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Sean Speer: A disrupted legacy media model isn’t a market failure, it’s a market correction

Commentary

On Thursday, December 7, The Hub’s editor-at-large, Sean Speer, appeared before the House of Commons Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage on the state of the news media, the role of online technology platforms, and the future of news. His opening statement is presented here, with a lightly edited transcript published below. 

I want to thank the committee members for inviting me to participate today. 

I present to you in my capacity as editor-at-large at The Hub, an online Canadian news organization that I co-founded nearly three years ago. We publish a combination of opinion commentary, standard news reporting, and a series of podcasts. We’re philanthropically supported.  

Our audience size, content mix, and level of engagement are significantly growing. We view ourselves as an increasingly valuable part of the country’s news media ecosystem and a major contributor to its public policy discourse. 

As an organization, The Hub has generally opposed government intervention in support of the news media industry. I’d like to use my time here to set out how we’ve come to think about what’s occurring within the industry and how policymakers should respond. 

Journalism is clearly going through a process of transformation. Traditional business models have been disrupted by new technologies and the rise of online platforms like Google and Meta. 

This process of “creative destruction” has created a lot of destruction. It’s led to business rationalizations, layoffs, and even outright closures. 

But there’s also a creative dynamic of which The Hub is a part. New and emerging players are experimenting with different business models, content forms, and relationships with their audiences in order to figure out how to create sustainable businesses that are supported by the market broadly defined.

Most of these entities will fail. Some will succeed. Some will cover specific subject matters. Others will target geographical areas or particular points-of-views. Some will operate as for-profit businesses. Others will take the form of non-profits or even charitably-funded organizations. 

The process that I describe is complicated and uncertain. But it isn’t a market failure that necessitates large-scale government intervention. It’s a market correction that policymakers should, generally speaking, let play itself out.

It’s the same dynamic market process that has transformed other parts of the economy over time and ultimately contributed to the country’s progress and prosperity. 

Now, one might argue that news media is different. That it’s not the same as other sectors. It plays a more crucial role in our civic and democratic life and therefore should be treated differently. 

There’s something to that argument. We, at The Hub, believe passionately in the importance of reliable news and information in our democratic society. But we shouldn’t let our good intentions interfere with the process of market-led change. Doing so would effectively signal that the legacy business model is the only one capable of meeting our democratic needs. It’s ahistorical and fails to reckon with the exciting innovation occurring within the industry. 

That said, there may be certain areas where public policy can play a role to better enable the transformation that’s occurring in the market rather than a shaping role that tries to presume which direction the market should head. 

One example is to increase the Charitable Donations Tax Credit for Registered Journalism Organizations to the same level as the tax credit available for donations to political parties. It would be a logical step to recognize that both institutions—the media and political parties—have key roles to play in the functioning of our democracy. 

Another would be to make the subscription tax credit for Qualified Canadian Journalism Organizations refundable and increase its generosity to higher levels. 

The virtue of both of these suggestions is that they would follow the choices of Canadian consumers. They would be subjected, in that sense, to a market test rather than the diktats of government itself. 

As my time comes to an end, if I may sum up my comments: 

  1. It’s premature to conclude that we’ve reached a market failure that necessitates major government intervention. Doing so would take the onus off of the industry to figure out how to create sustainable journalism and impede innovation being led by independent outlets like The Hub. 
  1. The extent to which the government opts to intervene, public policy should be neutral and subordinated to consumer signals. I’ve put forward a couple of options but there are no doubt others. 

Let me conclude with this point: The Hub is currently running a series that we’re really excited about called The Future of News where we’re bringing different voices and perspectives—including some you’ve heard at the committee—to our pages to talk about how to move forward, and specifically how to create the conditions for a sustainable journalism sector.

I can tell you that after nearly three years at The Hub, we’re optimistic that entrepreneurs and markets are capable of creating sustainable journalism and would encourage policymakers to minimize their interference in that process. 

That approach would be in the best interest of journalism and I would argue in the best interest of our democracy. 

Thank you.

Jonah Davids: Has the Israel-Hamas war spoiled the Muslim-Conservative coalition on parental rights? 

Commentary

On September 20th, 2023, Canadians across the country participated in the “1 Million March 4 Children” to protest the rise of gender and sexual identity education in K-12 schools across the country. The march in favour of “parental rights” was successful in stirring responses from Prime Minister Trudeau, who condemned the protests, and Conservative party leader Pierre Poilievre, who declared that “parents should be the final authority on the values and lessons that are taught to children.” 

Leading up to the march, a tentative alliance was forming between Canadian Muslims and grassroots conservative activists. Muslims were joining and organizing protests against gender ideology and LGBTQ+ programming in schools, and organizations like the National Council of Canadian Muslims and the Muslim Association of Canada were calling on school boards, politicians, and media outlets to stop demonizing concerned parents and Muslim students. While Justin Trudeau told the Muslim community that their concerns around education were a product of far-Right disinformation, Pierre Poilievre worked to convince them that his party shared their values of “faith, family, and freedom.”

There was some optimism that these developments were helping the Conservative Party overcome the trust it had lost with Muslims when it promised to implement a “barbaric practices tipline” and proposed a Niqab ban for the public service in the 2015 election campaign. Conservative political strategists saw these prospective voters as a crucial part of growing the electoral coalitions of centre-right parties across the country. 

Then October 7th happened. As knowledge of Hamas’ crimes against Israelis spread and as the Israel Defense Forces began to retaliate, it became clear that Canadian Conservatives (and conservatives) overwhelmingly sided with Israel while Canadian Muslims were largely sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. For instance, while Conservative Party leader Pierre Poilievre was quick to condemn Hamas terrorists and support Israel’s right to self-defence, the National Council of Canadian Muslims chose not to mention them and instead singled out Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu as an extremist leader who wanted to reduce Gazan cities to rubble out of vengeance, a message the Muslim Association of Canada signed onto

Many conservative activists and commentators who had praised the involvement of Muslims in protests against gender ideology and in favour of parental rights now condemned them for protesting in support of Palestine. B.C.-based parental rights activist Chris Elston, better known as Billboard Chris, signaled his continued willingness to work with Muslims, but only if they condemned the October 7th attacks. The Hub’s editor-at-large Sean Speer even suggested that supporting Israel ought to be a condition for Conservative Party candidates, a position which could disqualify a great number of Muslims. 

These developments illustrate the potential for disputes rooted in diaspora politics to frustrate new political alliances and cross-faith collaborations on domestic policy issues. While Canadian Muslims have traditionally voted for left-wing parties, they tend to be socially conservative including holding traditional views concerning marriage, gender, and sexuality. But it’s also somewhat natural that a population with such inclinations would side with its fellow co-religionists in an international conflict given that social conservatism is about preserving so-called “first things”: the peoples, religions, and traditions in which cultures and societies are rooted.

It raises interesting questions about the exercise of political coalition building and which issues or positions can be subject to intra-party compromise and which are non-negotiable. How does one assess the relative political importance of unequivocal support for Israel versus a cultivating shared position on stopping public schools from helping young students change their gender? How one answers this question may depend on whether the failure to, say, condemn Hamas’ actions on October 7th should be viewed as a reflection of run-of-the-mill tribalism or a sign of a more basic incompatibility with the core values of conservative politics in Canada. 

It’s too hasty to say that the burgeoning conservative-Muslim coalition has fractured over October 7th. While the federal Conservatives have probably traded off potential gains with Muslim voters by being unequivocally hawkish on Israel, it’s still possible that centre-right provincial governments who promise to protect parental rights can earn their support. 

What is clear is that recent events have led both groups to re-evaluate their assumptions about the other. Once Muslims began publicly opposing left-wing educational priorities, the Right subordinated its concerns with issues such as terrorism, women’s rights, and Sharia law and welcomed them with open arms. Post-October 7th, however, those concerns are live again. Muslims, on the other hand, have now seen that Canadian conservatism draws a line in the sand around support for Israel and continues to see Islam as problematically illiberal. 

Despite these differences, it’s essential to remember that coalitions are built on specific issues rather than unanimous agreement. The political campaign to restore parental rights in the education system might therefore still provide common ground for Muslims and conservatives in Canada.