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Opinion: Canada needs an industry-governed journalists fund to save news

Commentary

The establishment of a truly independent journalism sustainability fund and the de-commercialization of the CBC are two of several vital policy actions required to ensure the long-term health of Canada’s news industry.

With the likely passage into law this week of the Online News Act (Bill C-18) prompting Meta to begin disengaging from carrying news links, Google contemplating something similar, Bell laying off more journalists, and Postmedia running out of cash, it’s clear the government’s approach to sustaining journalism is failing.

Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez is now overseeing a chaotic blur of uncoordinated policies involving C-18, the Canada Periodical Fund, the Local Journalism Initiative, and the Journalism Labour tax credit. Two of those are due to end, the periodical fund is irrelevant in the digital age, and C-18 is about to backfire.

As a stable alternative, we propose a multi-pronged policy approach that establishes a level, market-based, domestic playing field, accepts that not all media will be able to survive the disruption of the digital age, fosters innovation, taxes web giants to support journalism in a stable and predictable fashion, rewards subscribers and ensures the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) positively contributes to the journalism ecosystem.

Allowing the CBC to sell advertising while receiving $1.2 billion in federal subsidy distorts the national news environment to its detriment. We believe there is an important role for a national public news provider but CBC must be de-commercialized over the air and online, its scope sharply re-focused and its content made available to other domestic news organizations.

Those three actions would free up $400 million in revenue for which private news organizations could compete, would establish a focused public broadcaster, and would allow all journalism providers to benefit from, instead of being punished by, government funding of the CBC.

A Canadian Journalists Fund should be established by statute and sustained by a levy on advertising revenues earned in Canada by companies such as Meta/Facebook, Alphabet/Google, and others. The governance of the fund would be by the industry alone, transparent by law, and fire-walled from the government to ensure the maintenance of public trust.

There would be no linkage to the volume of content/links posted by news organizations, as is the problematic case with the Online News Act. The fund would be accessible to all industry-verified news organizations on a per capita/journalist basis and news providers would still be free to use social media to build readership and make other commercial deals. The only role the CRTC—which has an invasive part to play through C-18—would perform would be to ensure that Big Tech companies are not abusing their market power.

The government-funded CBC would not be eligible to draw from this fund, which would only be available to companies whose primary business is the production of news.

Participation by the social media platforms and search engines would be unavoidable. But, provided the levy is reasonable and responsible, they will get the cost certainty they’ve been asking for, and all parties avoid endless haggling, cost accounting, mediation, and court appeals.The details are in our latest policy paper for the Macdonald-Laurier Institute.

It is widely accepted that the reporting of news in a fair, accurate, and balanced fashion is one of the elements required for the smooth functioning of a modern liberal democracy. It is also understood that government involvement in that support can undermine that which is most vital to a news organization’s survival: public trust.

Building a national news industry policy is, therefore, a tricky business.

We don’t pretend to provide all the solutions. We do believe, however, that recommended policies such as the 100 percent tax deductibility of news subscriptions are sensible, doable, and when coordinated, create a stable foundation for a diverse and trusted industry. News organizations, while assisted by the policies we propose, will still have to compete for readers and will only survive through the quality of their work.

Journalism producers will need to form a national association that can fairly represent the entire industry and transparently manage the fund. The industry and policy-makers also need to accept that not all companies will survive during a period of disruption such as the one underway. While that is regrettable, that is not evidence of market failure—it is how markets work.

What is necessary is not the right to eternal life for all companies involved in producing journalism, but that the craft has a fighting chance to transition from unstable business models to those capable of sustaining quality journalism in the years ahead.

Opinion: Here’s how the government could have kept Paul Bernardo in maximum security

Commentary

Over the past two weeks significant controversy has arisen over the transfer of inmate Paul Bernardo from Millhaven maximum-security institution to a medium security facility at La Macaza, QC. The government has insisted that, due to the independence of the correctional services, there was nothing it could do to reverse the transfer.

But, as we will show, the government had options that may have kept Bernardo in a maximum security facility.

In the early 1990s, Bernardo was convicted of multiple murders and a series of rapes. He was handed a life sentence as well as a dangerous offender designation.

Section 30 of the Corrections and Conditional Release Act mandates that the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) assign a security classification of maximum, medium, or minimum to each inmate. That assignment is determined by CSC in accordance with the factors set out in s. 17 of the CCRA Regulations. Those factors are:

(a) the seriousness of the offence committed by the inmate;

(b) any outstanding charges against the inmate;

(c) the inmate’s performance and behaviour while under sentence;

(d) the inmate’s social, criminal and, if available, young-offender history and any dangerous offender designation under the Criminal Code;

(e) any physical or mental illness or disorder suffered by the inmate;

(f) the inmate’s potential for violent behaviour; and

(g) the inmate’s continued involvement in criminal activities.

The government confirms that in March 2023, the Public Safety Minister’s Office and the Prime Minister’s Office received from CSC notice of the intended change in Bernardo’s classification. Despite having received ample notice of the transfer, neither the minister’s office nor PMO appeared to request further information regarding the basis of the change and no action was taken in respect of the proposed re-classification.

It is clear from the CCRA and related regulations that the Minister of Public Safety does not have the authority to give direction regarding the classification of individual inmates or the administration of the sentence of that inmate. However, that does not mean the minister and government had no options in this case.

The first and easiest option was for the minister to direct CSC to review the matter at that time and be prepared to provide detailed reasons regarding its assessment of Bernardo’s security classification. The minister could have determined that the public interest exception to the Privacy Act [s. 8(2)(m)] applied and directed that the review and reasons be provided to the families of Bernardo’s victims and made more generally available. This process alone would have generated a significant amount of reflection within CSC.

Further critical steps were available to the minister and government: rapidly amend the CCRA regulations to establish a rank order of the factors to be considered by CSC in assigning security classification. The government could have added two factors immediately after seriousness of the offence committed by the inmate. These would have been:

(a1) whether the inmate has been designated by the Court as a dangerous offender; and

(a2) the risk to the security and safety of the inmate, other inmates, or the institution;

Item (d) (above) would be amended so that it referred only to the “inmate’s social, criminal and, if available, young offender history.”

Amending regulations need not be a complicated exercise. Amendments to regulations are approved by the governor-in-council. This is usually done by the Treasury Board sitting as a sub-committee of cabinet. In the normal course, an amendment is submitted to Treasury Board twenty-three days prior to its consideration. However, on an urgent basis, amendments have been approved by any three cabinet ministers in a “walk-around” approach.

The PMO and minister’s office received notice of Bernardo’s proposed transfer at least two months prior to it happening. They had ample time to amend the regulations to allow CSC to assess the transfer under an enhanced set of criteria.

By requiring CSC to explicitly consider the factors in order of precedence and also consider the dangerous offender designation as the second factor, the approach outlined above would have acknowledged and respected the Court’s finding of fact that Bernardo’s personal characteristics and circumstances made him a danger to society.