Canadian Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez’s claim that Bill C-18, the Online News Act, was a hands-off approach was never really credible, but the clause-by-clause review of the bill has taken the government picking media winners and losers to another level. It was always readily apparent that the bill represents an unprecedented government intervention into the Canadian media sector with the extensive power wielded by the CRTC as it sets regulations and the ground rules for the mandatory arbitration process. Further, the Parliamentary Budget Officer’s estimate on the benefits that might arise from the bill – hundreds of millions of dollars of which more than 75% would go to broadcasters such as Bell, Rogers and the CBC – provided a reminder that there was big money involved of which relatively little would go to the newspaper sector.
In recent weeks, however, the government’s role in picking winners and losers has become even more pronounced. Liberal MP Lisa Hepfner’s ill-advised comment that online news outlets weren’t real news was rightly criticized (leading to an apology and near total silence from Hepfner ever since) but skeptics feared she was merely saying the quiet part out loud since the reality of Bill C-18 is that it is the lobbying product of large media outlets, who are set up as the prime beneficiaries.
Further, two recent amendments create more winners and losers. One set of big winners are community, campus, and indigenous radio and television broadcasters. There are hundreds of these outlets across the country licensed by the CRTC. As I noted last week, the CRTC licence does not even strictly require these broadcasters to produce news as the typical requirement is 15% of programming as “spoken word”, which can include – but is not limited to – news. Incredibly, Bill C-18 now automatically treats all these licensed broadcasters as eligible news businesses without any consideration for whether they actually produce news. These are the only organizations to be granted automatic eligibility with no review or standards, creating a giant loophole that is only accorded to Canadian broadcasters. The risk is clear: a potential trade challenge on the grounds that foreign broadcasters must meet the higher threshold on news production for eligibility.
If government has picked community, campus, and indigenous broadcasters as winners, it has also slotted small community news outlets as losers. Last week, the committee debated several potential amendments designed to address concerns that small and online-only news outlets were excluded from the bill. Having just opened the door to hundreds of broadcasters, the government proceeded to slam it shut on small community outlets with a single journalist on staff. Heritage official Owen Ripley responded to questions about the issue as follows:
With respect to the question around one journalist, I acknowledge that as drafted and even with MP Julian’s motion if it passes, a one journalist operation would be excluded from the ambit of this bill. I acknowledge the policy debate that’s taking place on this point. The challenge is there needs to be a mechanism to determine the difference between an individual and a news business ora news organization and so the QCJO…one of the reasons the two journalist criterion was chosen in that context was to make that distinction. Fundamentally, it’s a labour tax credit. It’s about supporting a news business and the fact that you have more than one individual is one indication that you’re growing a business.
That distinction needs to be made somewhere because at the end of the day, the mechanism that the bill sets up is that these organizations’ eligibility would be determined by the CRTC and there needs to be appropriate guidance about where that distinction is between supporting an individual versus a news business.
The government’s position would be far more credible if had not just included hundreds of broadcasters with no attempt to discern whether the eligible organization was producing news or even conduct a CRTC review. What is left is a bill where the government picks the winners – the public broadcaster will likely be debated today as another winner – but leave many others out, creating the very worst possible outcome for an independent press.