Jen Gerson is a freelance journalist based in Calgary. She is a contributing editor at Maclean’s, journalist-in-residence at the University of Calgary’s Faculty of Law and co-host of the Canadian politics podcast OPPO.
A few weeks ago, during a political TV show, one of my fellow panelists noted: “Government money is dumb money.” The comment came from James Moore, the former minister of industry under the government of Stephen Harper.
Moore noted that companies — particularly in industries that hold deep power over the imaginations and identities of Canadians — seem to have a particular talent for extorting generous amounts of money from our government. If those companies happen to gainfully employ Canadians in electorally or culturally powerful regions — like, say, in Quebec or Ontario — well, then the jig is quick. Both federal and provincial governments tend to come through with loans, bailouts, even outright purchases.
Moore and I were discussing Bombardier on the program. Canada wants to compete in the international corporate welfare scheme that is the aviation industry, and so it surprised few when the Liberals handed over $372.5 million in interest-free loans last year. That’s in addition to a $1 billion partial ownership stake the provincial government of Quebec made in the company’s C Series commercial jet program.
It should surprise few that the government then fenced questions about Bombardier’s senior executive compensation packages, which rose by 50 percent, even as the company went cap-in-hand to the taxpayer. (After public backlash, the pay hikes were deferred.)
The bailouts didn’t do much to protect workers, either; in November, the company announced it would lay off another 5,000 — 3,000 of them in Canada.
There’s talk about loans to keep the GM plant in Oshawa afloat, though its closure now seems imminent, and 2,500 people will soon be out of work. One columnist at a major newspaper even suggested nationalizing the plant, which evoked the glorious image of a dependable and patriotic Canadian Trabant. Surely, it will only come in two colors: tan or grey.
No important company can ever be allowed to fail in Canada. This maxim applies, too, to its media.
As Canada is a sparsely populated country of only 34 million that sits next to a cultural and technical behemoth, a digital revolution funded partially by advertising revenues that require a critical mass of eyeballs has left the media industry here in a particularly dire state.
While the country can boast a few promising start-ups, Canadian media is a small and dwindling industry dominated by a few concentrated media corporations that appear to be perpetually on the verge of bankruptcy and collapse. And so, in the finest tradition of Canadian business, the pillars of the industry began about two years ago to jockey for a bailout.
Last week, the governing Liberal Party came through. In an election year, no less. It announced a $595 package to be offered over five years. Eligible media will get a suite of goodies, including a labor tax credit. Nonprofit media will be able to attain charity status that will give them the right to issue tax receipts to donors. And the government will offer a 15 percent tax credit for subscriptions.
The latter two proposals seem rather reasonable. The bailout does, however, raise a serious existential concern: Who decides which media organizations qualify?
For that, a pat answer: The government will consult an independent panel of journalists to decide which outlets meet the “professional” standards required. The ultimate goal, according to the Finance Minister Bill Morneau, is to “protect the vital role that independent news media play in our democracy and in our communities.”
The plan was greeted with joy among every media executive. Those of us further down the totem pole have since been left to ponder the fresh horror we have brought on ourselves.
I have no doubt that the Liberals will use this bailout to build a narrative about how they are the hopeful defenders of the free press and democratic values (in stark opposition to those grubby populist Conservatives, who have been running against the media elite for years). And we journalists are supposed to be the grateful pawns. Just happy to have a job, I suppose. If the rise of populism is at all linked to the decline of public trust in social institutions, taking a government bailout ultimately can’t help us much.
In a country with a population the size of California, there simply aren’t that many professional full-time journalists. Most of us know each other within one or two degrees; we are every bit as petty, insular and desperate as such a class can possibly be. Any “independent” panel will still be staffed by a collection of unimpeachable, high-minded idealists who will also be a collection of neuroses, personal grudges and professional ideologies. For how much longer will I be able to take the risk of offending my colleagues with my work?
How this system is expected to strengthen press freedom, I have no idea. From what I can see, it will only lead to a national professional standard or credential that will inevitably centralize control over the media in a country where the media is already profoundly consolidated.
It should be noted that in addition to the aforementioned bailout, the federal government spends about $1 billion per year on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. The CBC — for whom I make regular contributions and appearances — is a large media organization, providing national and local media coverage on TV, radio and online across the country.
No doubt Canadians will become more reliant on the CBC as its private competitors — local newspapers and broadcasters — ebb into the abyss. This will set the state-funded CBC up to become the Standard Oil of media production if it doesn’t make a conscious effort to avoid anti-competitive strategies that starve private companies of advertising revenue.
I do not fear competing in a free media market. But there is no free market when what counts as journalism is dictated by a professional standards committee responsible for doling out cash — journalism in the glorious hues of tan or gray.
My concern with this growing dependence on government largesse is not just that we will create a media class financially entwined with the Liberals’ continued electoral success, but rather that it will calcify the media in its current state of decline and mediocrity.
We shouldn’t reward a media class in which the executives still enjoy seven-figure salaries and the layoff notices continue to roll out after every quarterly report.
Remember, government money is dumb money.