbiter of what is true in the news. That role is not appropriate in a free and democratic society. The answer that this can be done ‘at arm’s length’ is not credible. Every arms-length organization that is put in place by a government, or funded by it, is ultimately aware of its minister’s interests. When one is dealing with a port authority, or transportation safety agency, that may not pose a problem. However, in something as fundamental as freedom of the press, any state action to police truth – from regulating the ethics of journalists to directing where an organization should cover news, is inappropriate.
This concern is even greater with regard to the Committee recommendations that involve government funding or content levies to maintain traditional media outlets. A journalist looking to the government for his paycheque cannot put entirely out of his mind what is the hand that feeds him.
We do not agree with the majority’s statement of principle that “the Government of Canada must implement necessary measures to support the existence of a free and independent media and local news reporting.” In fact, government measures to support media are instrinsically contrary to the concept of a genuinely free and independent media. A true free and independent press must be free of any government interference or entanglement (even if it comes in the form of “support” which means a press dependent upon government and inevitably beholden to it).
The concern raised to justify the suggestion of greater government funding for outlets is that they are losing viewers and readers, and as a result losing the funding to employ journalists. What is clear in this story is that the loss of an audience comes first – then the cuts occur. Giving government dollars to the outlets with shrunken audiences will not bring that audience back. The money will not achieve the objective sought – but local news will now face compromised independence, beholden to its government paymaster.
In fact, there is clear evidence that local news is perhaps being well-served by the changing marketplace. For example, as Torstar has faced mounting losses at the Toronto Star flagship level, its local Metroland newspapers remained viable. In fact, Quebecor/Postmedia noted the strength of local papers and went on a buying spree to capture that market. But in both cases, the locals have since faced cuts as their revenues are diverted to the flagships.
But there is an appetite for local news and a vacuum will soon be filled. That has been happening. New entrants – both start-up local newspapers and online local newsgroups are filling the gap. Many local Facebook neighborhood newspapers far out-pace traditional newspapers in their coverage and debate on matters ranging from development issues and council proceedings to local crime and sports news. People are adapting to the changing environment – and for many, the quality and quantity of local news is better and more immediately available than ever. And if you have a question, someone will answer it. If you have another side to the story, you can present it. None of this is a ‘problem’ to be solved by a government-paid journalist.
Finally, the Committee is seeking new ways to tax Canadians to pay for all this effort by the government to involve itself in the production of the news for Canadians. Canadians do not need more and new taxes. Simply put, Canadians are already overtaxed at a time of stagnant incomes and low job growth. The Conservative members of the Committee strongly oppose any proposal to impose a “Netflix Tax,” internet tax, or any other news tax on Canadians.
Paradoxically, the Committee’s call to tax digital outlets that publish Canadian news will, in practice, reduce the amount of local or Canadian content available in the digital world in which people live and consume such media.
It is a fundamental truth of public policy that, “if you tax something, you will get less of it.” In seeking to apply an internet tax to news aggregators publishing Canadian news, the majority recommendation will not “level the playing field” or generate tax revenue. It will simply cause people to avoid tax by ceasing to publish Canadian news.
The new media era, focused as it is on the digital universe, cannot be stopped, or blocked, or regulated in Canada. It is being driven, consumed and created by citizens, and it is inevitable.
It is time for the government, and the Liberal majority of the Committee, to accept and embrace this new era, and give up on futile efforts to use government regulation, taxation, and subsidies to maintain the media landscape of the 1960s.