Justin Trudeau may not be aware but his plan to help out Canada’s struggling mainstream media follows the path laid out by a conservative icon to a T.
Ronald Reagan famously said that liberals followed this pattern, “If it moves, tax it. If it keeps moving, regulate it. And if it stops moving, subsidize it.”
Well after taxing Canadian media in ways their foreign digital counterparts have never been taxed, after regulating them in ways their foreign competition has not faced, the Trudeau Liberals are looking to subsidize the media.
In the fall economic statement, Bill Morneau announced $595 million over five years to “help” media organizations.
“A strong and independent news media is crucial to a well-functioning democracy,” Morneau proclaimed.
True, but is subsidizing the media a good way to ensure they are “independent?”
I don’t think so.
Now full disclosure, as a freelance journalist, columnist and commentator, I frequently work for mainstream media outlets – well kind of.
I host a nightly radio show on Newstalk 580 CFRA in Ottawa and write regular columns for the Toronto Sun. Both of these outlets could end up benefiting from the government’s latest moves.
The government’s plans include allowing media outlets to set up as charities and accept donations and issue receipts. This is something already done in other countries and is actually a laudable move.
The Guardian in the U.K. and The Daily Caller in the U.S. operate under similar models and remain successful.
The government will also allow a tax credit for subscriptions to digital news media, something that previously was not allowed. This will make Canadian digital news media subscriptions more affordable and while perhaps costing the government somewhat as they forgo theoretical revenue, actually doesn’t cost taxpayers directly.
The third policy is the one that has the potential for huge problems.
The government will establish a refundable tax credit for qualifying media outlets to hire journalists producing original content.
Can independent panels really be independent?
“An independent panel will be established from the news and journalism community to define eligibility for this tax credit, as well as provide advice on other measures,” the fiscal update reads.
Considering the hundreds of millions that the Trudeau Liberals have thrown at CBC and the state broadcaster’s kid-glove approach to covering the government, I’m worried about outlets pulling punches.
As a friend said of CBC’s coverage a while back, “I can’t think of them breaking any really big stories that would embarrass the government.”
Will that become the norm across much of the media?
That is the worry of some, including Conservative MP Peter Kent who said in the House of Commons that any bailout of the media in an election year could be seen as buying them off.
Kent knows a thing or two about media interference.
The former broadcaster quit his post as anchor of CBC’s The National in 1978 to protest political interference by the government of Pierre Trudeau. Trudeau’s office had tried to exert influence over how and when the state broadcaster would cover the new separatist government in Quebec.
Now Kent worries that money may come with strings.
He isn’t wrong to worry.
Yet for all their fretting over the state and health of the media, the Trudeau Liberals have been voting in a different way with their money.
The government shamelessly chooses the duopoly
For the past several years the Trudeau government has been increasing advertising on digital platforms like Facebook and Google, platforms that don’t charge tax on their advertising the way newspapers and broadcasters must.
According to government documents tabled in Parliament earlier this year, the Liberals spent $24.4 million on Facebook and Instagram ads and videos alone between January 2016 and March 2018.
Digital now accounts for more than half the government’s ad buy while spending on traditional media drops. It isn’t as if people aren’t reading papers or listening and watching traditional broadcasters.
The audience is still there but the government that wants to subsidize the media, won’t advertise with the outlets they now want to give money to.
It is a situation that has frustrated many media executives who have simply asked for a level playing field.
Instead, the government kept the field tilted long enough that they now need to subsidize.
On what planet does that make sense?
Trudeau’s moves on paying off media outlets will not stop the bleeding but it may keep some of them going long enough to provide glowing coverage of him and his government through the 2019 election.
What will he promise those outlets if he wins again?
That will be the story to watch over the coming year.
What do you think about the almost $600 million program? Should the government be involved?
Join the conversation by commenting below.