Footing the bill for a free press
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.