A lot of Canadians are curious and confused about the recent dust up between the Liberal Government and tech giants Google and Meta (Facebook and Instagram) over Bill C-18. A lot of dire predictions are being made about the future of Canada’s media and citizens are understandably concerned. Given the obvious vested interest of those media, it is equally understandable that some are also concerned what they are hearing from the Liberal Government and those in the national media may only be one side of the story.
The Liberal Government’s meddling in media began early on in their tenure. In addition to the more than $1 billion needed annually to prop up the CBC—viewed by a growing number of Canadians as little more than the propaganda wing of the Liberal Government—the Government has peddled hundreds of millions in subsidies to other media outlets.
These subsidies only increased during COVID-19 as public concern over the virus—fueled by saturation coverage—breathed new life into media platforms that had been trending towards irrelevance prior to the pandemic.
To make a very complex piece of legislation as simple as I can, Bill C-18 introduces new rules that require tech giants to pay Canadian media companies (through entering into individually negotiated deals with said companies) for stories that get published on their platforms. In other words, if a Canadian journalist writes a story, which is then published by a Canadian media company, that then gets posted on Facebook, their (Facebook’s) parent company (Meta) must pay that media outlet, via their (yet to be determined) previously agreed upon deals, for the privilege of using that content, and share the profits they earn from online advertisers.
The Liberal Government’s goal is essentially twofold: to ensure “fair” compensation for Canada’s news outlets and to (indirectly) subsidize and prop up the industry.
Conservatives agree that tech giants like Google and Facebook should be forced to pay their fair share of taxes, like anyone else, if they wish to do business in Canada. We also agree that if you’re using somebody else’s intellectual property or work, they should be fairly compensated—although here the obvious distinction between public domain news and author copyrighted material like a book or play must be made. Despite the government’s assertion that this is to help journalists, the money that theoretically derives from these deals will go to the parent company—the same giant and quickly consolidating media conglomerates who have been axing newsroom positions in favour of profits for years. In short, the bill does little if anything for journalists or small local publications. They have been shut out of the deal altogether.
This is the tragedy of Bill C-18. The Government is choosing to prop up large corporate media conglomerates who have failed to adapt to the changing market at the expense of small, local, independent news sources that Canadians and communities actually rely on.
Moreover, there is a huge assumption that underlies this whole conversation and that is that Canadian content requires government intervention, protection and subsidy to protect it from the threat posed by the tech giants. If that is, indeed, the case we need to ask why? That’s something the board and executives of every media company (and for that matter Canadian taxpayers) should be asking themselves.
What we have in Canada is an industry that’s struggled to adapt to a changing market. There is a seismic shift taking place in the media landscape and, thus far, Canada’s news industry has proven themselves ill-equipped to cope. Rather than forcing the industry to adapt from what has become an outdated and thus a failing model, the government has been doling out public dollars to keep them afloat.
Look at what others have done. When online streaming came along, traditional format TV and movies took a hit. But the industry adapted, and now they’re doing better than ever—plus the end of what were essentially media monopolies has opened a much more competitive, diverse, and democratic entertainment industry. Canadians have more choices, and they are exercising that freedom via their entertainment dollars.
Rather than rely on subsidies and corporate welfare so they can maintain their status quo, Canadian media needs to figure out how to adapt to the market to stay viable. Moreover, by continuing to prop up media conglomerates, the Liberals are offside with the majority of Canadians (59% according to the latest Angus Reid poll) who are opposed to government funding/subsidizing newsrooms.
Conservatives have been and remain strong proponents of a free market approach. While most Canadians (including me) would agree that Canadian content is important, ultimately, they will speak with their dollars and behaviour.
As such, rather than running to government for protection, the onus should be on Canadian content producers to ensure they are adapting to today’s market to best serve the interests of Canadians, guaranteeing themselves relevance and continued viability.