Rachel Notley’s blacklist of journalists she doesn’t like has been suspended in the face of national condemnation.
But it may return: Notley has asked a retired newspaper editor to make recommendations about “the government’s media policies."
In Canada though, governments don’t have media policies. The only accreditation necessary is found in the Charter of Rights with its guarantee of a free press. Notley’s desire to regulate journalists – whether through armed sheriffs and Department of Justice letters, as she did last week, or through high-priced advisors, as she’s trying next week, smacks of banana republic socialism. Perhaps we all should have paid more attention to Notley when she was in opposition, and wore a Che Guevara wrist-watch to the Legislature.
But even if the Alberta government backs down from attacking journalists they don’t like, there’s a larger problem in Canadian media: governments sponsoring journalists they do like.
The CBC is the obvious example. In the recent federal election, the NDP and Liberals had a battle for the hearts and minds of the CBC’s journalists. Thomas Mulcair started the bidding with a promise of a $115 million annual bonus to the CBC budget if he were elected. Not to be outdone, Trudeau upped the ante to a whopping $150 million. Normally that sort of negotiation happens in cheap motel rooms in red light districts. But here, the politicians were brazen: they were offering the journalists who cover them a success fee if they were re-elected.
It’s only human nature that the hundreds of CBC journalists who were working on the election would think about what that cash would mean – not a week goes by without news of deep cuts in Canadian media. $150 million a year would save a lot of jobs. Forget about the natural ideological affinity between the left-leaning CBC and Trudeau. This was about bread and butter.
We don’t have to speculate as to whether journalists were influenced by this legal bribe. The Canadian Media Guild, the journalists’ union that dominates the CBC as well as the Canadian Press newswire, formally registered as a “third party” campaign group with Elections Canada, similar to U.S. SuperPACs. Every unionized journalist covering the election contributed part of their own salary to an anti-Harper election effort. Of course, not a single CBC election report disclosed this conflict of interest.
It’s not just CBC journalists who are corrupted by being politicians’ pets. Journalists at private media are, too. As they nervously polish up their LinkedIn resumes, they can’t help but notice that the one company that’s still hiring is the CBC – including, just this week, hiring a newspaper-style editor for “features and columns”. How many private sector journalists are tailoring their own work now to mirror the editorial line of the CBC where they hope to be in six months? And then there’s hundreds of private sector journalists who top up their income with appearances as freelance guests on CBC radio or TV.
It’s a soft form of corruption, when politicians pay the journalists who cover them. It’s the carrot, compared to Rachel Notley’s stick.
But the CBC hasn’t just editorially compromised itself. In the age of the Internet, its very existence undermines its private competitors. In the past, private TV and radio stations overcame the CBC’s government-funded advantage with government gifts of their own, from the CRTC. For example, in 1997, the government ordered every cable company in English Canada to carry CTV Newsnet, and every Canadian to pay for it, whether they wanted it or not. CTV is on the dole, too. All TV and radio companies are. In return for protection.
But newspapers were free – no government licenses needed, no government competitors to crowd them out. Until the Internet converged both worlds. How could newspapers and magazines, the hardest-hit media companies today, compete on the Internet against the CBC that dumps all of its subsidized TV and radio content online for free?
The CBC is conscious of its artificial advantage, and sometimes rubs it in. When the Calgary Herald first attempted a paywall, gleeful CBC journalists in the city took to Twitter boasting that unlike the Herald, their content was free. No it isn’t – they just take their fee from taxpayers by force. And there’s no CRTC for newspapers with the power to order every Canadian to buy newspapers whether they want them or not.
When new technologies disrupt the old, it’s called creative destruction – candles are replaced by light bulbs. There’s a lot of that going on with the Internet. But there’s also a lot of government favouritism going on too. That’s not just deciding which companies live and die. Just as much as Rachel Notley’s machinations, that sends a signal to journalists about what they have to say editorially, if they want to survive.