Foot­ing the bill for a free press

Cape Breton Post - - EDITORIAL -

Afree so­ci­ety needs a free press. But a free press car­ries a hefty cost, and Cana­di­ans will have to find a new way to pay for it if they think it truly mat­ters.

This much is clear in the wake of the global dig­i­tal tsunami that has pushed this na­tion’s news me­dia to the break­ing point. The read­ers, view­ers and ad­ver­tis­ers who mi­grated by the mil­lions to on­line sites in re­cent years have – know­ingly or not – smashed the busi­ness model that sup­ported news out­lets for gen­er­a­tions.

As a re­sult, since 2010 a third of the coun­try’s jour­nal­ism jobs have been lost while 225 week­lies and 25 daily news­pa­pers have been merged or closed. There’s a lot less news be­ing cov­ered, printed and broad­cast th­ese days.

Con­vinced that this cri­sis in Cana­dian jour­nal­ism could be­come a cri­sis in Cana­dian democ­racy, the Pub­lic Pol­icy Fo­rum has is­sued a timely cry for ac­tion to the fed­eral gov­ern­ment – and the peo­ple of this coun­try.

It’s pre­ma­ture to say whether any or all of the 12 rec­om­men­da­tions made by this Ottawa-based or­ga­ni­za­tion last week should be im­ple­mented. At the very least, they should ig­nite a vig­or­ous na­tional de­bate.

At stake is not merely the fate of just one more in­dus­try to be dis­rupted by new tech­nol­ogy. The steady stream of re­li­able, fact-based in­for­ma­tion flow­ing through com­mu­ni­ties is the very lifeblood of Cana­dian democ­racy and civil so­ci­ety.

Only in­formed cit­i­zens cast in­formed votes. And politi­cians who know they are be­ing watched and held ac­count­able will surely be more en­cour­aged to ad­here to the high­est eth­i­cal, as well as le­gal, stan­dards of of­fice.

It is no co­in­ci­dence that the vic­tory of Don­ald Trump, Bri­tain’s vote to exit the Euro­pean Union, the rise of an­gry pop­ulism and the resur­gence of ex­treme na­tion­al­ism world­wide have all hap­pened as peo­ple aban­doned main­stream me­dia and turned to blogs or web­sites that con­firm nar­row, pre-ex­ist­ing prej­u­dices, of­ten with words of hate and by dis­sem­i­nat­ing “fake news.”

The Pub­lic Pol­icy Fo­rum is aware of th­ese dan­ger­ous trends but be­lieves Canada can es­cape them. If it acts now.

The most im­por­tant rec­om­men­da­tion in its re­port, “The Shat­tered Mir­ror,” calls for a change to the In­come Tax Act that would col­lect a 10-per-cent levy from com­pa­nies that sell dig­i­tal ads in this coun­try with­out pay­ing Cana­dian taxes or sup­port­ing Cana­dian jour­nal­ism.

The $300-mil­lion to $400-mil­lion this levy would raise an­nu­ally would go into an in­de­pen­dently-op­er­ated fund that would sup­port lo­cal and civic-based jour­nal­ism as well as new kinds of dig­i­tal news.

Which me­dia out­lets would ben­e­fit from this largesse and how the money would be al­lo­cated re­main dif­fi­cult de­tails to work out. Yet this and other pro­pos­als, such as a call for CBC to re­fo­cus its man­date and get out of dig­i­tal ad­ver­tis­ing, de­serve con­sid­er­a­tion.

Aware of the pub­lic’s con­tin­u­ing need for a vi­brant, free press, the fed­eral gov­ern­ment is al­ready con­duct­ing a ma­jor re­view of Canada’s me­dia in­dus­try.

It should pay close at­ten­tion to the Pub­lic Pol­icy Fo­rum’s rec­om­men­da­tions as it does so.

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