March 23, 2019 11:00 am

COMMENTARY: Ottawa’s ill-conceived plan to ‘help’ the media only makes matters worse

WATCH: Finance Minister Bill Morneau presented the 2019 federal budget in the House of Commons on Tuesday.

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For a government with a publicly stated interest in helping journalism flourish, it has somehow instead managed to do great swaths of the profession a tremendous disservice.

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In previously announcing plans for a media bailout, the Trudeau government helped to create a perception that the industry would become beholden to the generosity of the very government it was tasked with covering. Now, with further details of this bailout emerging in an otherwise forgettable budget, it’s apparent that the majority of those tarred with the accusation of being paid government shills won’t actually be receiving any of this money. The worst of both worlds, you might say.

Paradoxically, the revelation of new details about this plan has only made the actual purpose of it seem murkier. If this is about saving journalism, or specifically saving local journalism, then it makes little sense as to why it would be so limited. Or, to put it another way, if most media outlets are seen by the government to not be in need of any sort of financial assistance, then where is the crisis that necessitates government involvement in the first place?

(As a broadcaster, Corus Entertainment, the parent company of Global News, would be excluded from the funding criteria.)

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Moreover, though, if the Liberal approach ends up undermining the profession itself, then that could erase, and then some, whatever gains or benefits this bailout has. It’s hard to see how this sort of government — picking favourites, picking winners and losers — doesn’t ultimately erode the independence of the media or at least the perception of independence.

This is not so much a media bailout as it is a newspaper bailout. Nothing against Canada’s many fine newspapers, obviously, but as the news media continues to evolve in a digital era, such distinctions are becoming increasingly meaningless.

Funding will be available only to “qualified Canadian journalism organizations” who are “primarily engaged in the production of written content.” Organizations “carrying on a broadcast undertaking” will not qualify for the tax credit. Additionally, these media outlets “must not be primarily focused on a particular topic such as industry-specific news, sports, recreation, arts, lifestyle or entertainment” and must also “employ two or more journalists.”

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An “independent panel” is supposed to lay out eligibility criteria for all of this, despite the fact that the budget has already done so. Of course, the government will select the members of that panel, so once again the concept of “independence” seems detached from its actual meaning.

Clearly, there are a lot of media outlets in Canada who don’t and won’t meet the government’s threshold of being a qualified Canadian journalism organization, despite the fact that they are clearly engaged in the practice of journalism. So not only has the government cast a shadow on the industry by creating the perception of a conflict of interest, but it’s also be sending a message that some media outlets are more legitimate than others.

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Look, journalism is crucially important in any functioning democracy, and there are reasons to be concerned about the state of the industry and the profession itself. That doesn’t mean that this kind of government intervention is the answer, something that’s becoming more apparent the more we learn about this plan.

If we’re of the belief that any solution must involve some kind of government involvement, then there are perhaps other ways of coming at the problem. For example, if Canadian media companies are suffering because of Facebook and other social media giants sucking up ad revenue, perhaps the government could stop advertising on those platforms and focus exclusively on Canadian media outlets.

READ MORE: Federal government’s journalism plan prompts praise from newspapers, criticism from broadcasters

Furthermore, we could review the mandate of the CBC. Why do we have a government-subsidized public broadcaster competing directly with private broadcasters and even competing for ad dollars? Perhaps we could refocus the CBC to provide coverage in underserved markets and to free up ad dollars for broadcasters and online outlets.

Regardless, Canadian media outlets are going to have to figure out how best to navigate this changing media environment. Some are having more success than others.

The government’s concern for the future of journalism seems admirable, but at the moment it only seems to be making the situation worse.

Rob Breakenridge is host of “Afternoons with Rob Breakenridge” on Global News Radio 770 Calgary and a commentator for Global News.

© 2019 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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