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Peter Menzies: How the government accidentally pushed the news industry into the abyss

Commentary

Even more spectacularly than anticipated, the federal government’s attempts to become world leaders in rescuing journalism have not only collapsed but pushed the nation’s private sector news industry to the edge of an economic abyss.

It is difficult to recall a more complete public sector failure than that which Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez has engineered through his stubborn and uninformed management of the Online News Act, also known as Bill C-18.

As the Globe and Mail’s Andrew Coyne succinctly summarized the situation on Twitter:

“Never seen a government that so perfectly fused ruthless partisanship, ideological fanaticism and flower-child naivety.”

Internet law expert and University of Ottawa law professor Michael Geist was similarly concise in referring to Bill C-18 as “a massive own goal.”

“Cannot overstate the harm from this: news sector loses hundreds of millions, Canadians face degraded search results and prominence of low quality sources increase,” Geist tweeted. “Blame squarely on (Rodriguez) who did not take risks of flawed C-18 seriously.”

Lobbied for years by a news media industry that had seen billions of dollars in advertising shift from their suddenly less interesting products to the flashing lights and sensory balms of social media and search engines, the government of Canada decided to come to the rescue. In doing so, it might very well have killed the industry.

The companies it targeted are Meta, which operates Facebook and Instagram, and Google, through which Canadians funnel about 90 percent of their online search activity. Hyperbolic and unsupported claims that the web giants were “stealing our content” were thrown around (a comprehensive analysis by Montreal media analyst Steve Faguy can be found here.

Liberal and NDP politicians bashed Meta and Google resistance as “bullying.” Big tech executives were at first excluded from House of Commons hearings and then, once invited, smacked around contemptuously by Chris Bittle, the parliamentary secretary to the heritage minister, and others. Having watched their heritage critic, Rachael Thomas, be excoriated by Postmedia for daring to raise concerns all might not end well, Conservative politicians just tried not to alienate some of their friendliest publishers.

Meta made it clear as soon as C-18 was tabled that it would have to consider no longer carrying news. Google was less public but both companies pointed out they already had commercial and other arrangements with more than 150 Canadian publishers. Meta claimed that the free delivery its platform offered had a $230 million annual value to news organizations for which it wasn’t being credited. Google put its number at $250 million. Both made it clear that Bill C-18’s structure in terms of demanding compensation on a per-link basis over which they had no control, their unlimited liability under the Act, its baseball arbitration format, unrealistic expectations from news publishers/broadcasters and the enormous financial ramifications for them globally if Canadian legislation was replicated combined to create a hill to die on for them.

Their arguments were dismissed with the wave of a parliamentary hand.

Others, such as this writer, Geist, and Coyne (the latter suggested in commentary that it was perhaps the publishers who should be paying Facebook) were accused of being shills for or in the pay of “web giants.”

And so, determined that Meta and Google were bluffing, Rodriguez rejected all criticisms, suggestions, and warnings and Bill C-18 received royal assent on June 22.

Meta, true to its word, confirmed immediately that, once the Act came into force, it would “comply” by ceasing to allow the posting of links to Canadian news stories within Canada. Google, still hopeful it could find some way to, in exchange for improved spending, wriggle off Rodriguez’s hook, managed to get a meeting with officials in the prime minister’s office the night before the bill was signed by the Governor General. The next morning, Rodriguez invited them for an emergency meeting designed to keep them from announcing action similar to Meta’s.

Minister of Canadian Heritage Pablo Rodriguez on April 5, 2022. Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press.

After that meeting, there was a ray of hope, but when Rodriguez put his thoughts in writing, Google swiftly announced that it would eliminate Canadian news from its search results.

And then both it and Meta started canceling the deals they already had in place with publishers big and small. The amounts are unknown as they are confidential commercial contracts, but it is fair to assume they amount to at the very least tens of millions of dollars.

Jeff Elgie, CEO of Village Media, a company that specializes in digital local news startups where print has failed, had previously warned in Senate hearings that the departure of Facebook and Google from the news ecosystem would devastate his company. In a blog post to employees which he shared online, he estimated that “the potential impact on our traffic would be in the range of 50 percent: roughly 17-18 percent from Facebook (some sites more, some less) and 30-35 percent from Google search, Google News, and Google ads.

“From a news publisher’s perspective, it’s a perfect storm,” Elgie summarized. “…Village Media’s position on this is that this has been a bad bill from the start. It was based on bad messaging created by others in the industry. The premise of the bill was that Google and Facebook ‘steal’ our content when nothing could be further from the truth.”

The truth Rodriguez now has to face up to is that his department doesn’t understand digital economics and got suckered into producing legislation based on a fantasy.

And that as a result, the straits the nation’s news producers find themselves in today are far, far more dire than they were before he decided to “help.”

There are a few more weeks and maybe months left for Rodriguez to keep from being the guy whose hubris killed the Canadian news industry. After all, the blocking won’t begin until C-18 legally comes into force.

But fixing this will require something of which there’s been scant evidence to date within this government: humility.

Ginny Roth: A new type of feminism doesn’t turn back the clock but insists on common sense

Commentary

Feminism Against Progress
Author: Mary Harrington
Publisher: Regnery Publishing, 2023

The Case Against the Sexual Revolution
Author: Louise Perry
Publisher: Polity, 2022

A new movement of young British and American women is challenging liberal feminist orthodoxy, exposing its inconsistencies, contradictions, and downright harms. Two prominent members of the movement, Mary Harrington and Louise Perry, published books in the last year and a half, each different in focus but with similar themes. In Harrington’s Feminism Against Progress and Perry’s The Case Against the Sexual Revolution, both authors—one a Gen Xer, one a Millennial—explore the challenges with being a woman in the early 21st century, from the failures of consent-based sexual ethics to the commodification of female bodies (or the erasure of them).

They’re both clear that the freedom won for women by first-wave feminism, to be treated as equal to men, must be preserved and is crucial to female flourishing. But they also agree that any feminism for which the goal is to deny sex difference, whether in dating, the workplace, or parenthood, fundamentally fails women.

Harrington and Perry don’t describe themselves as conservatives, and while both are ardent anti-liberals who insist on a commitment to common sense, history, and the immutability of certain elements of the human condition, neither is seeking to turn back the clock. They are not the Phyllis Schlaflys of our time. Harrington describes getting a post-modern education and seriously questioning traditional gender roles and relationships through her 20s, only to realize after giving birth to her child that her biology was intrinsic to her motherhood and to her sex. Perry had a liberal upbringing much like I did, taught by Carrie Bradshaw and Sex and the City that female empowerment is about behaving in sex and relationships just as men do. She then worked in a rape crisis centre where she quickly learned that biological sex differences and centuries of evolution mean that in general, women neither want to have sex like men, nor benefit from it.

Perry’s focus on hook-up culture, the harmful impact of pornography, and the inadequacy of consent for sorting out the appropriateness and potential harm of a given sexual encounter are uncomfortable to confront. For women raised to be good liberal feminists, freedom trumps everything. We’re supposed to think of women involved in prostitution and pornography as empowered. To question their choices (or coerced “choices”) is to question their personal autonomy.

But Perry deftly confronts the reader’s discomfort, drawing on powerful research to show that real, meaningful differences between most men and women—their preferences, their physical attributes, and the power dynamic that results—make the harms caused by a libertarian approach deeply unethical. Perry’s response is not mass vows of chastity, but a practical (if rarely heard) call to women to get to know men before having sex with them and to seek out loving marriages. As if to prove just how serious she is about the suggestion, just last week, Perry hosted an actual in-person event to try to bring together like-minded men and women in search of a romantic partner and uninterested in the potentially harmful hookup culture that pervades the commonly used dating apps that many feel are their only option.

Harrington aims her critique at capitalism and the commodification of the female body. She pulls no punches, calling out companies offering employees egg freezing, the exploitative treatment of many birth surrogates, the proliferation of daycare for all, and the medicalization of so-called “gender-affirming care.” In her view, the aim of liberal feminism is to extract labour and money from female bodies, with no concern for the interests of women themselves. This despite the clear desire many women have to prioritize motherhood, even if they choose to work. Harrington attacks these trends, blaming technology and classism, explaining that wealthier women perpetuate liberal feminism because they have the means to avoid its downsides while lower-income women suffer its dehumanization.

Harrington is less clear than Perry in her prescriptions. She targets hormonal birth control and abortion as offending technologies but does not call for their banning, preferring a grassroots culture shift to top-down edicts. Her most compelling thinking is around a sex-realist vision for working women. She asks her readers to look not to the homemakers of the 1950s but to pre-industrial families where cottage industries allowed women and men to work in the home, and where labouring, earning money, and childbearing were all compatible at once.  

These books are primarily critiques, and for good reason. The liberal feminist paradigm has been so dominant that before it is replaced, it must be systematically dismantled. Harrington and Perry both do so quite convincingly. Evocative examples of the hypocrisy we live with, which champions women’s rights but stands idly by while female bodies are sold for sex, which calls out #MeToo-style sexual harassment but allows natal male violent offenders in women’s prisons, and which champions #girlboss feminism but seeks to split women off from pregnancy and mothering, treating children and motherhood as inconvenient inefficiencies.

Modern women will rightly question any worldview which might appear to want to turn back the clock and devalue their personhood. But the sex-realist feminists are quite serious not only about prosecuting the case against liberal feminism but about articulating new, better advice for women living in the world today, and for society at large to treat women ethically. It would be fair enough for readers to find their suggestions wanting—after all, they’re charting new territory.

But no reader will put these books down thinking the old orthodoxy, that women should just behave more like men, and that if we try hard enough, we can erase problematic sex differences and set women free, isn’t sorely lacking.