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How government 'help' could destroy journalism

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Independence.

It's the most important core value of journalism. An independent media fosters trust in what it reports and demonstrates to its audience that it operates in the public interest, not beholden to something else.

News Media Canada is the country's most influential advocate for a free and independent news industry. It represents more than 700 news organizations, mainly newspapers, across Canada.

Yet News Media Canada led the lobbying that has resulted in Ottawa pledging $600 million to help bolster journalism. And it has agreed to sit on a panel that will give the federal government a large say in determining who qualifies as a professional journalist.

In doing so, it is violating one of its most important guiding principles. "The newspaper's primary obligation is fidelity to the public good," a statement of principles says on its website. "It should pay the costs of gathering the news. Conflicts of interest, real or apparent, should be declared. The newspaper should guard its independence from government, commercial and other interests seeking to subvert content for their own purposes."

This week, I appeared alongside the head of News Media Canada before a Senate committee examining that funding.

For the record, I am not against government aid to news organizations. I am, however, opposed to the kind of help that this government is planning. It runs a real risk of compromising the independence of newsrooms and undermining public trust in journalism. As I said in my presentation, Bill C-97 is one of the gravest threats to freedom of the press that I have seen in this country.

I felt compelled to speak out strongly for the integrity of journalism because so many of its so-called "protectors" have been so eager to line up for a handout from an institution they are supposed to report on without fear or favour.

C-97, omnibus legislation to enact measures promised in the Liberal government's budget, refers to "qualified" or "registered" journalism organizations, which will be the only ones receiving federal support.

The journalist in me asks: Who "qualifies" journalists? Where are they "registered?" Who benefits?

There are no answers to those questions in the bill.

Thankfully, the Senate of Canada is familiar with these issues. More than any other institution in this country, it has studied the media and the public's interest in seeing it function well. From Keith Davey in 1970 to Tom Kent's royal commission in 1981, senators have proposed measures to safeguard a free and independent press.

Of course, little came of those proposals, because publishers and media owners for years rejected any intrusion into their newsrooms.

The reasons are worth noting. Russell Mills is the distinguished former publisher of the Ottawa Citizen. In an article published in the Parliamentary Review in 2003 and looking back on the Kent commission, he said independence from government is the single most important safeguard of a free press, because government controls so many of the levers that can limit or distort information about how we are governed.

Some of Kent's proposals, he said, would have "come close" to bringing government into Canadian newsrooms. He said: "I fought this along with all other senior people in the newspaper industry. With the help of international press freedom organizations, that proposed act was eventually shelved."

What then are we to make of the very different reaction of today's publishers to an even more serious threat of government in their newsrooms? When the CEO of Canada's largest newspaper chain reacted to the budget announcement by saying that "everyone in journalism should be doing a victory lap around their buildings right now."

I think that's the answer to who benefits.

My old newspaper, the Toronto Star, still operates by a statement of principles that I proudly helped to write years ago. It says "Freedom of expression and of the press must be defended against encroachment from any quarter, public or private." (News Media Canada, by the way, claims it operates by a similar principle.)

To give you an idea what that means … let's suppose a reporter was found to have accepted money from a source. That would be a firing offence in any newsroom. It's a direct conflict of interest and undermines public trust in the news organization.

Now, however, we have publishers welcoming a proposal to have the government (a frequently cited source) pay a tax credit for them to hire reporters and editors. It would cover one-quarter of the salary of a reporter or editor, but only in newsrooms that "qualify."

I do not think that is either wise or professional.

Not only that. The heritage minister has already named eight journalism organizations, including News Media Canada, to a so-called "independent" panel that will decide what qualifications should apply. But Bill C-97 sets strict limits on their power to do that, and the government has not said who will vet and approve news organizations for funding. 

Why would anyone -- even a cash-strapped publisher -- think it is a good thing to let government have a hand in defining what professional journalism is and what its standards should be?

One senator likened publishers lining up for a government handout to mice attracted to a slab of cheese in a trap. But John Hinds, CEO of News Media Canada, said he's willing to take the offer of a seat at the government's table on good faith, and hope for the best.

I find that alarming.

Publishers in his organization were instrumental in persuading the government to opt for tax credits for newsroom workers, thus rejecting one of the key recommendations of a report the government commissioned from the Public Policy Forum. Its report, entitled The Shattered Mirror, rejected tax credits for several good reasons. They would give the government "undue leverage" in newsrooms, and favour "established for-profit companies" at the expense of "potentially more innovative newcomers."

That is exactly what has happened. Most of the money will go to the very newspaper publishers whose layoffs and lack of innovation have caused the present crisis. The government's bill specifically rules out aid to broadcasters and magazines, and its criteria seem to rule out aid to many of the small, innovative non-profits that have sprung up to try to fill the news gap.

I urged the Senate to correct two flaws in the proposed legislation:

  1. Direct government aid to the people who will report the news is dangerous. There are better alternatives.
  2. The approval process must be rethought and made transparent. This should be spelled out in detail as part of this legislation.

If the legislation remains as is, we risk squandering what lies at the basis of all journalism -- trust. It begins with the trust between journalists and their sources of their information and from there builds to the trust news organizations are able to establish with their audiences.

Once we start to believe our news media have crossed over the line to become collaborators with the intrenched and powerful instead of watchdogs for people like us, we feel disenfranchised and distrustful. And once that filament of doubt sets in, we start to turn away from journalism.

If you want Exhibit A for what could happen, read the column that Bob Cox, chair of News Media Canada and publisher of the Winnipeg Free Press, wrote in which he defended newspapers like his accepting help from government. He was roundly criticized by almost all the 48 readers who wrote in to comment. Several said they could not trust anything written in the Winnipeg Free Press if it was in the pay of the federal government.

If publishers like Cox sacrifice independence to fiscal expediency, history will judge this as a liminal moment in the decline of journalism in this country.

From media executive to media critic, John Miller has seen journalism from all sides (and he often doesn't like what he sees). He draws on his 40 years in news, including five years as deputy managing editor of the Toronto Star, and 10 years as chairman of the School of Journalism at Ryerson University. His 1998 book Yesterday's News documented how newspapers were forfeiting their role as our primary information source. This article originally appeared on John's blog, www.thejournalismdoctor.ca

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