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Journalism crisis: Government inaction leaves votes on the table

Journalism crisis: Government inaction leaves votes on the table

Written by
Daniel Bernhard
Executive Director and Spokesperson, FRIENDS of Canadian Broadcasting
May 14th, 2019

A recent Nanos Research poll found that Canadians want platform monopolies like Facebook to be regulated and held accountable for their content. And yet nobody in Ottawa is pledging to do anything about it — even with an election coming up.

Journalism crisis: Government inaction leaves votes on the table

Photo: Element5 Digital

It was a bloody week in Canadian journalism.

Torstar, which owns the Toronto Star, iPolitics and the Metroland chain of local dailies, announced a $7.4 million quarterly loss. It’s a sign of the times that this was considered good news; last year’s first-quarter loss was $14.5 million.

CTV announced a restructuring plan that would require journalists to not just report the news, but also shoot and edit their own footage. Unifor, which represents CTV journalists, believes the shuffle will impact jobs in five provinces, and lead to layoffs.

And just when you thought the worst had happened, The Globe and Mail announced a $10 million cost-cutting plan, inviting journalists and non-journalism staff to apply for voluntary buyouts before layoffs commence.

The crisis of journalism is not an exclusively Canadian phenomenon. The leaching of advertising dollars from professional journalism outlets that strengthen democracy towards social media platforms that poison it is a truly global problem.

For over 50 years, Canadian law has incentivized businesses to spend their ad dollars in Canada. But we don’t apply those incentives to the digital realm.

But the demise of Canadian journalism is unique in one respect. For over 50 years, Canadian law has incentivized businesses to spend their ad dollars in Canada. But we don’t apply those incentives to the digital realm, so as other countries scramble to stem the bleeding, Canada stands alone in ripping out the sutures. Where other countries are finding ways to require the platform monopolies to pay taxes and contribute to local content financing, Canada furrows its brow and claims to be paralyzed by the complexity of governing the digital economy. And where other countries are taking action to penalize platforms that disseminate hate speech and other illegal content, Canada does little more than express its disappointment.

Paying the price to pay the price

While the political and moral virtues of Canada’s policy inaction are the subject of some debate, the electoral implications are clear.

A recent poll by Nanos Research, conducted for FRIENDS of Canadian Broadcasting, has found that Canadians are hungry for decisive regulation of platform monopolies like Facebook.

The poll shows a widespread belief that Canadian democracy is weaker because of the influence wielded by platforms like Facebook. Canadians believe that most people are unable to distinguish between propaganda and professional journalism online, and that the government should hold platforms like Facebook accountable when they publish false or illegal content – holding them to the same standard as traditional, professional media such as broadcasters and newspapers.

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So here’s the question: with the public so clearly in favour of decisive regulation for the likes of Facebook, why is the government dragging its feet? Why isn’t the Opposition beating the drum more loudly? There are clearly votes to be won. Why are Canada’s political parties leaving these votes on the table with just five months to go until the next election?

The platforms are allowed to disseminate false content with impunity, and Canadian society pays the price.

But it’s worse than that. We don’t just pay the price of their democracy-eroding business models, we also pay the price of the myriad subsidies and exemptions Canada affords to these companies. We’re paying the price to pay the price.

With the public so clearly in favour of decisive regulation for the likes of Facebook, why is the government dragging its feet?

The scale of Canada’s special treatment for Silicon Valley is positively surreal:

  • Licensed broadcasters have to spend a certain amount of their income to finance Canadian programs. Internet broadcasters like Netflix face no such obligation. Why? Because the government has decided to exempt them.
  • Canadian publishers are legally liable for the content they publish. Despite functioning like publishers and making money in the same way as publishers, platforms like Facebook claim not to be publishers, and the government seems inclined to agree, for the time being at least. This means that Facebook faces neither criminal nor regulatory action for live broadcasting the mass murder in Christchurch, New Zealand, even though a Canadian publisher doing the same thing would face stiff consequences.
  • Canadian businesses must charge sales taxes. U.S. Big Tech does not.
  • And, most glaringly, Canadian businesses that advertise with foreign broadcasters and print media pay tax penalties for doing so. But the government chooses not to apply the law to the internet, so ads bought from Facebook, Google and other foreign media giants are fully tax deductible. This cost taxpayers $1.6 billion in 2018.
In Defence of Enlightened Self-Interest

This latest Nanos poll shows that asserting Canadian sovereignty over companies like Facebook and Netflix isn’t just the right thing to do – it’s also the expedient thing to do.

By ragging the puck, the Liberal government is leaving votes on the table – votes it desperately needs. And by failing to take a clear, public stand on these issues, the Conservative party is also limiting its growth potential among the voters it is trying to court in the runup to the election. The same goes for the NDP: making a central issue of the regulation of Silicon Valley is a clear vote-winner for the beleaguered social democrats. And even for the Greens.

So here’s a piece of unsolicited advice to Messrs. Scheer, Singh and Trudeau — and Ms. May. Regulate Big Tech. Hold those companies to the same standards of liability and accountability as their Canadian competitors. Subject them to the same taxes and contribution requirements as everyone else. Come down hard when they don’t comply. Do it because it’s right, or do it because it’s in your clear self-interest as the election approaches.

Canadians clearly agree on what government must do. Whoever wishes to form the next government would be well advised to give the people what they want.

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