As noted in yesterday’s post, Canadian Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez appeared before the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage last Friday for one hour and walked away with a serious credibility problem. Friday’s hearing focused on two issues – the Laith Marouf/CMAC issue of government funding for an anti-semite and Bill C-18 – and Rodriguez faced credibility questions on both. While yesterday’s post focused on his responses to questions about Canadian Heritage funding for CMAC/Marouf, today’s addresses his misleading statements on the Online News Act.
I’ve written extensively about some of the problems with Bill C-18. These include process concerns involving blocking dozens of witnesses from appearing before committee, concerns about who benefits based on Parliamentary Budget Officer estimates that the big winners are Bell, Rogers and the CBC, as well as substantive concerns that include the risks to the free flow of information online, risks of increased misinformation, and government intervention in an area that could undermine an independent press. But Rodriguez’s appearance last week raised new concerns about the government using misleading data and apparently having given little thought or study to the full implications of the bill for small media outlets.
For example, Rodriguez started his opening remarks with the following statement:
I want to start by stating facts. The number of media outlets – newspapers, television, radio stations, and news websites – that have closed between 2008 and last August is 468, and 78 of them closed since the beginning of the pandemic. This bill is about them.
The source of this “fact” is the Local News Research Project. Its latest report does say that 468 outlets have closed since 2008, including 78 since the pandemic. However, that is only half the data point. The other half of the data is that 207 new local news outlets have opened during that period, including 56 since the pandemic. In fact, over the last 18 months there have been no net new lost news outlets in Canada as the number of outlets that have closed has been matched by the number of new news outlets that have launched. While in aggregate there is a decline over the 14 year period, Rodriguez’s statement of “fact” is highly misleading, leaving Canadians with a false impression of the state of openings and closures of news outlets. Even the closures data is misleading, since a significant portion of them come from mergers, which the government itself permitted. Further, the most recent data coincides with the government’s other journalism supports, including the Journalism Labour Tax Credit. It suggests that the existing supports may have addressed much of the concern and helped to stabilize the market.
The data from News Media Canada, the lead lobbyist on Bill C-18, is even more promising with respect to the state of the market. Using Rodriguez’s same time frame – 2008 to the present data – suggests that there has been growth of local, community news outlets, not a decline. Its 2008 snapshot indicated that there were 768 community news titles with a circulation of 13.9 million. By 2021, its snapshot shows 950 community titles with a circulation of 14 million. In other words, the data from the lead lobbyist shows more community titles and no decline in overall circulation.
Rodriguez’s credibility took a hit from more than just providing misleading data on the state of the industry. He was also asked about what has emerged as a core concern: the eligibility rules and the fear that the bill will shut out small media outlets. This concern has grown as the PBO estimate revealed that lion share of the money would go to big media outlets such as Bell and Rogers along with the CBC. Yet rather than assuage concerns, Rodriguez only heightened them. The exchange between Rodriguez and NDP MP Peter Julian:
Mr. Peter Julian: Minister Rodriguez, we’ve heard testimony. The Alberta Weekly Newspaper Association and the Saskatchewan Weekly Newspapers are all very supportive of C-18. But all of them raise concerns about many, many small community newspapers and community radio being excluded. Are you open to amendments that ensure that the vast level of community media across the country is actually included in the supports that come from C-18?
Hon. Pablo Rodriguez: Mr. Julian, I’ve known you since 2004. I’m always ready to discuss and am open to suggestions. As you know, the criteria are there. But as I said in my speech, C-18 is not a silver bullet. There are many other programs that are there to support local journalism and small media to which they can apply. We actually increased the funding recently of some of those programs. And a lot of them, especially in the western part of the country, are benefiting from those programs.
Mr. Peter Julian: Has the department done an evaluation of what it would mean in terms of supports if the threshold was lowered from two journalists to one journalist or even to a journalist owner-operator?
Hon. Pablo Rodriguez: No.
Mr. Peter Julian: Have you done any evaluation of what possible amendments could make in terms of a difference for community media and community radio across the country?
Hon. Pablo Rodriguez: No, it’s hard to say who would apply or not, because there are many different programs directed at them that are benefiting those small media. In many cases, those very small media are more interested in the other programs that exist than in C-18. So it would be hard to know, because a lot of them would be continuing to use those programs instead of C-18.
Mr. Peter Julian: So there hasn’t been an evaluation done.
There are two key takeaways here. First, the standards that the government is using for eligibility in Bill C-18 are not evidence-based. It is remarkable that the legislation may exclude numerous small Canadian news outlets while providing hundreds of millions to giants such as Bell and Rogers. Yet there has been no study on expanding eligibility and the best the Minister can do is say that there are other programs available? If Bill C-18 doesn’t really matter to small Canadian media, what is the point beyond responding the lobbying of some of Canada’s most powerful companies? Rodriguez’s committee appearance had to leave many scratching their heads with misleading data and an acknowledgement that small Canadian media outlets are at best an afterthought that may be shut out of the bill given the absence of evidence-based policy development.