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opinion

The newspaper industry has never been subject to the CRTC’s remit, but Bill C-18, in its present form, poses a problem as it contains language that could allow the newspaper industry to be subject to arbitrary regulation.DENIS BALIBOUSE/Reuters

Phillip Crawley is the publisher and CEO of The Globe and Mail

This week I sent a letter, via e-mail, to a government minister. It might be the first time that has happened in my 24 years at the helm of The Globe and Mail.

Globe and Mail publisher Phillip CrawleyFred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Why now? Because there are risks to independent journalism in Canada if legislation making its way through Parliament is not defined more clearly.

Bill C-18 is the problem, in its present form. It contains language that could allow the newspaper industry to be subject to arbitrary regulation by a quasi-government body. Politicians of all parties should be wary of going there.

We hear many noble words about the role of the media in upholding democracy, and the value to society of holding our institutions to account.

But if government, or its agencies, are the gatekeepers for commercial agreements between newspapers (and their websites) and digital giants such as Google and Facebook, editorial freedom can be a casualty.

The provisions of Bill C-18 – to enable publishers and broadcasters, large and small, to negotiate with the big tech platforms under the watch of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission – may be full of good intentions, but they are alarmingly imprecise as they stand. The government has stated it intends for CRTC’s role to be administrative. We would like the language to reflect this.

The Globe’s letter to Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez spells out amendments that should be made to the wording of the bill, to eliminate imprecision.

The CRTC is a tribunal on which the federal government relies to regulate pricing and protocols for the broadcasting industry. The broadcasters employ squads of lawyers and lobbyists to manage that relationship, to their benefit.

The newspaper industry has never been subject to the CRTC’s remit. There is risk in changing that situation. For example, the power to compel news organizations to publicly disclose confidential contract terms is at odds with the principles of our industry. What a client pays for an advertisement in print or on our websites is not shared with their competitors. That should not be altered.

It is understandable that media companies that can no longer depend on advertising dollars as their main source of income should look for new revenue sources.

Happily, thanks to The Globe’s success in evolving into a subscription-driven business, where two-thirds of our revenue comes from readers and users paying for content, we have been able to continue to invest in high-quality journalism, delivered on multiple platforms. More than 300,000 people now pay for our journalism.

That gives The Globe a market-leading advantage when it comes to attracting interest from big-league digital platforms, such as Apple and Google. They pay us to use our content, especially business and finance. Those licensing deals preceded the publication of Bill C-18. We are not the only Canadian publisher to have such deals. But many others would like to join the club, with C-18 providing powers to force the digital giants to the negotiating table.

Governments in Europe and Australia have brought in legislation that requires Google and Facebook to pay media companies for use of content. There has been much speculation as to what payment would amount to for Canadian publishers, but the big tech platforms will have their own views as to what that’s worth.

Google and Facebook have been the principal targets because their search and social media capabilities have scooped up so many advertising dollars. But there are other popular content platforms, such as Apple, that help partner newspapers like The Globe to build a bigger audience.

If Bill C-18 passes, after House and Senate approval, then we will see what the impact will be for newspapers and broadcasters, but that is a commercial bargain still to be struck.

We support the principle of the legislation, but the wording needs tightening. Restricting CRTC’s power to compel information from news organizations will prevent undue encroachment on editorial freedom for everyone.

Meanwhile, the newspaper industry is facing more immediate challenges. The war in Ukraine means that gas prices have gone up steeply, hence increasing distribution costs for home delivery customers, and newsprint is much more expensive. Some mills in Europe have raised their rates by 40 per cent and newsprint producers in Canada are also looking for much higher prices.

Those impacts will be felt long before any monies flow from Bill C-18.