On Wednesday the government announced the names of the organizations it had chosen to be represented on the “independent panel” it has struck to advise it how to give money to newspapers, out of the nearly $600 million set aside in the budget for the purpose.They included the organization that lobbied for the money on behalf of the country’s newspaper publishers, the union representing many of the journalists whose salaries the money would underwrite, plus sundry other unions, publishers and activist groups,The presence of the journalists’ union, Unifor, on the panel served as a red flag for the Conservative leader, Andrew Scheer, given the union’s history of campaigning against the Conservatives and its promise to do so again in the coming election. He demanded Unifor be kicked off the panel.That prompted an accusation from Unifor that Scheer was engaged in a “Trump-style attack” on the media. The president of the union, Jerry Dias, wrote a column assailing Scheer for putting “the very principles of truth and democracy at risk.” It appeared in one of the newspapers that hopes the government will subsidize it. The government, for its part, is unapologetic about the choice of its objective allies in the union to help it decide how to hand out the cash. “After all,” said a spokesman for the heritage minister, “who is (better) placed to advocate for the future of journalism than journalists themselves?” He accused the Conservatives of attacking the independence of the media and “the professionalism of journalists.”Just so we’re clear, then: as if it were not bad enough that the country’s newspapers will be taking money from one of the parties they will be writing about in the next election, we are shaping up to be a central issue in the campaign we are covering.But no big deal. Doubtless we will continue to bask in the high level of public trust we currently enjoy.It is a disaster that is now unfolding. If there were ever the slightest chance the process would not be politicized, that has already vanished. No, the panel will not be directly choosing which organizations to fund — that’s left to a later panel. But it will be setting the criteria for that panel to apply. Until now the understanding had been that this would be assigned to a panel of independent experts of unimpeachable reputation. There had been no mention of these being drawn from the ranks of its intended recipients.Not that this really changes matters. It is no more objectionable that Unifor should be represented on the panel, on the grounds that it is sympathetic to the Liberals, than it is that the publishers, who tend to support the Conservatives, should be. It is objectionable, rather, that either of them should be anywhere within grasping distance of the public’s wallet, and it would be just as objectionable if the panel were made up of Walter Cronkite, St. Francis of Assisi, and the secretary general of the United Nations.Because the whole point of this effort is to choose which sorts of news organizations should be eligible for public funding, and which should not. Do we really think this will have no implications for the independence of the press? No matter how this is done, no matter how arm’s-length the process, it intrudes the government into areas it has no business being in.Do we really think this will have no implications for the independence of the press?
As an example of where this can lead, the NDP is already protesting that Postmedia, the publisher of this newspaper, should be ineligible for the subsidy, given the efforts of its commercial division to get a piece of the Alberta government’s $30 million pro-oilsands “war-room.”They point out that, to be eligible for designation as a “Qualified Canadian Journalism Organization” — the seal of official approval, coveted by journalists everywhere — the applicant must not be, in the language of the budget bill, “significantly engaged in the production of content” for a “government, Crown corporation or government agency.”There’s more than a little irony in this. The terms of the legislation were written to the existing newspaper publishers’ precise specifications, in such a way as to exclude anyone but themselves from consideration. Not only must QCJOs be “organized as a corporation, partnership or trust,” incorporated in Canada, and Canadian-owned or controlled, but they must be “primarily engaged” in producing “original news content” on “matters of general interest.”Much of the work of defining eligibility for the fund, then, has already been done. The panel’s job would appear to be further refining its scope so as to make it even more narrowly self-serving than it already is. The small, tightly focused digital startups that are threatening to eat the legacy media’s lunch will not be eligible, nor will publications thought to be disruptive in other respects — to respectable opinion, say. After all, as Dias writes, “figuring out what constitutes proper journalism is a necessary precondition to any financial support — lest we cut cheques to every basement-dwelling news blogger.”“Proper journalism.” It is worth noting that all this government cash is arriving at the very moment that a great many issues are being declared closed to debate. Is it too far-fetched to wonder whether some might object to public funds going to a publication that took a skeptical approach to, say, climate change? Or to one that advocated for tighter immigration controls? I happen to hold the respectable opinions on these and other issues, and regard those on the other side as cranks or worse, but the thought of government money being used to punish them for their heresy turns my stomach.There is still time to turn away from the abyss. An independent press and institutional dependence do not mix.