Twitter and the CBC were in the spotlight yesterday with Twitter’s decision to add a “government funded media” label to the CBC Twitter account. The label is defined by Twitter as a media organization “where the government provides some or all of the outlet’s funding and may have varying degrees of government involvement over editorial content.” CBC responded by tweeting it would pause its Twitter activities because suggesting that its journalism was anything other than impartial and independent was untrue. The government funding for CBC is undeniable, but the inclusion of “government involvement over editorial content” is apt to mislead. The Broadcasting Act provides guidance on the kinds of content to be found on CBC, but there is an important difference between general policy objectives and specific involvement over editorial content. In fact, Twitter has another label for “publicly funded media” accounts that appear to be better suited to the CBC since it covers “media organizations that receive funding from license fees, individual contributions, public financing, and commercial financing” but makes no reference to editorial content.
The Twitter-CBC labelling battle offers more heat than light since it does little to address the underlying problems with media independence in Canada and the CBC (much less the tire fire that is Twitter). Instead, it simply provides fodder for CBC critics to point to the Twitter label and argue for “defunding the CBC” (at least the English language part of it) and CBC defenders to proclaim that they will stand up for the public broadcaster against unfair smears. That debate distracts from serious underlying problems with government media policy and the public broadcaster.
The government portrays itself as a defender of the independent press, typically pointing to media funding, both in the form of increases to the CBC allocation and tax policy that supports other media outlets. Yet cutting big cheques is not the same defending an independent press. In fact, its recent policies have had the opposite effect. For example, Bill C-18 turns every media outlet in the country – television, radio and newspaper – into a potential beneficiary of Internet platform money, creating a significant conflict of interest along the way. Indeed, coverage of the bill has been a case study in the blurring of the editorial and business interests of Canadian media, one welcomed by politicians who benefit from favourable one-sided news coverage with newspapers in particular loath to criticize the government as they run a steady stream of favourable op-eds.
When the government first entered into the private media support space through tax benefits, it did so somewhat gingerly with limits on eligibility and independent review in recognition of the risk to press independence. Even that system sparked criticism, but at least there was some awareness of the risks. Today, it is all-in on support – particularly when someone else pays for it – and has been more than happy to ignore the serious risks that come with handing considerable oversight powers to the CRTC and which leave Canadian media increasingly dependent upon foreign Internet companies. In fact, rather than pursuing a policy that limits the connection between content and funding, it has adopted the riskiest, most conflict laden option in Bill C-18 with payments based primarily on links. The Internet platform’s unsurprising response runs the risk of blocked news links or news sharing and the government has seemingly no answer other than to implausibly hope that escalating criticism of tech companies alongside fishing expedition hearings as retribution will persuade them to play ball.
While government policies may be hurting the independent press, the CBC has done little to bolster the case for the public broadcaster. I don’t believe that the government directly interferes with the CBC’s editorial work. But I do think that the CBC is its own worst enemy when it sues the Conservative Party for copyright infringement during an election campaign (a lawsuit that was properly dismissed by the courts) or when it lobbies for government legislation such as Bills C-11 and C-18. At the very moment that the CBC could be demonstrating its value as a publicly-funded institution, it instead seems determined to be viewed as just another broadcasting or Internet news choice for Canadians. If the CBC is indistinguishable from its private sector competitors, the defund the CBC chorus will only grow louder.
What should the CBC’s role be, particularly with respect to news? I think the answer lies in language found in Bill C-18, which speaks to “facilitating access to news.” The government mistakenly thinks that is about mandated payments for links, but for a public broadcaster it should be about maximizing public access to non-partisan, accurate news. That the CBC wants to be paid for links to its articles runs directly counter to this goal. In a world where Canadians often encounter either paywalls or increased misinformation when seeking out reliable news, the CBC should welcome anyone that extends the reach and accessibility of its news content for which the public has already paid. In fact, I’d go further (as I have for many years) by arguing that it should be openly licensing its content so that others can make use of it by further extending its reach.
The bottom line is that Canadians don’t need a public broadcaster to largely replicate the myriad of private alternatives. But there is a value in publicly supported, independent news coverage that is freely accessible to all. Cutting off promotion on sites like Twitter does not advance that goal. Nor does a CBC that seems more interested in getting paid for links rather than one that encourages as many parties as possible to freely link to its content with the goal of expanding dissemination to the very public that pays its bills.