Historically, a free press has meant freedom from government intervention — from the king, the president, the prime minister, politicians, bureaucrats. The proposals outlined Wednesday by Finance Minister Bill Morneau to rescue journalists pretends to be consistent with that fundamental principle. The measures, he said, will be “arm’s-length and independent of the government.” They are not, and they represent a step backward for Canadian journalism.
Under the Morneau proposals, the arm of government is directly involved in deciding which journalists or news organizations will receive special treatment, tax breaks, charitable status. Over five years the amount of federal money moving directly into news and journalism will exceed $600 million, which obviously results in government dependence, not independence.
Morneau’s own words betray the falsity of his defence of the media-bailout plan. Decisions will be in the hands of an “independent panel of journalists (that) will be established to define and promote core journalism standards, define professional journalism, and determine eligibility.” What the heck does all that mean? Other journalists are going to set standards for what? Content? Ethics? Ideology? Adherence to the Canada Food Guide?
One of the handouts, a refundable tax credit — which means companies get a cheque from the government — will be paid to “qualifying news organizations” to support “labour costs.” Again, some “independent panel established from the news and journalism community” will determine corporate eligibility, as the fiscal update explains, “as well as provide advice on other measures.”
This is not arm’s length nor does it ensure independence and press freedom. Newspaper CEOs and Unifor union chief Jerry Dias may be pleased with the federal bailout moves, but taxpayers and all who believe that the press should be free of government control, manipulation and interference should not. There is no way Ottawa’s journalism-bailout scheme can pass any press-freedom test.