Saving the Canadian media

daniel-bernhardDaniel Bernhard, Executive Director of the lobby group Friends of Canadian Broadcasting, writing in The Star, says that “By some industry estimates, many of our major media outlets will fail within weeks. Starved of advertising revenues for years, the COVID-19 pandemic will deliver the final blow, especially for newspapers. And with the government now preparing to spend unprecedented amounts of money, we should be concerned that there will be no journalists left to keep watch … [and, he opines] … This is a six-alarm fire. If Ottawa does not treat this as an emergency and act accordingly, Canadians will be left with few sources of reliable information about how to protect ourselves and our families from COVID-19.

There are, in my opinion, two HUGE problems with the media in Canada:

  • First is the CBC which gets billions of dollars in federal money but still ends up looking more like a pale imitation of private networks, like Global, and nothing at all like, say, the BBC. Its every existence distorts the market, stifles other media and thereby prevents Canadian journalism and entertainment from reaching their full potential; and
  • Second, the Internet is changing everything and traditional media have not found enough useful ways to adapt to the changes.

Then there is a question of roles. Is the role of the media to inform? Is it to entertain? Or is the role of the media to make a decent return on investment for its shareholders? I suspect that journalists, entertainment producers and shareholders all have different answers.

Should information be free?

Daniel Bernhard, not surprisingly, given Friends of Canadian Broadcasting‘s avowed purpose, to “protect and defendA strong CBC, fearless journalism, and our shared story,” thinks some of it should be and he says that “Ottawa needs to start by doubling the budget of the CBC, to finance a major expansion of its national, regional, and local news capacity with a mandate to freely share its news content with any media outlet that wants to use it.

Screen Shot 2020-03-28 at 08.45.28In effect, Mr Bernhard’s prescription will seem, to many, as though he wants to create our very own, Canadian Ministry of Truth. which will tell us all the news that the government thinks we need to know. I’m quite sure that Justin Trudeau and Steven Guilbeault will approve; perhaps the CBC’s management and The Star will agree, too; but I’m not sure that will appeal to most Canadians … not even, I suspect, to many Canadian journalists.

There is, as I have said before, a modest but important need for a public broadcasting service in Canada that provides some news – local, regional, national and international. I believe that Canada needs a national, coast-to-coast-to-coast radio network that provides news, weather and some mix of educational, public affairs, arts and entertainment broadcasting aimed, primarily at Canadians in rural and remote areas, where private broadcasting cannot be done at a profit, but accessible to almost all Canadians who have a radio receiver. Such a service would rely, heavily, on local news sources ~ which are incubators for journalists ~ but they will want regional, national and international bureaus to top up their local news and weather. Thus, there is a role for something along the lines Mr Bernhard wants, but to get there the CBC‘s budget needs to be slashed, not doubled.

Mr Bernhard complains the e.g. Facebook, Google and Netflix are raking in billions while not practising traditional journalism. So what? They are not ‘journals‘ in the way that the Globe and Mail, the National Post, CTV News and Global News and so on and so forth are. I would argue that Canadian journalism is in pretty good hands in the private sector …

Screen Shot 2020-03-28 at 09.30.52

… and I do not believe that a Ministry of Truth will help at all.

Should the government help to support the media? if so, how?

Direct subsidies will make many Canadians suspicious that the media has been bought and paid for and is little better than a government PR agency. Government advertising will bring charges of taxpayers’ money being used to publish propaganda. I wonder if tax breaks might help … maybe, as long as they are available, equally, to The Star and Rebel Media,  and the North Renfrew Times, too I suppose. But where does it stop? Is my blog a news source? No, quite clearly not, it is almost 100% opinion, but what about blogs like Vivian Krause‘s ‘Fair Questions?’ It looks a lot more like reporting than what I do. In fact, some of her reporting looks a lot better than what the CBC does, doesn’t it? So where would the bureaucrats who draft the laws and regulations and then implement them draw the lines? Let’s assume that the traditional, mainstream media ~ the Globe and Steven_Guilbeault_2014-04-12Mail and Global TV and so on ~ get tax breaks, and let’s assume that I don’t qualify. Who else does? Who makes that decision? Is it a politician, someone like the current Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault? Is it another the so-called ‘arm’s-length‘ boards that act as surrogates for the ministers? Or is it a team of bureaucrats? Who do we trust? None of the above?

The better answer, it seems to me, is to do pretty much exactly the opposite of what Daniel Bernhard recommends:

  • First: defund most of the CBC. Make it a national (and international) radio network (actually, two networks: one English and one French). Sell off ALL of the CBC‘s TV broadcast licences and ALL of its TV production facilities and many of its major radio production facilities, too. Keep a fair number of local studios, especially in rural and remote regions, and a handful (five or six?) larger regional news centres and two (one English, one French) national and international newsrooms that will provide both voice and text reports ~ over the air and on the internet, free for all Canadians and totally free of copyright so that any news agency can use them;
  • Second, provide no, zero, nada, zilch funding to any news organization. Watch and see how they shake out in this rapidly changing environment.  Remove or reduce most foreign ownership restrictions. Encourage “bundling” ~ allow e.g. telecom companies like Bell and Rogers to own and to integrate newspapers and TV stations and radio stations and internet platforms and entertainment sources, too; and
  • Third, get the CRTC out of the business of the internet and cable. There is a legitimate role for an independent regulator to manage scarcity. Over-the-air radio and TV channels are always in limited (and often in short) supply and they need to be allocated (licensed) to individual broadcasters; that’s a useful job for the CRTC. There is no scarcity of capacity on the landlines, cables and even satellite links in Canada. The market does a first-rate job of regulating them; the CRTC does, at best, a third-rate job.

I am certain that there are useful, profitable business models for media out there. The fact that we don’t seem to have one in Canada is, in my opinion, because of the existence of the CBC, which distorts the market too much, and the constant efforts of governments (national, provincial and even local) to try to ‘support’ commercial favourites. The right move is to stand back and remove the heavy hand of bureaucracy and let the media find its own, profitable business model. There is a very limited role for government but Canada does not need a Ministry of Truth.

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