Why Media Handouts Aren't Good for Canadians
A story last week about a federal government bailout of Canada's news media industry didn't grab the headlines I thought it would. Maybe we're all just tired of hearing stories related to doom and gloom about newspapers and TV and radio newsrooms.
While we all can ask whether the government handout will make a financial difference, I also think we should be asking whether it's a good idea to begin with. How will the news coverage we read, watch and listen to on a daily basis be affected?
To me, that's the biggest question and it's one we all should be asking because I don't see how, as an example, Canada's biggest newspapers can take a government handout and still have credibility.
Free Media Money
Finance Minister Bill Morneau announced in the fall economic update last week the federal government was introducing $600 million in tax credits and incentives to help the media industry over the next five years.
Some of the money is expected to go toward a new tax credit for media organizations to support the production of content. Another tax credit will be aimed at subscribers to digital news outlets. The plan will also allow non-profit media outlets to apply for charitable status.
Reaction was interesting. Conservatives in Ottawa were quick to say the timing was suspicious and suggested the Prime Minister Trudeau was just trying to get some favourable election coverage from the media in next year’s federal election.
Postmedia CEO Paul Godfrey had a very different opinion. He said denied the media will be influenced and added “Everyone in journalism should be doing a victory lap around their building now.” I’ll give Godfrey credit for dropping a great sound bite, but his opinion is as jaded as the ones from Conservative politicians. Godfrey is ultimately the man responsible for shedding Postmedia reporters as quickly as a stripper tosses off her clothes just before closing time.
Media Shouldn't Be On the Take
In my opinion, there’s something fundamentally wrong with media outlets taking cash handouts from the government in any form.
I fully understand Canadian media outlets, especially daily newspapers, need a hand from somewhere. As I pointed out in a previous blog, too much of their advertising business has gone to websites, Facebook, Google and others. I also understand that without a strong media, we’ll lose the checks and balances that are vitally important to keep government and others in line.
The question is, does the end justify the means? I don’t think so.
Media outlets need to be totally unbiased if we’re going to believe their coverage and take it seriously. Will a newspaper, as an example, be influenced by the money if its reporters learn of a potential scandal involving the Finance Minister who’s signing their cheques? It might.
Sometimes orders about not running stories may be direct, while other times they may be more subtle. Reporters are people and they understand realities. They aren’t going to do things to anger their bosses.
A good example is Rogers, which owns Sportsnet and the Toronto Blue Jays. Are reporters for Sportsnet less critical of Blue Jays’ management and players because of ownership. I think it’s pretty clear they are. Does TSN give more positive coverage to the CFL in its programming and on its website because it covers CFL games? The answer clearly is yes.
The bigger issue is perception. It is reality.
What happens when there’s a bad news story about the federal government and Postmedia papers across the country are soft peddling it? Will readers wonder if the cash Godfrey took had anything to do with the way the story is handled?
They will and they should.
Here's Why It's Important to You
I have some personal experience in this area. Many years ago I was News and Public Affairs Director of a radio station in Edmonton. I would get the occasionally salesperson suggesting the newsroom do a positive news story about a business that was a client.
At times, some of the suggestions made sense. Other times though, it was pretty clear a story on the business would be little more than blatant shilling. That’s what I told one salesperson, who always seemed to think we were missing a great opportunity to tell our listeners what a great business it was. The conversation usually ended with me reminding the salesperson that it was his job to sell advertising and my job to decide what stories go on the air.
As soon as media outlets take the cash, they’ll lose any chance to criticize politicians for taking campaign donations from land developers, big business and unions. They won’t be able to justifiably question whether a decision a politician made was influenced by the cash because every time they do a smart politician will be able to look a reporter in the eye and ask “Isn’t part of your paycheque coming from the federal government?”
I would really like to see some of the big media players stand up and tell the government thanks but no thanks because it’s more important for us to be independent than take the cash than have our objectivity compromised.
Mind you, if they don’t they might not be around much longer. I think the sad reality for some who take the cash is that it won’t make a difference in the long run anyway.