Gus Carlson is a U.S.-based columnist for The Globe and Mail.
The HBO blockbuster Succession has captivated and appalled television viewers with its depiction of the wicked ways some modern news media work, especially in manipulating political outcomes.
By definition, however, the fourth estate has a sober and critical role not only in informing the public but in holding democratic governments and their institutions accountable, calling out flawed strategy, bad policy and corrupt practices that benefit the few at the expense of the many.
Yet with the rise of Big Tech as the new pipeline for news, and the decline of many conventional news platforms, traditional media have increasingly been seen as seeking refuge with the very governments and institutions they are charged with scrutinizing.
Canada’s Bill C-18, the Online News Act, is Ottawa’s solution to making companies such as Google and Facebook compensate news organizations for links to their work. It gained royal assent this week and is expected to take effect in six months.
It’s more than a case of strange bedfellows. As Conservative heritage critic Rachael Thomas suggested in the Commons this week, a bill meant to help Canada’s media industry “puts the government in the middle of the newsroom,” threatening the independence of the press.
But these are clearly unusual times, with tech giants having a chokehold on the evolving business model of news.
Are you confident about the credibility of news and information piped to you by a non-news digital platform regulated by a bunch of techies glued to algorithmic metrics in Silicon Valley?
And if something were to go wrong – really wrong – with the way your community, your region or your country was being run, who would you call, the Google help line?
As if to demonstrate its lack of commitment to news, Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, said Thursday that it will follow through on its threat to block Canadians’ access to news on those platforms if Bill C-18 became law. It made the announcement after the legislation passed the Senate without the changes Meta had been demanding for months.
Also Thursday, Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez held talks with Google executives to prevent a similar move by the search engine.
Meanwhile, Gannett, the largest U.S. newspaper publisher, sued Google and its parent Alphabet this week for alleged monopolistic practices around digital advertising rates. With the suit, Gannett joins the U.S. Department of Justice and regulators in several states and Europe.
In each case, the question on the table is the value of news, which is now commonly referred to as content, as if it were so much sand filling up a pail at the beach rather than intellectual property made up of curated information, analysis and opinion essential for people living and making decisions in a democracy.
On that point, the media and government seem somewhat aligned. In an op-ed column about his company’s lawsuit against Google, Gannett chairman and chief executive officer Mike Reed wrote: “Our democracy and communities suffer when citizens are uninformed and disconnected, and when high-quality journalism is unavailable to hold those in power to account.”
In a Commons debate this week, Mr. Rodriguez called the threats by Facebook and Google “pure intimidation tactics.” NDP heritage critic Peter Julian said the tech giants were “threatening our democracy.”
For the average consumer of news, this pillow fight must seem like a case of pick your poison. What’s better – or worse – a media community seen to be beholden to government for its existence, or continued Big Tech dominance of how we perceive and understand the world?
As Mr. Reed wrote, this is about more than who gets a bigger piece of the financial pie. “Without free and fair competition for digital ad space, publishers cannot invest in their newsrooms and content, and readers cannot get trusted news at low cost or for free. In a functioning market, no one would expect the middleman to make more than the content creator.”
Ultimately, as with any business, the market will determine the value of news. That’s where those who take seriously the independence of the sources they use to make informed decisions play an important role. They need to think about these questions – and the consequences of the answers.
If the fourth estate were too weak and bowed to do its job, would those in power self-regulate and hold themselves to higher standards? Not likely.