Tuesday, August 24, 2021

The election issue our media won't report – their own bailout

Now that I’m retired to Vancouver Island – somewhat prematurely thanks to the pandemic and my greedy waterlord – you’d think that I’d get off this hobby horse of Canadian media corruption. Well, that isn’t going to happen any time soon. In fact, I’ve just got more time now to churn out my book on the subject (along with several others), and to keep you all updated on its progress with this blog. The ongoing election campaign is providing even more fodder, as if more were needed. The Conservatives were well prepared with their platform when the cynical snap election call came less than two years after Canadians last went to the polls. The Tories opposed the $595 million news media bailout when it was announced in 2018, and new leader Erin O’Toole included in his manifesto a promise to repeal it should his party win power. But just try finding any mention of the issue in Canada’s paid-for news media. You could be searching for a while. 

Go ahead. Google the search term “O’Toole bailout” and see what you come up with. Make sure you click on the News tab to get the latest media coverage. You won’t find much. The only recent story is on the website of the Alberta-based Western Standard, which might as well be the official publication of the Conservative Party. It didn’t do any original reporting, instead citing Ottawa-based subscription news service Blacklock's Reporter, which has been all over the malodorous bailout from the beginning. The Western Standard licenses Blacklock's content, as do some other Canadian media outlets including Postmedia, but you won’t find any mention of Blacklock's bailout coverage in Canada’s largest newspaper chain, which is mostly owned by New Jersey hedge funds. That might be because they were one of the biggest bailout backers, pushing for it behind the scenes through newspaper industry association News Media Canada. 

NMC’s bailout bid was fronted by its former chair Bob Cox, who is publisher of the almost-independent Winnipeg Free Press. I say almost because the Freeps is owned by FP newspapers, which is controlled by Vancouver lawyer Ron Stern, and its only other newspapers are the Brandon Sun and a few free weeklies. But as Canada’s largest newspaper chain, Postmedia owns 15 of Canada’s 21 largest dailies and is by far NMC’s biggest member. Having its reviled former CEO Paul Godfrey front NMC would not have been a good look during the 2016-18 bailout bid, however. Instead Cox was selected to sing the blues on behalf of Canadian newspapers. (He has since been replaced as NMC chair by Jamie Irving of New Brunswick’s monolithic media monopoly, just as Godfrey has been replaced as Postmedia CEO by Andrew MacLeod. After all, their work is done.)

Blacklock's has performed yeoman’s work in shining a light on the news media bailout, which was announced with great promises of transparency but has since disappeared behind a blackout curtain. Founded in 2012 by a half dozen Ottawa Press Gallery reporters and named after long-time Parliament Hill correspondent Tom Blacklock, the scrappy news service has done a great job of illuminating Ottawa’s corridors of power. Its publisher, the irrepressible Holly Doan, has made it her personal mission to stay on top of the bailout’s hypocrisies and conflicts of interest, in which Blacklock’s has refused to participate. Other media outlets made similar promises, Blacklock’s pointed out in April, but some then gave in to the lure of lucre. 

Cox personally signed off on federal aid for his own newspaper, Blacklock's reported last year. As chair of the “independent” judging panel of experts from the news media industry, Cox approved federal aid for his Free Press to hire two reporters under the $50 million Local Journalism Initiative included in the 2018 budget to boost coverage in under-served communities. Of course, the LJI was nowhere near enough to placate the newspaper lobby. It howled for a full bailout until one was provided in the next year’s budget to the tune of $595 million. Cox again bellied up to the trough as chair of the independent panel advising Ottawa on how to divvy up the loot, this time of experts in Journalism and Written Media. There is yet a third gummint panel of journalism experts, this one made up of academics tasked with advising the CRA on which media outlets should qualify for non-profit status. Jobs for journalists might be going away, but jobs for journalism experts are going way up!

The first thing Cox’s big bailout committee did was to demand that it be doubled, which spooked Canadaland into thinking it might actually have that power. The second thing it did was to write the rules in such a way as to aid only news media outlets that employ two or more journalists who “deal at arm’s length with the organization.” That excluded many digital startups like the Halifax Examiner, whose publisher noted that the aid “goes to great lengths to exclude small operations [and] seems designed as a big tax giveaway to legacy media,” including those owned by foreign hedge funds. Digital media in Canada have since founded their own association, Press Forward, and argued that Canada “should support journalism's future, not its past.” The online upstarts are having the last laugh on the newspaper industry, cutting content licensing deals with Facebook in May and Google in June while the two largest chains, which are both owned by private equity players, were cut out. Postmedia and Torstar must be fuming, but that’s a story . . . er, a blog post for another day.

After receiving just over $1 million in bailout money for 2019, FP Newspapers got more than $6.2 million in federal aid for last year, Blacklock's reported in May, including $822,000 from the bailout and $5.38 million in Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy funding brought by the pandemic. Federal money, Blacklock's noted, accounted for 54 percent of the company’s $11.4 million net income for 2020. Postmedia, which I keep a close eye on, got $4.5 million from the bailout in its 2019-20 fiscal year, another $700,000 from Quebec’s $50 million media bailout, and more than $40 million in CEWS. Government aid thus made up fully two-thirds of its net earnings, helping to boost Postmedia’s profits by 37 percent to their highest in years. The company’s fiscal year ends next week, and it will be interesting to see what its 2020-21 numbers say.

Postmedia and FP are easy to track since they are publicly-traded companies and must publish financial statements quarterly. Many media companies in Canada are privately owned, however, and thus are under no obligation to disclose how much government money they are receiving. Ottawa has hardly been forthcoming on the subject either, Blacklock's noted earlier this month, refusing to name the media outlets getting even more federal assistance, this time $60.8 million in “emergency support” through the Aid To Publishers program. The Journalism Fund Tracker posted on the J-source website gave up trying to track anything years ago, presumably starved for oxygen.

Most journalists seem to have given up trying to get bailout details. The Post Millennial was hot on the trail a couple of years ago but doesn’t seem to have done much since, except for reporting the occasional revelation from Blacklock’s, whose content it licenses. Most media seem to be too busy divvying up the spoils to do much digging, but Blacklock’s is still asking the tough questions. Not only does it refuse to take government money, it has been locked in a seven-year legal battle with Ottawa over what it claims is unlicensed internal sharing of its reports. Now THAT’S independent journalism. It might even be worth $314 a year to subscribe

It seems that media issues in Canada are unfortunately verboten in political campaigning, as few politicians dare risk getting on the wrong side of journalists, and even more verboten in media coverage. This is especially unfortunate now because the country is at a crossroads on media regulation, with several pieces of legislation brewing or already half-baked. Bill C-10, which would regulate the Internet for the first time in Canada and would also tax you on your streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime, was rammed through Parliament in June only to stall for the summer in the more discerning Senate. Ottawa recently asked for input into its proposed “online harms” legislation, which would controversially empower a Digital Safety Commissioner to order content removed.  

But the biggest media dogfight to come may be over the bruited “link tax” that would order digital media such as Google and Facebook to pay publishers a fee every time a link to a news story is posted on their platform. Newspaper lobbies worldwide have been pushing this for years and recently gained traction with legislation in Australia, where Rupert Murdoch controls most of the press and thus exerts inordinate political power. Newspaper owners in Canada (and New Jersey) are rubbing their hands with glee at the prospect of raking in even more millions as a result, but the digital giants would be well within their rights to refuse to carry links to news stories at all, as Google did a few years ago after similar legislation was passed in Spain, and Facebook did briefly this year in Oz. Ottawa wants your input on this, too, and you’ve got three more weeks to provide it. I have my brief prepared and I will share it with you as soon as it is submitted.

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