Membership Update – What the Major Parties Say About Media Industry Issues

October 16, 2019

Elections often end up in a discussion about “what’s in your wallet?”

If you work in the media, this federal election doubles down on pocketbook issues. It’s more like “what about my job?”

Unifor invited the Liberals, Conservatives, New Democrats, Greens and Bloc Quebecois to lay out their Media platforms. We were looking for responses on the five top issues as posted on http://www.mediaactionplan.ca

  • Ongoing financial support for journalism, both written and broadcast news.
  • Close the Loophole in the Income Tax Act exempting Canadian advertisers from corporate income tax when they seek online audiences through Google, Facebook and other U.S.-based new sites (instead of Canadian ones.
  • Force foreign Internet TV companies such as Netflix, Amazon, Disney and DAZN to match the Canadian content spending obligations of our domestic TV broadcasters.
  • Require the online divisions of Bell, Rogers, Shaw, Telus, and Videotron – which have rapidly become Internet TV distributors – to join cable distributors in making standard financial contributions to Canadian filmmaking and independent local TV.
  • Protect the funding of the CBC/Radio Canada.

The incumbent Liberals can rely on achievements such as the federal aid to written journalism in 2019 and the $150M shot in the arm to the CBC at the beginning of their mandate.

The NDP and the Greens commit to taking the next step the Liberals still resist: push back against Google and Facebook’s domination of the online advertising market by closing the loophole in section 19.1 of the Income Tax Act.

Despite neglecting Canadian TV during their mandate, the Liberals now join the Greens and the NDP in regulating Netflix, DAZN and the other Internet TV companies that are threatening to put Canadian TV out of business.

All of the parties take a pass on updating the 5 per cent “Canadian context tax” paid by domestic cable TV companies to include revenues from their Internet Data divisions.

Finally, the Greens and the NDP commit to a major funding boost to the CBC. The Liberals have committed no new funds, while the Conservatives also say nothing.

The Bloc has little to say about many of these issues, possibly because the Quebec provincial government has moved aggressively on many of these issues which in English Canada are left to the federal government. If the Bloc ever achieved the main plank in their media platform —-to create a separate CRTC (QRTC?) for their nation-province— Quebecers might be able to fix a lot of industry problems that the Liberals and the federal CRTC have dawdled over for the last four years.

Lastly (only because they withheld their platform until October 11th) the Conservatives offer few concrete media policies, one way or another.

The Conservatives do join the Liberals, Bloc and NDP in committing to a “Google tax,” i.e. a minimum tax on corporate profits collected as a 3 per cent VAT on Big Tech. The NDP and the Liberals model their tax policies on France, which covers companies such as Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and DAZN. The Conservatives base their tax on the United Kingdom which covers social media platforms and online sales transactions, but exempts subscription video services like Netflix, DAZN, Apple, Disney etc.

In all of the party platforms, the substantial tax revenue collected from the “Google tax” only meets demands for tax fairness and much needed government income: no party is earmarking the new money for expenditures on media policy.

For ease of comparison, have a look at the attached spreadsheet.

Review: Canada’s Cultural Apocalypse

July 4, 2019

The Tangled Garden: A Canadian Cultural Manifesto for the Digital Age (Lorimer, 2019)

Richard Stursberg is predicting the imminent death of Canadian media and popular culture.

The former CEO of almost every major Canadian cultural institutions including the CBC is convincing: as a country, we have forgotten our past success in building robust business models of conventional media that produced news, information, sports and entertainment. From the hostility of the Harper and Scheer Conservatives towards “cultural elites” to the posturing of the Justin Trudeau Liberals, the survival of our cultural sovereignty looks a lot like climate change: we are up against it, and we are running out of time.

The media and cultural apocalypse is not hard to see, if you are willing to look at it straight in the eye. Like Naomi Klein implored us in This Changes Everything not to “look away” from climate change, so Stursberg does for Canadian culture in The Tangled Garden, just published by Lorimer.

In written journalism, Canadian news organizations have lost 50% of their advertising revenue in ten years, closing 250 newspapers in small and mid-sized cities. Hundreds of journalists are no longer covering their communities.

Equally in the broadcasting industry, television companies have been in the red every year since 2012 thanks to the same loss of ad revenues to the digital monsters Facebook and Google. Local TV news survives only because, at least for now, Canadian media conglomerates can still cross-subsidize their money-losing news operations with profits from sports and entertainment content, as well as wireless and cable profits.

In the film industry, the apocalypse-deniers tout the surge in movie production in Toronto and Vancouver. They neglect to mention this boom is driven entirely by American film producers like Netflix making American movies for their US audience: our low-dollar and federal tax credits make it all possible. There is no similar boom in making distinctive Canadian movies for the Canadian audience (there has been zero growth in the last 10 years when adjusted for inflation). It’s a great industrial strategy, but not a cultural strategy.

Despite the gloom, Stursberg says there is a way out if only we would return to the fundamentals that worked so well for eighty years beginning with the arrival of commercial radio in the 1930s.

Stursberg describes the winning formula as a garden of Canadian culture, walled off by Canadian media ownership rules and supplemented by laws that only allow American content into the garden if it’s purchased wholesale by Canadian radio, television and satellite outlets, then retailed to eager Canadian audiences. To this day, the profits from this retailing of American culture go straight into financing Canadian news, sports and entertainment.

Stursberg maps out the undisputed success of the walled garden through the eras of radio, over-the-air television, cable, and satellite distribution. The Canadian ownership and retailing model adapted with ease to each succeeding technological revolution. The main delivery platform —-privately owned newspapers, radio and television— delivered the goods largely without public subsidy.

What watered the garden, says Stursberg, was the bipartisan support the from Conservative and Liberal Prime Ministers, starting with R.B. Bennett in the 1930s right up until Stephen Harper scorned it.

Stursberg recounts how Mackenzie King, John Diefenbaker and Trudeau Senior repaired and renovated the garden wall each time a new technology emerged. Brian Mulroney’s culture ministers Marcel Masse and Flora Macdonald maintained the walled garden and even tried to annex the book, music and theatre film industries into it. Their efforts stalled in the face of hostility from powerful cabinet ministers and sensitive negotiations with the Americans over the first Free Trade Agreement.

Jean Chretien gets an honourable mention for wasting no time in applying Canadian ownership and distribution rules to satellite technology the moment the first so-called “death star” appeared. Stursberg favourably compares Chretien’s speedy dispatch to Trudeau Junior’s inaction in the face of disruption by Internet media.

Still it was on Chretien’s watch that the Internet got into the garden. At first the flow of American culture into Canada through the Internet was no more than a pinhole leak. In the late ‘90s, very few media and technology insiders saw what was coming, or wanted to see. The CRTC dismissed any threat to the walled garden, granting a “digital media exemption order (DMEO)” to all media traffic over the Internet in 1999. Meanwhile newspaper publishers began giving away their high-priced journalism for free on websites in the naïve hope that they would maintain digital market share of audiences and advertising revenues. They got the first, but not the second.

Harper was elected in 2006 and Stursberg marks the next nine years as a crucial era of “malign neglect” of the walled garden. The lucrative specialty television market —-its profits underwriting local news operations— was undercut by Harper’s “pick and pay.” The DMEO was extended yet again, allowing Netflix to run riot in the Canadian garden. Harper even appeared before cameras touting Netflix, granting them unregulated freedom in the garden and vowing there would never be “a Netflix tax.” In Opposition both the Trudeau Liberals and the Mulcair NDP, bereft of any cultural rudder, fell in line.

You get the feeling that Stursberg takes for granted the Harper Conservatives’ hostility to cultural nationalism but is utterly disgusted by the passivity of the Trudeau Liberals.

He is unsparing in his scorn for Trudeau’s first culture minister, Melanie Joly, who adopted Harper’s “no Netflix tax” mantra and dismissed newspapers as “failed business models.” What she would never acknowledge is that newspapers around the world will never overcome the success of Google and Facebook in cornering the online advertising market. Advertising revenue covers 80 to 90% of news costs and Canadian newspapers have lost half their life-sustaining advertising revenue to the Silicon Valley web giants.

Stursberg is equally scathing about the Trudeau government’s inattention to the intrusion of Facebook and Google into the garden. He reads the familiar list of charges against big tech: hoarding advertising revenues, monopolistic business practices, privacy abuses, and a soft touch on fake news and anti-social content. In stark comparison to the Europeans who have moved quickly on these issues, Stursberg points out that the Liberals ignored it all for three years until recently, regulating political advertising on Facebook and other social media platforms. Stursberg quite reasonably speculates the government has been captivated by the extraordinary Google and Facebook lobby on Parliament Hill that began in earnest in 2016.

And finally, no description of the cultural apocalypse is complete without mentioning that Netflix is only the flagship in the invasion of foreign Internet TV death stars Disney, Amazon, Apple, CBS Alliance, Comcast NBC Universal, and DAZN Sports.

Lest we despair and “look away” from the apocalypse, Stursberg offers a solution. Tend the garden. It’s easier said than done after a crucial decade of neglect and infestation by foreign Internet companies, of course.

Stursberg begins with written journalism. He pans the recent federal budget commitments totalling $645 million over five years as badly structured and just too little money, given the advertising losses that continue to mount. He would double the funding and make local television news eligible for support as well.

The way to pay for it, he says, is for the federal government to rejig its cultural spending and regulation. That begins with extending the existing tax rules for writing off advertising expenses to include online media. “Closing the loophole” as it is sometimes known, will sweep $900M annually into federal coffers. Add the collection of sales tax on Netflix and the other US video streaming death stars: you are well over a billion dollars for the cultural piggy bank.

But how to deal with the Death Stars? In a significant change to the walled garden principles, Stursberg says we should admit we aren’t kicking Netflix out of Canada any time soon, nor are we about to nationalize them. Instead, we should do what all cultural nationalists have been calling for since the DMEO was first invented: require Netflix and its imitators to follow the same spending rules as our domestic broadcasters.

At the moment, the CRTC requires Bell CTV, Global, Rogers and TVA to spend 30% of their budgets on local news and Canadian documentaries, sports and entertainment shows. A similar obligation on Netflix and other Internet broadcasters will bring an explosion of CanCon production like we have never seen.

There are a few loose ends in the Stursberg manifesto. Not the least of which is what to do about Facebook and Google’s dominance of the digital advertising market without any requirement to fund journalism.

But we have a federal election in six months. Already we have a vague promise from the Liberal Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez to do something about American web giants:

But his out-of-the-blue tweet is a long way from addressing the full Stursberg manifesto. Let’s hope that it doesn’t take as long for Canadians to recognize the cultural crisis as it has taken to acknowledge the climate crisis. Don’t look away.

Facts About Journalism Panel Lost in the Media Storm

May 28, 2019

Last week Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez invited news publishers and journalist organizations to join an independent panel of experts mandated to flesh out definitions in the Budget Act pertaining to the $595 million rescue package for written media.

Then a media storm descended.

Lost in the storm were some important facts. Here they are.

The panel is to make recommendations to the government for regulations implementing the commitments in the Budget Act. There will be eight members of the Independent Panel: four from news publishers and four from journalist organizations. As the largest media union in Canada, Unifor was named one of the four journalist organizations.

The committee may only submit recommendations based on consensus of the eight members. The recommendations should be “aligned with the general practices of the industry.”

The committee’s work will begin shortly. It must be finished within thirty days, then its business is done.

Here are the questions it will answer:

  • What is “original” news ? 
  • Who is an “eligible newsroom employee” for purpose of the publisher claiming the labour tax credit ? The Panel is asked to tease out, from the lengthy definition already provided in the Budget Act, the meaning of “otherwise prepare content.” 
  • What does it mean that an eligible news organization (QCJO) must be “primarily focussed on matters of general interest and reports of current events…and not be primarily focussed on a particular topic?” 
  • Review the requirement that an eligible news organization “employ two or more journalists in the production of content” and provide clarifications or definitions and even recommend “adjustments” which the government could legislate at a future date. 

As you can see, the tasks range from important to granular. For example, should we include video producers in the meaning of “otherwise prepare content”? Should the “two journalist” threshold include part-time journalists?

The final duty of each of the eight members of the committee is to nominate a member of a second Independent panel which is expected to be the administrative gatekeeper reviewing applications to become eligible news organizations under the Budget Act.

The Minister has promised transparency for the entire process. As much as anyone, we will hold him to it.

I get, and accept, that a media rescue package is controversial. In an election year, it’s a juicy orange for the Opposition. So be it.

The federal aid comes in three envelopes: a 25% subsidy for newsroom wages, a tax credit for digital subscribers, and charitable status for non-profit news organizations so they can issue donor tax receipts.

For those familiar with the state of the industry, I don’t have to recite the long list of Canadian newspaper closures (250 in the last ten years, 2000 American closures in the same time period).

The 80 cents on the dollar that Print advertising revenue once paid to fund journalism is half of what it was ten years ago. It has not been replaced by digital dimes. There is no longer a viable for-profit business model.

What is cynical about the strident opposition to government aid to media is the willing denial of this business reality and the failure to offer any alternative.

The idea that government is buying media support with its modest subsidy designed to mitigate further newspaper closures is fear mongering.

We have had a full government subsidy of the CBC for decades, including the last 20 years in the written online news space. Yet a 25% subsidy to privately owned media (that endorse the federal Conservatives 77% of the time) is a dangerous ploy to “buy the media?”

Perhaps the Puritan objection to media subsidies will prevail. What will be left is a Saharan-sized news desert, bordered by the venerable CBC on one side and troll-land on the other. Heaven help our democracy.

===

Read the government’s mandate letter at https://www.uniformedia.ca/federal-aid-to-media.

Journalism through Yellow-Vest Glasses

April 17, 2019

It didn’t take long for the Conservative Party of Canada to pounce on the newly announced federal aid to local news.

In a fundraising letter penned by Andrew Scheer’s hand-picked national campaign manager Hamish Marshall —–at one time the news director of Ezra Levant’s Rebel Media—- Canadians are warned of the Liberal “$600 million media buy off scheme” in an election year.

According to Marshall, the Libs have poured “hundreds of millions more into the Liberal-friendly CBC since 2015.”

Even worse says Marshall, Unifor National President Jerry Dias, who “represents thousands of media workers at Globe & Mail, Toronto Star, and Toronto Sun,” is plotting to defeat Conservatives: “big media union bosses are coming after us.

Independent newspapers are disappearing,” Marshall also observes. “It means Canadians have no local alternative when national news organizations give Trudeau a free pass.”

We have debated this wisdom before, on offer from more conventional conservatives than the yellow-vester Mr. Marshall.

Yes, there is more money for our public broadcaster. The Libs gave the CBC a $150 million budget boost in 2016, restoring 20% of the $800 million Chrtien-Harper cuts during the previous 30 years.

The “Jerry Dias = mainstream journalism bias” equation, however, is barmy. The notion is that if journalists pay union dues to Unifor, they must be torqueing news coverage to please Dias. Ask yourself this dear reader: did you pay your federal taxes this month to placate Justin Trudeau?

But my favourite is Marshall’s claim that because independent news organizations are disappearing, honest folks have no alternative. Not much deciphering is required here: he means “all national news organizations” are against the Conservatives.

The biggest national news organization (by far) with the most journalists is Postmedia. That would be the same Postmedia chaired by Conservative patron Paul Godfrey, publisher of the National Post. The same fellow who directed his 36 major dailies in 2015 to endorse Stephen Harper’s re-election campaign. The same Godfrey who is publisher of the Sun Media tabloids in Toronto, Calgary, Edmonton, Ottawa, Winnipeg and Toronto: Mr. Marshall will blush to concede these are pro-Conservative outlets. Also Godfrey is the publisher of the leading (or only) broadsheets in these major metropolitan markets: the Vancouver Sun, Calgary Herald, Edmonton Journal, Regina Leader-Post, Ottawa Citizen, London Free Press and Montreal Gazette.

Okay, maybe Marshall got a little carried away, being a fundraiser and all. Maybe the number one national news organization is not an enemy of conservativism.

Next up, the Globe & Mail.

Owned by billionaire David Thomson, this news organization endorsed the Conservative Party in 2006, 2008, 2011, and 2015. In the last two months, the Globe did its best to eviscerate the Trudeau government on the SNC Lavallin scandal. 

Detect a pattern? In the last four federal elections, the Conservative Party enjoyed the endorsement of leading Canadian newspapers 77% of the time.

Of course election endorsements don’t always give you the full picture about so-called media bias. That’s because writers don’t care what owners think. As a breed, journalists are more skeptical about power and privilege than most anyone else.

But journalists being accused of bias is not necessarily a bad thing. It probably means they are trying to provide the reader with insight into the well-camouflaged workings of powerful institutions. Nobody ever accused a weather reporter of bias.

In this sea of media bias, more journalism is good. Canadians can judge, choose, and even reward the news outlets they trust the most.

In fact popular trust in media is the litmus test of bias, whether Mr. Marshall likes the results or not.

Recent polling reminds us that the majority of Canadians place high trust in their journalists:

What you will notice about these polling numbers is that 69 % of Canadians trust mainstream media. Only 45% of Conservative voters do.

No doubt Mr. Marshall will regard non-Conservative trust in media as proof of the poll respondents’ left wing bias. Presumably because anyone who does not support the Conservative Party is left wing. Or, dear lord, a centrist.

Or maybe the high levels of trust in media are proof that all Canadians outside the Conservative tent have had the whammy put on them by union bosses?

Well, good work Jerry. Knew you could do it.

Andrew Coyne on the Great Threat to Journalism

March 21, 2019

Andrew Coyne is the smartest and most open-minded conservative journalist in Canada. I always look forward to reading his column in the Postmedia-owned National Post, or listening to him and Chantal Hebert on CBC’s “At Issue.”

The 2019 federal Budget follows through on the Liberal government’s aid to journalism.

Coyne sees this as a dire threat to journalist independence, and ergo our democracy.

https://nationalpost.com/opinion/andrew-coyne-its-when-you-read-details-of-media-bailout-that-the-chill-sets-in

The Coyne argument goes something like this:

Journalists are, and must continue to be, independent from influences that could manipulate their reporting.

A federal government that holds the purse strings of an annual $45 million labour tax credit for news organizations will put all of its journalists in a conflict of interest, skewing coverage.

The plan to let a blue-ribbon panel of journalists, or other non-partisan actors, decide which news organizations are legitimate is window dressing or worse.

To test his hypothesis, however, consider that the following must be true:

  • Currently journalists are independent from influences that could skew their reporting, whether they are employed by the right-wing National Post or the left-wing Toronto Star. That’s because the news bosses that hire and fire Canadian journalists —who are almost all wealthy individuals or large corporations— never interfere with the news coverage of their journalists.
  • Journalists at Macleans’ Magazine, small town weekly papers and other media outlets already in receipt of government funding through the 150-year-old Canadian Periodical Fund are surely in the government’s pocket, and it shows in their coverage.
  • Journalists at non-network television stations —which by grace of the CRTC divide up a $150 million grant every year— give governments a free pass in their coverage.
  • Journalists at the $1 billion-funded CBC, including government-tormentors like Robyn Urback and Neil Macdonald, also go easy on governments.

We can each of us decide if the existing government funding to journalism has resulted in Canadian governments getting soft-coverage. SNC Lavallin anyone?

As for Coyne’s dismissal of a blue-ribbon panel to gatekeep government aid, we will have to wait for its membership to be announced. Everyone agrees with Coyne on this much: the appointments had better be non-partisan and beyond reproach. (Coyne wouldn’t be a bad choice among many, but its doubtful he would accept.)

But to really test the Coyne theorem, you need to work through how his “conflict of interest” becomes real and more than just a fear.

To be a real threat, the urge to please government would have to overcome the wealth, class-interest, and ideology of news proprietors, an overwhelmingly right-wing lot to judge by their election endorsements over the years.

These Government Pleaser owners would begin interfering in hiring and firing their journalists, currently a power delegated to their Editors-in-Chief.

Owners and their newly supine Editors-in-Chief would make it known to journalists they expected softball coverage of government scandals and policies. That would mean passing on important stories the competition was covering. That would mean telling journalists —or using a red-pen— to choose their story sources based on a pro-government view, to distort the facts, or omit crucial information. That would mean spiking off-message stories or firing uncooperative journalists.

Meanwhile readers would never notice and would keep patronizing the news outlet.

Journalists (backed by their unions) would never blow the whistle. http://j-source.ca/article/as-ottawa-helps-the-news-industry-latest-research-suggests-journalists-loyalties-are-tough-to-buy/

At the end of the argument, Coyne and his fellow skeptics should at the very least answer the following question: what about the crisis in local news?

The relentless coverage of federal politics practised by Coyne, Bob Fife, Susan Delacourt and the phalanx of Parliament Hill reporters is in no danger of extinction. The Ottawa press corps is the Alamo of Canadian journalism. It will be the last to be overcome by the collapse of the advertising business-model supporting media.

What’s dying (in the news deserts) is local news. Two-hundred and fifty news outlets closed in the last ten years.

We have a federal election in 2019, and several provincial contests including the April 15th vote in Alberta. Coverage of local races matters to voters. So do their local issues.

In a previous column, Coyne answered the question “what’s the alternative to government aid” with a shrug. Essentially, it is up to voters to find a way to inform themselves.

That is acquiescence to ignorance and the destruction of liberty.

A 2019 New Year’s Wish: Facts

December 31, 2018

If you were born in the last century, you remember the days when facts were the main course. Opinion was dessert.

Things are different now. News is laden with analysis. Analysis is full of opinion. Opinion means an evisceration of political enemies. In America, where they are first in all things, cable TV is a war zone of lacerating attacks. You watch the media outlet that comfits you, no more. Call it poli-tainment. And that is before you consider the stuff trafficked on Facebook.

It may be coming to your news source too. Writing opinion is cheaper than most news gathering. We live in a media world of diminishing revenues and fewer journalists. “Opinion is where we get the most engagement,” a Postmedia executive told me matter-of-factly when I bemoaned the Toronto Sun’s shrinking coverage of hard news. They say facts matter, but not as much as subscription and advertising dollars.

We love skewering the beliefs of the people we disagree with, so much we would often rather not hear about the facts. If only our world was in good enough shape to allow us the indulgence of skewering our political foes. Perhaps getting it right on the existential issues of the day —-climate change, war and peace, and the defense of democratic institutions—- matters more.

Here’s a toast to 2019 and a year of reporting the facts. We are going to need them.

Take this Media Bias Quiz

November 23, 2018

In the wake of the federal government throwing a lifeline to civic journalism last week, let’s take a quiz about perception of media bias.

Here we go. Rank in order of importance the following contributions, or alleged contributions, to perceptions of media bias:

1. Jerry Dias, the President of the 315,000 members of Unifor —which includes the majority of the nation’s approximately 5,000 unionized journalists— speaks out daily on the major policy issues of the day affecting workers’ well-being, generally on the left of the political spectrum and therefore opposed to most Conservative politicians.

2. The wealthy and nearly unanimously conservative owners of all Canadian newspapers — who enjoy the power to fire or side-line their journalists at any time— run daily editorial columns and at election time endorse a political party.

3. Some journalists use social media to tweet out strongly-worded personal opinions about the issues of the day, politicians, and other newsmakers on topics about which they write.

Let’s hope that exercise was enlightening.

The debate about the federal government’s rescue package for civic journalism will continue regardless.

Partly that’s because mainstream media have long enjoyed what some perceive as a monopoly on public voice: the only megaphone in town. Even in the age of social media that resentment hasn’t abated, only intensified. That should be the clue: the hullabaloo about media bias is not about monopolizing megaphones (there are lots of them), it’s more about the spreading tribalization of public discourse. Thank you, Facebook.

Most journalists wish the attention would just go away. They want to get on with their jobs. And the job, as each journalist believes to their core, is to hold powerful people and institutions to account. To be your watchdog.

If only some of the media owners would take that to heart.

The 2015 federal election comes to mind. Recall that Postmedia CEO Paul Godfrey ordered all of his Editors in Chief across the country to endorse Stephen Harper’s re-election. The nation’s biggest news chain even ran front page Election Day ads from the Harper campaign using graphic elements that suspiciously resembled Elections Canada.

More recently in May of this year, an accidentally leaked memo written by the Toronto Sun Editor-in-Chief named a list of his journalists as part of an Election-year news team poised to attack Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne. The rank-and-file journalists were mortified by the stain on their reputations. The Sun refused Unifor’s demand for a retraction in defense of journalists’ independence.

Want to re-take the quiz?

There is no question the controversy about media bias gets under the skin of all journalists. No group in society thinks of themselves less of a group, than journalists do. They are the lone wolves. They do not belong to any tribe (except maybe the free food tribe). Any suggestion that someone else’s opinion is rubbing off on their reputation drives them around the bend.

Here’s where we can share common ground. Let’s keep talking about media bias. Only, let’s make sure it’s an open dialogue with open minds.

The Battle for Canadian Content (2018-2020)

June 11, 2018

“If you profit, you contribute—there is no free ride” Heritage Minister Melanie Joly, June 3 2018

The battle for Canadian cultural sovereignty is on. And no, it’s not a battle against Donald Trump. It’s a debate among Canadians.

Justin Trudeau’s Liberals have come down firmly on the side of Canadian content creation. After ragging the puck for two years, the cabinet ministers responsible for broadcasting and telecommunications announced their elegant solution to the apparent conflict between Canadian content and opponents of regulation.

That solution is to spread out the burden of cable industry’s contributions to Canadian content and local news —currently a $400 million annual tithe on revenue— to all players in the media universe. That means domestic Wireless and Internet providers as well as foreign video streamers like Netflix.

To the extent that the cable companies have been able to price Canadian content levies into their monthly bills, in the future we will see cable TV customers pay less, while others begin paying a much smaller amount. As CRTC Chair Ian Scott suggested, that would mean a fifty cent monthly increase on the average broadband bill of $47.

The Liberals are at pains to reassure voters this rejig of Canadian media will be cost neutral.

“For me, a critical issue is making sure that Canadians do not pay more,” Industry Minister Navdeep Bains said on June 5th. “This is really around quality, coverage and price, and price is something that Canadians have expressed as a concern.”

A series of government policy moves intended to increase competition among wireless providers followed, as did a ribbon-cutting on an industry initiative offering cheap broadband access for low-income Canadians. It may have taken a while, but it seems the Liberals finally have their ducks in a row on the media and telecom files.

Bains’ Internet pricing offensive is intended to neutralize the political opposition to Joly’s Canadian content policy. On the policy level, the government’s critics are boxed in.

That’s because the $400 million in financial support for Canadian content and local news can only come from industry levies or more government spending. If Joly’s critics are against both, they stand naked in their indifference or hostility to Canadian culture.

Still, winning the policy debate and winning the politics are two different things. There is a federal election in between now and when the legislative implementation of the Liberal program is expected in 2020.

Don’t expect its critics to fight fair. There will be opportunistic attacks on “Netflix taxes” and a religious reverence for the Internet which will be expressed as “net neutrality”.

Unfortunately, neglected in all of the fury is the fate of local news.

A $150 million tranche of the $400 million cable TV contributions keep independent local television stations afloat. As Google and Facebook continue to suck advertising revenues out of the Canadian television market, the financial precarity of those stations may worsen.

Even the network local stations owned by Bell, Corus, Rogers and Québecor are in trouble. Most of those stations lose money and are cross subsidized by their mothership enterprises.

Newspaper journalism is in the worst position of all. The Liberals have done nothing more to stem the steep decline in print journalism in Canada’s daily newsrooms than a token $10 million from the Canadian Periodical Fund. In fact renewed federal support for the CBC has, with unintended consequences, put competitive pressure on news websites.

While the Trudeau government’s new boldness on the Canadian culture file may or may not end up as job well done (there is the matter of the 2019 federal election), its unfinished business is to save Canadian journalism.

This CRTC Chair Ain’t Afraid of No Netflix Tax

June 1, 2018

At long last, some common sense in Canadian media policy.

On May 31st the CRTC answered Heritage Minister Melanie Joly’s request for its advice on how to sustain Canadian content and local news in the Internet age.

With the existing regulatory regime founded on the reinvestment of declining cable television revenues into CanCon, the Commission could only have provided three options to the Minister.

One, scrap Canadian content and local news. Surrender our culture to the Americans.

Two, commit more federal spending, eventually about $400 million annually to replace the annual tithe of five per cent of cable revenues. Taxpayers would pony up, despite supporting the CBC, the Canada Media Fund, and film tax credits to the tune of $1.5 billion per year.

Three, replace the evaporating cable industry reinvestment with Internet industry reinvestment.

The new Commission Chair Ian Scott picked door number three.

Scott is not the charismatic popular figure that his predecessor Jean Pierre Blais strove to be. He considers himself “an implementer.”

Pragmatist might be a better name for him. He knows doors number one and two are political non-starters. He’s engaged in the art of the possible.

That means all arrows point towards shoring up the revenue sources for Canadian film making and local television news by spreading out the burden of contribution; bringing in all industry players whether foreign, domestic, online, legacy, pipe or content.

That means looking the so called “Netflix tax” straight in the eye, no flinching, and recommending that profits made from streaming video and the Internet pipe that carries it will also have to be reinvested in Canadian content and local news.

That means acknowledging the thicket of politics, international trade and enforcement challenges of imposing Canadian cultural reinvestment rules on powerful foreign Internet companies tapping into the Canadian media market. Scott imaginatively suggests “service agreements” (a euphemism for one-of deals) be struck with those companies, abandoning any hope of imposing one-size fits all regulatory standards on Netflix, Google and the rest of the American tech giants.

That means anticipating a consumer backlash to “taxing” anything for the first time. Scott made it crystal clear that reinvestment rules that levy profits from Internet media will be matched by lowering the existing levy on cable media. No cash grab here.

His political opponents aren’t mollified. Michael Geist continues to beat the drum for Internet consumers. The university professor touts subsidized Internet broadband while opposing anything intended to defend Canadian culture: as if the government-mandated industry levies paying for Internet infrastructure aren’t passed on to Canadians, but industry levies to support Canadian content are a burden on consumers.

And what does Chairperson Scott have in mind for local TV news?

In a cryptic one-liner, his report recommends “examine ways to support television news production though increased access to subscription revenues.”

Honestly, that could mean a lot of different things, including legislating “fee for carriage” in which cable companies would be prohibited from rebroadcasting the free “over the air” signals from television towers without paying the broadcasters for that content.

More immediately, Scott probably figures that if the “5 per cent” cable reinvestment rule is re-engineered to stabilize the $400 million industry contribution (of which 40% goes to independent local stations) he will have done a lot for local TV.

As for the network television stations operated by Bell Media, Rogers, Corus and Quebecor, Scott’s report muses aloud about replacing standardized conditions of licence with “service agreements.” Given the Commission’s abysmal track record of granting the big media companies toothless licence conditions for local news, an alternative approach that is both tough and transparent might be an improvement.

Doug Ford TV: Fox or Faux?

May 8, 2018

Doug Ford is now in the news business. The fake news business.

In a series of Ontario election campaign videos circulated by Ford’s campaign team, the front-running leader of the Conservative party appears as a news subject in a two-minute video that looks and sounds exactly like a conventional TV news story.

The “reporter” is not a journalist. She is fake. Lyndsey Vanstone is Ford’s executive assistant and former press secretary. Ford speaks from a press conference podium about hydroelectric bills, a huge election issue. Cut to “business owners” and “customers” who are “interviewed.” Vanstone wraps up and signs off like any TV reporter.

As reported by the National Post, veteran Conservative media consultant Brett Jones of the Sussex Strategy Group defended the election video masquerading as a news piece:

“I think this is a first, or at least a first in Canada,” “Part of me thinks, ‘Wow, what took people so long?’ … I think it’s an effective format.” http://nationalpost.com/news/politics/doug-ford-creates-simulated-news-to-counter-media-that-isnt-going-to-give-us-a-fair-shake

Ladies and gentlemen, join me in calling bullshit on that.

Doug Ford is the populist Toronto politician who famously referred to journalists as “maggots” and “liars” for truthfully reporting on his late brother Mayor Rob Ford’s crack cocaine habit.

At the beginning of this campaign, Ford nixed the tradition of allowing journalists on his campaign bus (the seats are paid for by news organizations).

Ford lovers and haters posted up a storm in hot debate over Ford’s obvious attempt to limit opportunities for reporters to ask him questions, something would-be Premiers might have to get used to. Observers noted journalists need more than just scrum-access to a candidate.

Ford’s defenders no doubt justify his tactics on the grounds that the mainstream media hates him, so why help them out?

The fact is that reporters don’t hate him. They just want to talk to him so they can do their jobs. It’s their public duty to press any candidate, especially a populist candidate on the right or the left, to explain their policies as if they understand them, so voters know what they are going to get.

The campaign bus tempest might have been in a teapot, but now we have something far more sinister: fake news manufactured by the candidate. No Russian plot, this.

They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery: it’s ironic that Ford rales against the mainstream media but his campaign team apparently values the credibility of the hated #MSM.

The Ford video is intended to mislead the public and in spite of the Fordnation logo at the bottom of the screen, many will be mislad into thinking it’s independent journalism.

Although in the candidate’s defense, Ford’s video differs little from a Fox news report on Donald Trump.