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Canada’s two solitudes starkly apparent on issue of media independence
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Canada’s two solitudes starkly apparent on issue of media independence

Written by
Chris Selley
Published by
February 3rd, 2020

Opposition to government regulation of journalism is firmly entrenched in anglophone Canada. But French Quebec is much more tolerant of cultural gatekeeping

In a way you have to hand it to the Broadcast and Telecommunications Legislative Review Panel. Freedom-loving Canadians were well prepared for many of its terrible and unnecessary ideas — notably forcing streaming companies like Netflix to invest in Canadian content, which they’re already doing because people actually want to watch it. If a positive outcome hasn’t been achieved by regulatory fiat, the panelists seem to believe, it hasn’t been achieved at all.

The notion of government-subsidized print journalism having won such favour in Liberal Ottawa, perhaps it’s also not surprising the panel proposed taking money from internet giants like Facebook and Google and using it to establish an (ahem) “independent arm’s length program … to support the production of news,” with membership open to any outlet meeting unstated standards of “ethical journalism” and (double-ahem) “editorial independence.”

But even the most keyed-in observers seem to have been staggered by Recommendation 73: To have the CRTC draw up a list of “accurate, trusted, reliable” Canadian news sources, and to force “media aggregation and media sharing undertakings” — that’s everything from Yahoo! News to YouTube — to link to those sites in such a way as “to ensure visibility.”

No one seemed to anticipate recommendations to “license” Yahoo! News or Breitbart or MSN News, extract “levies” from them and regulate their hyperlinks. Because, well, that would be crazy.

Or at least, that’s the dominant anglophone view.

On Sunday, when CTV’s Evan Solomon pushed Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault on the issue of issuing journalism licences to foreign media outlets, Guilbeault eventually just shrugged: “I’m not sure I see what the big deal is.”

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The minister tried to walk it back on Monday, but the fact is many of his fellow Quebecers will also struggle to discern a big deal. There is simply much more tolerance of this sort of cultural gatekeeping among francophone Quebecers than in the Rest of Canada, and the tolerance extends well into the realm of journalism.

“In reading the (report’s) 260 pages and 97 recommendations, one word comes to mind” Sunday’s editorial in La Presse gushed: “Finally!”

Opposition to government regulation of journalism is firmly entrenched not just in anglophone Canada, but across the anglosphere. When the 2011 Leveson Inquiry proposed the British government create a powerful new press regulator, nearly every major outlet rejected the idea. Fraser Nelson, editor of The Spectator, famously vowed the magazine “will not attend its meetings, pay its fines nor heed its menaces.”

The same year, Laval University professor Dominique Payette’s report into Quebec’s struggling news media recommended the government legislate a “professional journalist” designation. The province’s largest journalists’ trade organization and the Quebec Press Council happily sat down with the government to bash out a power-sharing agreement on deciding who’s a proper journalist and who isn’t.

The English-language Montreal Gazette was dead-set against the idea, but Le Devoir called it a “logical outcome.” (The power-sharing discussions eventually fell apart, and the idea died a merciful death.)

Meanwhile the head of the press council, retired Justice John Gomery, suggested the government pass legislation forcing the Journal de Montréal and Journal de Québec to rejoin the organization. Owner Pierre Karl Péladeau had pulled them out a year earlier alleging bias in its decisions, and when Péladeau said he would challenge any such legislation in court, a La Presse editorial accused him of disrespect for the rule of law.

On this issue, Canada’s two solitudes could hardly be more starkly apparent. But Conservatives are quite rightly tearing the report to pieces, Quebec MPs included. “You’d think you were in North Korea,” heritage critic Steven Blaney told reporters in Ottawa. He suggested that the $600 million “carrot,” in the form of financial aid to struggling print outlets, was now being followed with the “stick” of regulation.

This is potentially dangerous territory for the party: Not only is government regulation of journalism more popular in Quebec than the Rest of Canada, so is government bailing out struggling media outlets. A 2018 Nanos survey found 65 per cent of Quebecers support “additional government funding to keep local news sources open,” versus 37 per cent in the Prairie provinces.

Mind you, pandering to Quebec’s peculiarities has gotten the Conservatives precisely nowhere. Perhaps they’re finally over it.

Indeed, leadership candidate Erin O’Toole has used the media bailout as a major part of his “real conservative” branding exercise. He has promised to repeal it. And now he’s using the panel report to his advantage. “Trudeau wants to control what you see on Netflix,” he tweeted on Sunday. “Trudeau wants to control news you read online. This is wrong. This is dangerous.”

That’s entirely fair play, but it may carry some risk of sounding unhinged to those who don’t already despise Justin Trudeau — which is more people than Conservatives sometimes seem to realize — and who don’t understand just how unhinged this report actually is. He might do better focusing on this unimpeachable message, delivered on Twitter the next day: “An independent press is essential to freedom and democracy. Government licensing of the media has no place in a free country.”

A whole lot of panelists disagree. Ideally, they will very soon be very bitterly disappointed.

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