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  • Howard Law

Andrew Coyne on the Great Threat to Journalism

Andrew Coyne is the smartest and most open-minded conservative journalist in Canada. I always look forward to reading his column in the Postmedia-owned National Post, or listening to him and Chantal Hebert on CBC’s “At Issue.”

Coyne sees this as a dire threat to journalist independence, and ergo our democracy.

The Coyne argument goes something like this:

Journalists are, and must continue to be, independent from influences that could manipulate their reporting.

A federal government that holds the purse strings of an annual $45 million labour tax credit for news organizations will put all of its journalists in a conflict of interest, skewing coverage.

The plan to let a blue-ribbon panel of journalists, or other non-partisan actors, decide which news organizations are legitimate is window dressing or worse.

To test his hypothesis, however, consider that the following must be true:

Currently journalists are independent from influences that could skew their reporting, whether they are employed by the right-wing National Post or the left-wing Toronto Star.

That’s because the news bosses that hire and fire Canadian journalists ---who are almost all wealthy individuals or large corporations--- never interfere with the news coverage of their journalists.

Journalists at Macleans’ Magazine, small town weekly papers and other media outlets already in receipt of government funding through the 150-year-old Canadian Periodical Fund are surely in the government’s pocket, and it shows in their coverage.

Journalists at non-network television stations ---which by grace of the CRTC divide up a $150 million grant every year--- give governments a free pass in their coverage.

Journalists at the $1 billion-funded CBC, including government-tormentors like Robyn Urback and Neil Macdonald, also go easy on governments.

We can each of us decide if the existing government funding to journalism has resulted in Canadian governments getting soft-coverage. SNC Lavallin anyone?

As for Coyne’s dismissal of a blue-ribbon panel to gatekeep government aid, we will have to wait for its membership to be announced. Everyone agrees with Coyne on this much: the appointments had better be non-partisan and beyond reproach. (Coyne wouldn’t be a bad choice among many, but its doubtful he would accept.)

But to really test the Coyne theorem, you need to work through how his “conflict of interest” becomes real and more than just a fear.

To be a real threat, the urge to please government would have to overcome the wealth, class-interest, and ideology of news proprietors, an overwhelmingly right-wing lot to judge by their election endorsements over the years.

These Government Pleaser owners would begin interfering in hiring and firing their journalists, currently a power delegated to their Editors-in-Chief.

Owners and their newly supine Editors-in-Chief would make it known to journalists they expected softball coverage of government scandals and policies. That would mean passing on important stories the competition was covering. That would mean telling journalists ---or using a red-pen--- to choose their story sources based on a pro-government view, to distort the facts, or omit crucial information. That would mean spiking off-message stories or firing uncooperative journalists.

Meanwhile readers would never notice and would keep patronizing the news outlet.

At the end of the argument, Coyne and his fellow skeptics should at the very least answer the following question: what about the crisis in local news?

The relentless coverage of federal politics practised by Coyne, Bob Fife, Susan Delacourt and the phalanx of Parliament Hill reporters is in no danger of extinction. The Ottawa press corps is the Alamo of Canadian journalism. It will be the last to be overcome by the collapse of the advertising business-model supporting media.

What’s dying (in the news deserts) is local news. Two-hundred and fifty news outlets closed in the last ten years.

We have a federal election in 2019, and several provincial contests including the April 15th vote in Alberta. Coverage of local races matters to voters. So do their local issues.

In a previous column, Coyne answered the question “what’s the alternative to government aid” with a shrug. Essentially, it is up to voters to find a way to inform themselves.

That is acquiescence to ignorance and the destruction of liberty.

Digging Deeper into the Google Pay-for-Content Deals

An under-investigated policy issue is how much money might be delivered by a Media Bargaining Code requiring Google and Facebook to share revenue with Canadian media outlets, otherwise known as pay-fo

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