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‘Maybe this is a game of chicken’: Heritage minister dodges questions on future of news on Facebook and Google

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Facebook and Google have threatened to block news content on their respective platforms if the government’s Online News Act becomes law, but Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez won’t discuss what the government will do in the face of “threats” from the tech companies.

Rodriguez testified Wednesday at a Senate committee considering the legislation that will require large tech companies to pay publishers for linking to their content online. The minister accused senators of recycling Facebook’s rhetoric about the bill when they pressed him about what Canadians can expect if news stories are blocked on the two platforms.

“What happens…when the platforms have disengaged from the Canadian news market and have ceased to share Canadian content?” Senator Paula Simons asked Rodriguez. 

Rodriguez replied that it would be a business decision and that both platforms make a large amount of money in Canada and they would suffer a negative impact financially and reputationally. 

“They have my number, I told them to reach me,” replied Rodriguez.

Simons said that was not her question and continued to press the minister. 

“Maybe this is a big game of chicken,” said Simons. “I do not think that for them (Meta and Google) to leave is an economically neutral decision, but that is what they claim that they will do…I want it clearly on the record: if Facebook and Google cease to share Canadian content, what happens to C-18?”

Rodriguez said he would not comment on any hypotheses because he would not make decisions “based on threats.”

Simons repeated that his response was not an appropriate response to her question and asked if, after Meta and Google restricted the sharing of Canadian news, Bill C-18 would apply to other platforms like Bing and Amazon. 

Rodriguez said that only Facebook and Google fell within Bill C-18’s scope. He went on to say the federal government had other options if Facebook and Google restricted the sharing of Canadian news. 

With a laugh, Simons asked Rodriguez what those options would be specifically. 

“All of the options,” Rodriguez replied. “In terms of advertising, there are different programs, there are all kinds of stuff that we do, that we decide not to do anymore, maybe we decide to increase, but those options will be explained if we get there. But we’re not there.” 

When Simons continued to press Rodriguez, the minister said the committee was playing Facebook’s game, and repeated that he would not make threat-based decisions. 

“It’s about the future of our news industry…it’s about upholding democracy…any democracy needs a free and independent and thriving press,” said Rodriguez, after mentioning that hundreds of news media organizations in Canada have gone out of business since 2008.

Rodriguez said the status quo for news organizations was not acceptable, and that Bill C-18 would change it for the better but he admitted the legislation was not a silver bullet and would not solve all the industry’s problems. 

Bill C-18 completed its third reading in the House of Commons last December and is currently under consideration by the Senate for recommendations.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg on Oct. 28, 2021. Eric Risberg/AP Photo.

Parliamentary Budget Officer Yves Giroux was also invited by the committee to discuss his office’s cost estimate for Bill C-18. Released first in October 2022, the estimate was $5.6 million per year in costs to the federal government, while news organizations were estimated to ultimately receive $329.2 million per year from digital platforms. 

Giroux acknowledged that few countries in the world had implemented similar legislation to Bill C-18, and said the estimate was partially created by observing data from similar, though not identical, legislation in Australia. 

‘There’s some merit to the criticism that CBC has a left-leaning bias’: Expert panel sees a murky future for the CBC

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Canada needs some kind of public broadcaster, but the CBC isn’t currently doing a good job filling that role, a panel of experts agreed on Wednesday.

With competition from streaming services, a quickly-changing broadcast and news landscape, and diminished trust in the public broadcaster, the future of the CBC is as murky as ever.

On top of all that, Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre is leading a campaign to defund the CBC that has left the organization scrambling to respond.

The panel, hosted by the Macdonald-Laurier Institute and moderated by Aaron Wudrick, the director of the domestic policy program at MLI, explored the difficulties faced by the public broadcaster in winning back the trust of Canadians in a splintered media environment.

Tara Henley, a former CBC producer who now runs a popular Substack, said the CBC lost trust when Canadians started to see it as overly politicized.

“The most pressing issue for on-the-ground work at CBC where all of the editorial decisions are actually made is groupthink. And to that end, I do think there’s some merit to the criticism that CBC has a left-leaning bias, I think this dynamic, in my opinion, is both top-down from leadership and bottom-up from a workforce,” said Henley.

Henley argued that a public broadcaster is an important institution but that the CBC hasn’t lived up to its role and, consequently, the public has lost trust in it.

“I think it’s going to take some self-reflection and a refocusing on viewpoint diversity in both hiring and in coverage,” she said.

Globe and Mail columnist Andrew Coyne, who has long argued against the current model of the public broadcaster, said the government and executives at the CBC have to adapt to a changing world.

The CBC was created in an era of broad programming that was designed to provide advertisers with the largest possible audience. Now, in a world of streaming and niche programming that broadcasters can charge for, it doesn’t necessarily make sense, he argued.

“You could make a case for the CBC and regulation in that world. But none of those conditions now apply,” said Coyne.

Coyne argued for a version of the CBC that would charge its audience directly for content, similar to streaming services and a recently-announced plan from the BBC. The political attacks, Coyne argued, are just a distraction from the core issue.

“I’m really uncomfortable with the Conservatives saying ‘Well, the reason we need to defund the CBC is because they say mean things about us.’ That is not how we should be making important public policy decisions, based on basically vengeance,” said Coyne.

Peter Menzies, a senior fellow at MLI and former vice chair of the CRTC, argued that some version of a public broadcaster is vital in Canada.

“We need at least one broadcaster that will cover the Northwest Territories, Yukon, Nunavut, and Prince Edward Island elections instead of prioritizing American nomination races, and (a public broadcaster) that is capable of telling the nation’s stories to other parts of the nation, not so that we all agree with each other, but so that we know each other well enough not to hate each other when we do disagree,” said Menzies.

“We need in other words, a good public broadcaster. The problem is we don’t have one,” he said.

Poilievre made defunding the CBC a centrepiece of his leadership campaign, sparking raucous chants in support of the idea at his rallies across the country.

The Conservative leader hasn’t backed down from the promise since winning the leadership, but he has narrowed down his targets to the English-language side of the public broadcaster. Radio-Canada’s French services, Poilievre has hinted, would remain largely untouched.

Some experts think it would be extremely complicated to slash one side of the public broadcaster and not the other, though. Others argue that Poilievre’s plan wouldn’t save as much money as he expects, because Radio-Canada is more expensive than the English-language side.

The CBC has spent the last year responding to the assault from Poilievre. The public broadcaster’s CEO Catherine Tait launched a cross-country tour to promote the CBC and even accused Poilievre of “CBC-bashing,” which attracted criticism.

Menzies said executives at the CBC have to face up to the criticism, rather than assume it’s all conducted in bad faith.

“You have to deal with that. You can’t just pretend it doesn’t exist,” said Menzies. “But they seem so convinced of their own righteousness right now that I don’t see any evidence that it’s going to happen.”