Good afternoon to the committee. Thank you for inviting me to testify on behalf of CJFE.
I am currently the president, although you should know that I'm not a journalist. I'm actually a lawyer. My practice includes representing, defending and supporting the media in Canada. That's my claim to be the president at the present time.
In my remarks, I'd briefly like to touch on three key areas of the environment surrounding journalism today.
If I may start with the government environment, I think the committee knows it's been a challenging year for the media and free expression, in Canada and around the world. I'll give just three examples out of many, obviously, that could have been chosen. In the Middle East, first of all, I think as everyone's aware, we have an allied country whose government, according to U.S. security and intelligence services, may be responsible for the brutal murder of a Washington Post journalist in that country's own embassy. We usually think of embassies as a safe haven for travellers. This is one instance, but it's not the only one.
In the United States, we have a president claiming, in the United States district court, that he has absolute discretion to strip a long-standing, long-accredited member of the White House Correspondents' Association of his hard pass and his access to the White House and ultimately, of his career as a journalist.
Here in Ontario, we have a premier who believes he can divert taxpayers' money, provided to support the legislative and constituency responsibilities of his caucus, to fund his own private news outlet called Ontario News Now.
Those are three examples, all government actions. In my view, how Canadians and how Canadian laws and institutions react to these and other events in the government environment will be critical tests of our commitment, not just to the free press but also to the rule of law.
If I turn then to the economic environment, again, the committee will well understand the business climate for news media is another problem area. At a very high level—although there are lots of studies that go into more detail—two main causes are cited. The first is a major draw of advertising revenue away from traditional media that are involved in journalism, as we traditionally understand it, and towards social media that are not involved in journalism. That's the first cause. The other is a serious decline in audiences, particularly and significantly among younger generations.
It's really in that context that I looked at the 's recent announcements, which include a trial balloon, I would say, on possible measures to address the resulting financial pressures on media. I have a number of points. First of all, this has rightly begun as a consultation, not a prescription, and I think that is a good thing. Government funding of our free press is controversial, even among journalists. It will be essential, for the government and for Parliament, to hear strongly held opposing views, on both sides, before choosing among options in this area.
I'm happy to take your questions on those issues, but I offer this. One of the options put forward in the 's recent statement would give the tax credit to subscribers, rather than directly to media outlets. I have to say that appeals to me because it directly addresses one of the two underlying causes that I have just identified, which is the problem of declining audiences. This leads me to another thought. What about a tax credit for advertisers who place their advertising in major media?
Obviously, these options, however you structure them, are not going to completely avoid the need for a process to identify those outlets that should receive public subsidy, presumably because they are contributing to our values and our goals for a free press in Canada. This is where most of the debate and controversy arises. It's not an easy topic and we won't solve it in this hour, I'm sure.
However, these options would give both the public and advertisers a say in which media receive how much of the available government funding, if there is to be any. They also, I think importantly, subject the media who receive those subsidies to at least some basic market disciplines in terms of earning the support that the government may be prepared to offer or at least make available.
Lastly, I want to briefly turn to the legal environment, obviously the area that I know most directly and the best. In this area, I think we have a little more cause for optimism. A number of developments in recent years have been positive in, I think, the view of everyone who deals with media and represents their interests in the legal process.
The first, of course, was the passage by Parliament last year of the Journalistic Sources Protection Act. This brings long overdue protection to a critical area of news reporting, which is the protection of sources. I think you as parliamentarians all know that the ability to speak to the press off the record and to give background without attribution is critical. The discourse between sources and journalists and protecting that discourse, that discussion and that exchange of information from undue intervention in the legal system is critical.
The interpretation of the protections for journalists and sources created by that act is already before the Supreme Court of Canada in a hearing that will take place in the spring. We look forward to the court's interpretation.
The second legislative initiative I think is worth noting. Many provinces, including recently the Province of Ontario, have now enacted anti-SLAPP laws. Strategic lawsuits against public participation are, unfortunately, still far too common in Canada. They include actions brought by large corporations in Canada and others. Recent decisions by our Ontario Court of Appeal interpreting the new Ontario statute are very welcome in giving strong effect to the deterrent aspects of the legislation, particularly in terms of litigation that targets free speech.
I think Parliament has before it currently in the Senate the reform of the federal Access to Information Act. CJFE has contributed to that process recently, and we look forward to your deliberations.
In terms of the courts, courts across Canada continue to implement recent decisions by the Supreme Court that have strengthened key defences in libel actions. The defence of fair comment on matters of public interest is of particular importance to your deliberations, and that was strengthened by the court some years ago in WIC Radio. The defence of responsible communication, which was developed by the court and accepted by the court recently in Grant v. Torstar, has been applied now several times and is a very welcome addition to the defences for appropriate media reporting in our court system.
Where I think I would identify a need for more protective legislation and more judicial awareness and sensitivity is in terms of the role of the media reporting on our criminal justice system. I say, unfortunately, publication bans, whether they are imposed by statute or discretionary on the part of the judges sitting on criminal cases, really seem to be increasingly the norm, not the exception. I say it should be the exception, because our charter defines the right to a fair trial. Everybody talks about a right to a fair trial. It's actually the right to a fair and public trial. The public nature of a criminal trial is very important, and the ability—
First of all, you have to realize where the problem comes from.
Actually, social media or citizen journalism of all kinds is a fantastic new resource for reporters and journalists around the world to get a view of current events in distant places. These types of initiatives by governments that you're describing are designed to shut that down, are designed to stop the sources of information that are now becoming available that were never available before. It was very easy to stop people leaving the country or newspapers leaving the country. It's very hard to stop video from spreading through the Internet, video that is, of course, high-quality, fact....
The difficulty that journalists face, and which still requires a lot of discipline on their part, is to separate what's real video, genuinely taken and unedited, untampered with, from the vast amounts of false information that governments and others are generating and circulating on the Internet.
There's still a challenge. Part of it is a technological challenge. However, that's what good journalism is about. There's actually an opportunity here. The reactions of governments such as the one you've mentioned have to be seen in that context.
Mr. Tunley, thank you for your testimony here.
I wanted to do a pitch for our committee. One of the challenges we face is that we hear story after story internationally about people who are suffering, whether it's the Uighurs or Christians or Tibetans or Rohingyas. They're always desperate, and we find there's an under-representation of that suffering in Canadian journalism.
I would like to ask you to maybe encourage your colleagues to cover these stories. If they wanted to do one or two more stories regarding international human rights, we would certainly appreciate it. Sometimes we do press conferences, and we show up down at the press gallery and there's no one there.
There is an appetite, from the discussions I've had with Canadians over the last.... This is my 13th year on this committee. They're always surprised when I tell them a story about it. They ask, “How would I ever hear about that?” Maybe that's something you could take back to your colleagues.
For the last part of my time, I want to give you the opportunity to share with us. For journalists who are persecuted, incarcerated or maybe killed, I understand that your organization will send a letter to ambassadors in Canada when there are journalists who are mistreated. Do you have other initiatives whereby your members contribute so that you can support families of journalists who are being abused, etc.?