Summer is nearly at an end. Parliament is about to resume. The Conservatives are about to elect a new leader. And our politics are about to enter a period of sharper definition, with clearer differences between the two main parties. Nowhere is this more true, seemingly, than over the issue of government involvement in the media: broadcast, print and internet-based.
The Liberals built much of the current apparatus of subsidies and regulations, and remain unrepentant advocates of it. Not content with regulating radio and television broadcasters – particularly with a view to what proportion of their content meets the regulator’s definition of “Canadian” – the Trudeau government proposes to extend the same regime to the global internet.
Bill C-11, now before the Senate, would regulate audio and visual streaming services as if they were conventional broadcasters: not only the large distributors, such as Netflix or Spotify, but also social-media sites; not only domestic services, but foreign-based ones; and not only provider-generated content, but user-created content as well. All would now have to answer to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, just as the broadcasters have for decades.
Not content, likewise, with subsidizing the CBC – plus the private broadcasters, plus the magazine industry – the Liberals have lately sought to extend state funding to the newspaper industry as well, with the enthusiastic support of many publishers. The first tranche of aid was provided in 2019 through a five-year, $595-million suite of tax credits known colloquially, and accurately, as the newspaper bailout.
Now the Liberals are proposing to entrench state aid to newspapers through Bill C-18, still before the Commons. Only instead of providing the aid directly out of government coffers, it will be laundered through the major search and social-media platforms, notably Google and Facebook.
Technically the bill would only mandate negotiations on how much the platforms should have to pay to use newspaper content. But who’s kidding whom? Not only would the newspapers be empowered to bargain collectively, as if they were a union, but in the event of an impasse, the issue would fall to the CRTC to decide. One guess whose side it would be likely to take.
That would be troublesome enough, if the platforms were in fact using our content, without paying for it. But as they do not – they merely link to it, to our enormous benefit – the program is revealed for what it is: a crass shakedown. Facebook and Google have money. The publishers want it. So the government will force FacebookGoogle to give the publishers some of it. It’s as simple as that.
Finally, there is the online harms bill, still in the drafting – or indeed redrafting – stage. As originally envisaged, the bill would have given the state vast new powers to regulate or delete content – or even suppress it before it appeared – either directly or via complaints to the Canadian Human Rights Commission. The ensuing flap has apparently caused something of a rethink, but how extensive it has been remains to be seen.
And the Conservatives? What is their response to this multipronged assault on media freedom? Assuming Pierre Poilievre is elected leader, the party would appear poised to reverse virtually all of it. Mr. Poilievre has been especially vocal on the subject of C-11, but has also promised to “get rid of all of those laws and restore freedom of expression on the internet.” Does that include C-18? He voted against it at second reading. But would he still oppose it in the face of a united front of the nation’s newspaper publishers?
Similarly, among Mr. Poilievre’s most repeated applause lines is his vow to “defund the CBC.” He has yet, however, to spell out what this means – television and radio? English and French? – or how it would be accomplished. And it is harder to find evidence on the record that he would dismantle state subsidies to private media organizations.
Still, it would hardly be consistent with his repeated vows to get rid of the “gatekeepers” and “make Canada the freest country on Earth” to maintain a system of subsidies for “qualified” news organizations – a policy that until recently would have been unthinkable, even in this country. His followers certainly believe he would dismantle them. Assume for the moment they are right.
That sets up an epic confrontation over what might be called the separation of news and state: between the Conservatives, who would neither subsidize nor regulate the media, and the Liberals, who would do both. Who’s right? The simple way to answer that is to ask: Are we living in 2022? Or 1950?
In the world of 1950, when there was no internet, no satellite or cable TV, and no means for viewers to pay for content directly, there was a clear case for government intervention. With spectrum in short supply, competition was limited. And when the business model of private broadcasters depended on delivering the largest possible audience to advertisers, much of what they broadcast tended to be the same – usually imported American fare. Some mixture of subsidy and regulation could be defended, precisely to recreate the diversity of offerings a well-functioning market provides.
But none of those conditions now apply. There is no theoretical limit to the number of services streaming on the internet, nor much in the way of barriers of cost or distance. Consumers can pay directly for content, so providers need not always aim for the broad middle, but can serve niche markets as well. Regulation is unnecessary at best, if not actively harmful; so is subsidy. In particular, there is nothing to prevent Canadians from paying for Canadian content if they choose – and no reason to force them to if they don’t.
So Prime Minister Poilievre would be right to sweep away, or at least drastically curtail, the lot – not only the latest intrusions, but also the ancien régime: end Cancon rules, shut down the CRTC, and take both public and private media organizations off the subsidy hookah.
This need not be seen in punitive terms. Among the biggest beneficiaries of moving the CBC off its current diet of subsidy-plus-advertising and onto viewer-pay would be the CBC itself; liberated from serving either its political or corporate masters, it could at last devote itself to serving its audience.
Likewise, subsidy does the newspaper business no good. All it does – all it has done – is to insulate us from the need to adapt to the very different world in which we find ourselves, post-internet. That, and to open us to charges of bias, having taken the government dime – a charge that cannot be instantly refuted.
So the next election campaign will be something of a test. Will Mr. Poilievre fully commit his party to the principle that the state has no place in the newsrooms of the nation? And if he does, will the media punish him for it?
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.