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Sean Speer: The news industry won’t be fixed by a parliamentary committee

Commentary

The news media in Canada is in crisis. Policy responses to date are failing to solve for the information that citizens need to make informed decisions about important issues and debates. The Future of News series brings together leading practitioners, scholars, and thinkers to imagine new business models, policy responses, and journalistic content that can support a dynamic future for news in Canada.

One of the more bizarre developments on Parliament Hill in recent weeks is the current parliamentary committee hearings into the “appropriateness of government support” to the national news media to hold a “national forum” on the future of the industry. The study’s basic purpose is seemingly to determine whether politicians should instruct and fund the industry to hold a conference about itself. 

The origins of these hearings date back to late last year. During a meeting in December, members of the House Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage debated and ultimately agreed to a motion in favour of studying this question. 

By coincidence, I appeared before the same committee on the day of its approval. For better or worse, it gave me a unique vantage point to observe the discussion, including the ideas and arguments in favour of such a study. 

The whole exchange was a bit surreal. It exposed the extent to which a lot of members of Parliament have both inflated conceptions of the role of government and superficial understandings of the role of business and markets. The idea that a parliamentary committee ought to determine whether a private industry should hold a conference—including its “terms of reference”—ostensibly reflects some combination of arrogance and ignorance.  

There are hundreds, and quite likely thousands, of national, provincial, and local industry associations across the country. Many of them hold annual conferences. Some may receive public funding to defray the costs. But virtually none rely on a parliamentary study to determine whether to host a conference in the first place or what they ought to discuss. Those decisions are typically made based on the best interests of individual companies and the industry as a whole rather than the diktats of a parliamentary committee. 

Conservative MP Rachel Thomas understood this basic point. Speaking in response to the motion, she told the committee: 

I don’t believe it’s appropriate for this committee to determine whether or not it would be appropriate for stakeholders within the national news sector to hold a forum to talk about their own challenges and to resolve their own issues. I think that’s their determination.

Her perspective however was a minority one. Most MPs seemed to think that the industry is somehow unaware of the challenges that it’s facing and requires an impetus from Ottawa to respond to these developments with greater urgency. The “national forum” therefore represents an opportunity for politicians to tell heedless news media executives what’s actually happening within their businesses and industry. 

I had a telling exchange with a Bloc Quebecois MP that went as follows: 

Martin Champoux: We’re discussing business models. I think we all agree that the traditional media business model has to be revamped. Furthermore, if a national forum is being proposed, its purpose is to revamp the model and enable media companies, especially in the news industry, to prepare more effectively for present and future challenges.

…I believe everyone agrees that we have to give industry people tools and enable them to acquire tools to adapt to the digital shift. In most cases, that shift is still incomplete or has been accomplished with limited resources and is therefore not very effective.

…Mr. Speer, I think I understand the direction that we should take.

Sean Speer: Respectfully, I precisely think we don’t know where we’re going. That is why government should be cautious about intervening in the market in favour of one particular content format or business model or approach to journalism. This process is uncertain. 

…I ultimately have more confidence in markets… [For instance,] if there’s a critical mass of Canadians who want their news produced and provided to them in a traditional physical newspaper, then I have confidence that entrepreneurs of some sort are going to seize that market opportunity. …[P]recisely because this process is creative and uncertain, I would caution policymakers not to intervene and preclude it from playing itself out.

Champoux’s comments and the committee study itself convey a basic misunderstanding of a market economy. Its genius is rooted in its self-regulating profit and loss system. The former rewards successful risk-taking. The latter punishes excessive risk. 

Member of Parliament Anthony Housefather talks to reporters prior to a Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Monday, March 6, 2023. The committee is looking into the activities of Google in reaction to Bill C-18. Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press.

As long as companies are subjected to these two sides of the capitalist coin, they ought to have sufficient incentives to respond to the market trends that the committee has identified. Companies that innovate in the face of these developments will be rewarded with more readers and profits. Those who don’t will face contraction and possibly closure. The process will be decentralized and instantaneous. There’s no need for the parliamentary committee to study it or render post-hoc judgements. Markets will do the work for them.  

The committee hearings themselves in fact reflect the inherent problem with government subsidies. As the state’s role in a sector increases, it invariably leads to a growing presumption about the efficacy of politics over markets. Although news media executives may have made some wrong decisions over the past several years, there are few reasons to believe that MP Champoux or his parliamentary colleagues have a better understanding of the commercial interests of their companies or the industry itself. 

Should the news media industry hold a national forum? Probably. It may be a good opportunity to share best practices and discuss common concerns including forthcoming online harms legislation and its potential consequences. But these decisions shouldn’t require approval or funding from politicians. The industry can surely decide itself whether to hold a conference. 

More importantly, it ought to decide itself how to deal with the broader market developments that it’s now subjected to. That starts with listening to consumers rather than politicians about the future of journalism.

The Future of News series is supported by The Hub’s foundation donors and Meta.

Patrick Luciani: The intellectual roots of why so many support Hamas’ terror attacks

Commentary

In the latest Hub book review, Patrick Luciani reviews The Rebel’s Clinic: The Revolutionary Lives of Frantz Fanon by Adam Shatz (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2023) and traces the connections between the writings of Frantz Fanon, the academic embrace of anticolonialist theory, and the support of violence and terror by some on the Left.

If we want to understand the violence perpetrated by Hamas and those who supported it, we have to understand the political motivation behind the attack. For that, we need to understand the mind of Frantz Fanon. 

Not a name known by the general public, but certainly known in the academy in post-colonial studies and political theory. A new biography by Adam Shatz’s beautifully written and well-researched book, The Rebel’s Clinic, gives us a highly literate account of Fanon’s life that brings us closer to understanding how Fanon became an icon of the left and the justification for violence in his classic work, The Wretched of the Earth, published just before he died of leukemia at the age of 36 in 1961. 

Fanon’s book did not go unnoticed. It was widely translated and “cited worshipfully” by radical movements, including the Black Panthers, the Black Consciousness Movement in South Africa, Latin American guerillas, Islamic revolutionaries of Iran, and the Palestinian Liberation Organization. 

Born in Martinique in 1925, Fanon fought for the French against the Nazis in 1944 as a French citizen. Despite being a decorated soldier, he realized his blackness when white French women refused to dance with him in celebration after the war. His 1952 book Black Skin, White Masks chronicles the hardships of a Black man putting on disguises to survive in a white world. 

Fanon went on to study medicine in Lyon and practiced psychiatry in the French colony of Algeria. There, he treated the victims of the struggle for freedom and realized that violence lies at the heart of colonialism. These themes would consume the rest of his life. 

For Fanon, physical violence and severe mental and emotional harm define the natural state of colonial rule. This violence is further compounded by the reduction of the native to a lower form of a human. He saw a Manichean world split between good and evil with no chance of mutual understanding, compromise, or peaceful coexistence. The colonizer is “the corrosive element, destroying all that comes near him.” Under these conditions, violence is a natural and logical reaction to the violence that the colonialists bring to their colonies. 

Shatz’s biography shows that Fanon truly believed in the regenerative potential of violence and the mass killing of Europeans as beneficial medicine for the colonized; further, it would liberate the white man from his awful identity. In his famous introduction to Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth, Jean-Paul Sartre aggressively supported the need for violence, saying, “To shoot down a European is to kill two birds with one stone: there remains a dead man and a free man.” Fanon went on to serve the FLN (Front de Libération Nationale) as an ambassador throughout Africa while raising funds for the liberation of Algeria. 

Independence may bring some form of moral compensation, but benefits are often short-lived. That was the case after Algeria became independent in 1962, a year after Fanon’s death. His dream of a free, democratic country fell apart under radical Islamism. Citizenship was restricted to Muslims only while almost one million pieds noirs left, along with most of its Jewish population that had been in Algeria since the times of the Romans. The misery for Algeria did not end there as tens of thousands of Algerian peasants were slaughtered for their association with the French, the very people Fanon idolized in leading the revolution. Fanon’s vision of a “new man” rising from the ashes would have to wait another time. 

A young boy holds up a Hamas flag as people gather during a pro-Palestinian protest in Istanbul, Turkey, Friday, Nov. 24, 2023. Francisco Seco/AP Photo.

What didn’t wait was the zeal of revolutionary groups around the world, which took up Fanon’s passion for using violence to justify their cause for liberation, especially in the Middle East, where Zionism is now seen as the new settler colonialism. In a world split between settler-colonized and post-colonized nations, violence seems acceptable and justified after Fanon who gave if not his permission then a rationale for indiscriminate destruction. In Canada, the burning of dozens of churches was covered by the media as a natural reaction to the rumours of mass graves of First Nation children at residential schools. 

Not all intellectuals concerned with the liberation of African nations sided with Fanon’s methods of political salvation. Hannah Arendt’s essay “On Violence” was a direct response to Fanon’s vogue appeal to New Left radicals. She made the point that violence is not power but the absence of it. Through his writings on anti-colonialism,  Albert Memmi—a Tunisian Jew and novelist and one-time supporter of Fanon—came to realize that the struggle for meaning is not found solely in the social and political struggle against colonialism but also in the need for “inner emancipation,” a message hardly conducive to modern post-colonial studies. 

But after five decades of post-colonial studies and courses on French existentialist thought, moral relativism, anti-western and Eurocentrism, Marx and Gramsci, historicism, and critical race theory (an idea inspired by Fanon’s writing) many students were uncritically conditioned to side with the terror of Hamas.