• By: Dan Donovan

Why Canada Needs a Royal Commission on the Role of Media in the 21st Century

The media landscape in Canada has changed dramatically in the past decade. The newspaper industry is slowly collapsing as readers transition fully from print to digital formats for news and other information. Advertisers have abandoned traditional media in droves, which in turn has flatlined revenues. Canada’s once largest daily newspaper, the Toronto Star, is a shell of its former self, turning away from its storied and balanced editorial past into a spreadsheet for left-leaning causes.

In Ottawa, many believe that former Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould’s damaging testimony alleging that Prime Minister Trudeau’s chief of staff Katie Telford offered to get the minister positive press (“lineup all kinds of people to write op-eds”) if she were to follow the Trudeau government’s wishes was a reference to the Toronto Star and its reporters in Ottawa. The publication’s propensity to defend, promote and put a positive spin on just about everything Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (or for that matter, former Ontario Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne) does while providing over-the-top negative coverage to conservative politicians is well known. Last year, Torstar Corporation lost $31.5 million as its readership continues to decline. It publishes dailies in Toronto, Hamilton, Niagara Falls, Peterborough, St. Catharines, Waterloo and Welland, Ont., as well as the Chinese-language Sing Tao Daily and commuter papers in Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Toronto and Halifax. Torstar and its management team have squandered the multi-millions of profits that had rolled in over decades and did not prepare properly for the current and ongoing digital onslaught.

Their competitor, Postmedia Network Canada Corp., sold their soul to a hedge fund in New York in 2010 on the promise of future revenue. It publishes the National Post and dailies in Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Regina, Saskatoon, Ottawa, Windsor, London and Montréal. When things didn’t go as planned and print kept collapsing, the fund managers in control of Postmedia began gutting newsrooms across the country and laid off hundreds of writers, editors and staff.    No surprise there when revenues drop and someone has to pay the bills. Postmedia Network Canada Corp. lost $33.9 million last year. (Interestingly, La Presse in Montreal successfully navigated the print-to-digital transition with great success).

Interestingly, as Torstar and Postmedia were gutting their operations and laying off editorial and other staff, their senior management teams continued to lavish themselves with exceptional salaries and bonuses.

The other large newsprint player in Canada is Thomson Reuters. In 2001 The Globe and Mail was folded into Bell Globemedia Publishing Inc., owned by Bell Canada Enterprises (BCE), which also owns CTV. In 2010, an 85 percent stake in the newspaper was purchased by the Woodbridge Company Ltd., the majority owner of Thomson Reuters, the Canadian multinational mass media company headquartered in Toronto. The Woodbridge Company is a holding company chaired by Canadian David Thomson of the Thomson family, one of the world’s wealthiest families and businesses. Rumour in Ottawa has it that the Globe and Mail may soon announce they are going to a not-for-profit model as their print issues continue to decline and they struggle with other traditional media to compete. That competition comes from the rise of social media platforms, including Facebook, the global 550 billion dollar information behemoth of a business that has slayed traditional news organizations the world over. Facebook operates with virtually no regulatory provisions and has been at the centre of numerous fake news and related scandals.

Having failed to successfully compete against the new media companies on their own, the traditional Canadian newspapers sent their representatives to Ottawa to whine and complain about the unfairness of it all. Torstar and Postmedia went further, demanding the federal government place more paid print ads in their pages to support editorial news in the public interest. That effort failed. However, Liberal MPs indicated they were prepared to fund “independent” media with subsidies to protect journalism and the integrity of real news. It seems many of them forgot that Canadian taxpayers already spend 1.4 billion annually to fund the CBC. Part of that money goes to pay for the train wreck that is supposed to deliver the daily news on what was once a great news show called The National. The greatness part left when Peter Mansbridge retired in 2017.

The new version of CBC’s The National, launched in 2018, is no longer about the news – it’s about an agenda. Instead of actually reporting “news”, CBC editors say they have shifted to providing “deep context on a few key stories rather than a faster-paced review of the day’s events which typifies evening newscasts – (or what regular people and others in media call, NEWS!)

It is beyond painful to watch; millions of Canadians have just tuned out or turned to other news sources. So politically correct are the show’s editors that they couldn’t even pick one anchor to replace Mansbridge, instead choosing four to appear together. Only a media company/broadcaster with no financial care in the world would select four people to do a job for one. Of course, there are two female and two male anchors with the appropriate diversity traits. Their painful banter disguised as dialogue is better suited to be a breakfast show that debates important issues, like whether you should cut the crusts off the sandwiches at receptions or not, than a news program.

How is it playing out? Well, this past fall, The National decided to “go deep inside the story.” Instead of delivering the “news,” they chose to provide over-the-top nightly coverage of the American midterm congressional election races. How great that our national broadcaster deemed it appropriate to make their primary news coverage every night for over a week about the minutiae of a foreign election. This, while there was an immigration crisis south of Montreal, the gas and oil sector collapsing in Western Canada, a government financial crisis in full flight in Newfoundland, a national methadone crisis and a pharmacare crisis related to the affordability and coverage of drugs across the country, a crisis in home care for seniors and people with disabilities, multiple problems in Indigenous communities, significant problems with police misconduct and misogyny in jurisdictions across Canada and a plethora of other rich and newsworthy stories from across this great land. Instead, we get full-blown coverage of Dick the Congressman and his re-election in Nebraska.

After the blow-by-blow coverage of the American midterms, the editorial gene pool at The National determined they should then provide viewers with their “special take” on the imminent collapse of the Maduro government in Venezuela. So, at no expense to them, they sent their anchors to do live feeds in Venezuela. Months later, Maduro is still in power and…well, the anchors have all regrouped in Canada to regale us with their nightly forced and contrived banter. Ugh.

It is a legitimate question to ask if CBC news resources might be better utilized reporting on decades-long boil water advisories in remote Indigenous communities, the ongoing crisis in Grassy Narrows, the lack of action in defending Canada’s Arctic territory, or the crisis in police misconduct across Canada. Listeners definitely want to hear more about how the government policy to allow over 40,000 asylum seekers or illegal immigrants to enter Canada at the behest of the Federal government without providing the funding to support this “irregular” migration which has negatively impacted social housing in Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto. But the Midwest USA election and Venezuela are more worthy of CBC’s special “deep coverage”.

Another problem with The National is the frequency and length of the commercials. Usually, there are three commercials followed by one of the four “anchors” announcing the next item, followed by another two or three commercials. Ironically, their main competitors, the CTV and Global, receive no taxpayer subsidies and require ad revenue from commercials to exist, yet run fewer commercials during their feature broadcasts than CBC. Under current rules, the CBC, after receiving its annual $1.4 billion subsidy, is still allowed to shill for digital and other ads for their broadcasts to the tune of over $90 million annually. This gives them an unfair competitive advantage over private sector companies like CTV, Global, Corus and other media outlets. The CBC should not be allowed to go after private sector ads. Every dollar CBC gets in ad revenue is a dollar taken away from the private sector media companies.

Despite a significant and steady decline in viewers, CBC producers of The National say the new show is “dynamic” and a “work in progress.” It is dynamic in the same way that watching paint dry or shining doorknobs is dynamic. Instead of dealing with the declining television viewership, CBC executives and staff are quick to pivot, saying they are pleased with the digital performance of some of their medium-length pieces which give viewers wider context on important stories. They cite a 9 1/2 minute report by Paul Hunter that looked at arguments for and the backlash against the southern border wall proposed by U.S. President Donald Trump, which aired last December and according to them has racked up close to 3.3-million views on YouTube. The issue that needs to be discussed is why is a story about the proposed American border wall with Mexico cited by CBC as its example of success. YouTube does not disclose viewers by nation so the CBC claim that this got 3.3 million viewers does not necessarily mean Canadian viewers.

Because they get 1.4 billion in taxpayer dollars annually, it is not unreasonable to demand that the stories CBC cover and then point to as a measure of their success have some very direct relevance to Canada, Canadians and Canadian news. Original stories for The National news broadcast are fine, but making story choices to cover domestic issues in other countries in lieu of reporting on the many stories screaming to be told in Canada is problematic. It raises legitimate questions about why we are subsidizing them in the first place. The fact that the network’s editorial producers and management have strayed so far from delivering on the actual mandate of the CBC — to inform, enlighten and entertain; to contribute to the development of a shared national consciousness and identity; to reflect the regional and cultural diversity of Canada; and to contribute to the development of Canadian talent and culture — is very problematic.

Independent advisory panel member, Unifor

After intense lobbying by the Toronto Star, Postmedia and other Canadian media monopolies who were complaining about a loss in revenue due to the changing media business landscape, the Trudeau Liberal government responded by creating a second taxpayer funded media fund to the tune of 600 million dollars. Initiated as Bill C-97, it was approved as part of a 392-page omnibus budget bill that amended the Income Tax Act to offer lucrative payroll subsidies for news organizations “primarily engaged in the production of original written news content”. A total of $360 million would be paid over four years through a 25 percent payroll tax credit for publishers. This is the equivalent of a maximum $13,750 per newsroom employee, retroactive to January 1, 2019. Under the program, news media organizations are eligible for refundable tax credits, a non-refundable tax credit for subscriptions to Canadian digital news and access to charitable tax incentives for not-for-profit journalism. The government says the fund will be controlled and regulated through a special “independent advisory panel” that they will choose. This “independent panel of experts” will then select eligible news organizations to assist the government in determining what is newsworthy and what is not and then the requisite funds will flow. Seriously? Eight Trudeau government selected associations were asked to provide a representative to sit on the “independent panel” by mid June. They include: News Media Canada, the Association de la presse francophone, the Quebec Community Newspaper Association, the National Ethnic Press and Media Council of Canada, the Canadian Association of Journalists, the Fédération professionnelle des journalistes du Québec, Unifor and the Fédération nationale des communications. Interestingly, four of the eight are from Quebec. The Canadian Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez is from Quebec as is Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Unifor is an avowed adversary of the Conservative Party of Canada and are currently running a campaign where they call themselves “The Resistance” to Conservatives.

The Liberals also set up an additional fund of $50 million over five years to help regional media outlets and asked seven local organizations to select someone who can sit on a panel to decide who are legitimate news people in the regions. Those organizations include: News Media Canada, Association de la presse francophone, Quebec Community Newspapers Association, National Ethnic Press and Media Council of Canada, Community Radio Fund of Canada, the Canadian Association of Community Television Users and Stations, and the Fédération des télévisions communautaires autonomes du Québec. Three of these are also based in Quebec.

After naming the “worthy” organizations whose representatives will now determine what is news, Pablo Rodriguez opined that, “Today, we are reaching another milestone toward the implementation of these tax measures that aim to support Canadian journalism and journalism in under-served communities.” This, of course, is a massive slush fund and is basically another SNC scandal about to happen …on steroids.

By doing this the Trudeau government has become dangerously big brother-ish by using public funds to assert their control over who decides what is and what is not news. They will decide who gets the money based on what they determine to be a qualified journalistic organization. It is a shocking and scary departure from how a free and independent press operates in a democracy.  As Ottawa-Carleton Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre noted, “A free press implies that no government organization gets to tell us who is a journalist and who isn’t. The reader gets to choose who he wants to read; the viewer gets to choose who she wants to watch; the listener gets to decide who he listens to. We don’t have, in a free press, government ‘bodies’ that tell us what constitutes a journalism organization.”

Consider this: If the press was under the control of government, the SNC scandal would have never been reported. Just ask Jody Wilson-Raybould or Jane Philpott.

Opposition to the fund has been blunt. The Conservative Party has vowed to kill it. No surprise there since Unifor, Canada’s largest union with close ties to the Trudeau Liberals and avowed opponent of all things conservative, is one of the “independent” bodies selected to determine what is news and what isn’t.

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer has suggested in the past that he would get rid of the CBC news division. However, this too is misguided and in many ways is just as wrong and as controversial as Justin Trudeau’s decision to spend $600 million dollars to fund independent media. The point is that politicians should be arms length from these types of decisions.

There are some hopeful signs that changes could be implemented to ensure the free press continues even if in a different format that would kick fake news to the curb. This week, Canadian MPs threatened Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg and chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg that they could be found in contempt of Parliament if they continued to ignore a subpoena requiring them to appear as witnesses to testify before a combined meeting of the Canadian House of Commons privacy and ethics committee and the International Grand Committee of lawmakers from a dozen countries on privacy, big data and democracy. Together these lawmakers represent over 400 million people. Zuckerburg and Sandberg were still no-shows and instead sent their Canadian Facebook representative, Kevin Chan. The MPs were trying to pin Facebook, Google and Twitter down on steps they were taking to prevent fake news from disrupting democracy in their countries. NDP MP Charlie Angus questioned  Kevin Chan on why during the investigation by the federal privacy commissioner of the Canadian Facebook users caught in the Cambridge Analytica scandal did the company refuse to recognize Canada’s jurisdiction? “Because there was no Canadian data sent to Cambridge Analytica,” Chan replied.

Over 622,000 Canadians had their data taken, retorted Angus, and Facebook knew in 2015. “That is a breach of Canadian law … How do you get to decide what laws you respect and don’t apply to you?” In a breathtaking and arrogant response, Chan retorted, “We (Facebook) go above and beyond the law. Angus retorted, “No you don’t, you don’t recognize we have jurisdiction. How can you say that with a straight face?” to which Chan replied, because it is the truth, sir.” Angus replied, “So we have to take you to court after … you sat on a breach because you didn’t want to upset your business model.” Liberal MP lawyer and Rhodes scholar Nathaniel Erskine-Smith then went at the representatives as a lawyer would in a courtroom and made them all look foolish. Their arrogance, sense of entitlement, lack of knowledge of Canadian and international law and dismissive attitude was on full display for all. It was the clearest sign yet that the big social media companies need to be reigned in. But how?

Roger McNamee, a venture capitalist who mentored Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, testified to the Committee that the time has come to “call their bluffs” and force social media giants to make changes to their business practices. “If your goals are to protect democracy and personal liberty, you have to be bold. You have to force a radical transformation of the business models of internet platforms,” said McNamee. “At the end of the day, the most effective path to reform would be to shut the platforms down at least temporarily… any country can go first.”

All of these events scream that it is time for Canada to undertake a substantial and significant review of the roles and responsibilities of all media and communications companies in Canada in the 21st Century. Better would be that whatever government is elected in the fall name a Royal Commission into the Roles and Responsibilities of Media and Social Media in Canada the 21st Century. The sub-theme should deal with media concentration and convergence and the commissioners named to study this matter and make recommendations should be those with experience in the privacy and ethics, data collection, privacy online and democracy, news and telecom and media law.

Former Senator Keith Davies

The last serious national studies of media in Canada were almost 50 years ago when newspapers were evaluated by the 1969–70 Senate Special Committee on Mass Media under the chairmanship of Senator Keith Davey, and the 1980–81 Royal Commission on Newspapers chaired by Tom Kent and known as the Kent Commission. Both examined the concentration of newspaper ownership and the decline of newspaper competition, with the Kent commission stressing the conglomeration of newspapers with other types of business. Interestingly, both studies determined that freedom of the press embodied the principle of widespread dissemination of information and opinion from a diversity of sources, and that this could be injured by excessive concentration of the press.

The Davey recommendation that the federal government establish a press ownership review board to curb newspaper mergers was ignored, leading to a concentration of newspaper ownership by a handful of companies. The Kent recommendation that newspaper owners should not be permitted to hold radio and TV broadcasting licences in the same market was accepted in principle by the then Trudeau government, but was dropped by the Mulroney government. Hence the approval of the alliance between The Globe and Bell CTV, as well as the many other cases of media concentration that exist today in Canada.

The decline of newspapers and widespread use of the Internet and unfettered and unregulated rise of social media “news and fake news” has now reached a point where it threatens our very democracy. Just a decade ago much of what Canadians learned about their political parties, public policy or leaders came from what was then the mainstream media. Back then television, radio and newspapers were the primary dispensers of information between politicians, government and the Canadian citizenry.

The traditional role of the media was to try to explain the government’s goals and policies, while highlighting controversial ideas, exposing corruption and holding politicians accountable to public opinion. In reporting on politics, the media played a significant role in selecting the issues that received public attention and thus helped played an important role in shaping the issues that were top of the list for public discussion.

Today, traditional news editors compete against the low cost “fake news” being deployed on platforms run by the social media giants Facebook, Google and Twitter.

A Royal Commission to examine all of these matters and to make recommendations should be employed and everything should be on the table including the future role and funding of the CBC. There must be a discussion about the modern media age in Canada and  regulatory regimes that should be put in place for  Facebook, Google and Twitter, Instagram and others. A review of media concentration in Canada and the role of telecoms in media must also be studied. Such a commission will do more to protect the integrity of Canadian journalism, democracy and a free press than Justin Trudeau’s $600 million slush fund or Andrew Scheer’s proposal to defund the CBC news division if he gets elected.