Tuesday, February 23, 2016

The coming push to nationalize the media

Prediction: This year we're going to see a push from various interests to normalize the concept of nationalizing Canada's media.

It's up to the general public and self-respecting journalists to nip this topic in the bud before it gains traction. An upcoming battleground will be a report coming later this year from MPs on the Canadian heritage committee, who started meeting Tuesday to probe the issue of media in smaller markets.

Whatever the report concludes, odds are the recommendations will lean towards more government say in the media. Not less.

Going back to the 1970 Davey Report and the 1980 Kent Commission, the government has been trying to wade into the affairs of the private sector press.

"I hope we don't just become another report on media," veteran broadcaster and Conservative MP Kevin Waugh, who sits on the committee, told me Tuesday. "Is this going to have any bite?"

A detailed Senate report from a decade ago on the state of the media had little impact aside from altering CRTC rules and mergers legislation. It's unclear exactly what bite any new report could or should have -- aside from updating the Broadcasting Act for the first time since 1991.

"How are we going to stay alive?" Waugh adds. "What is the impact of digital? I'm really worried about people in our industry."

Good questions. But they're ones media execs have been thinking about for years. It's doubtful MPs -- even those formerly in media -- can develop ideas the private sector hasn't already thought up.

Then again, there is one idea the Liberal-dominated committee just might float: Nationalize the whole darn industry.

Now, they wouldn't admit that's what they're doing, of course. But this is how it would go down: Dangle a bit of cash in front of smaller media companies. Call it something like The Digital Futures Opportunity Fund. Once it comes up for renewal, attach some conditions to it. Repeat a few more times and you've got them all eating out of your hand on a tight leash.

Think there's no appetite for this? Last month the Toronto Star published a front page feature trying to argue Postmedia -- which owns this publication -- is a "cancer on Canadian journalism."

But their petty name-calling wasn't the biggest problem. The feature presented only three options for the future of media, none being the private sector: "charitable or non-profit trust," "community ownership" and "government backstop."

Government backstop? Apparently that means "the federal and subnational governments have a role to play in funding non-profit trusts like those described above should any of the country's 100-plus daily newspapers hit the wall."

The piece then calls the media an "essential public service." You know what we do with essential services? We regulate them. Heavily.

Last summer the Senate released a report on the CBC that even went so far as to recommend programming choices. When the government gives you money, they might try to act like they own you.

This is why it's wise for the media to beat the feds back as far as possible. Don't let the notion of a slow nationalization of the media gain any more traction.
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