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Journalists Shouldn’t Depend on the State for Their Wages

More than a third of many Canadian journalists’ salaries are now effectively being paid by Justin Trudeau’s government—an arrangement that’s created an obvious conflict of interest.

· 9 min read
Justin Trudeau at a press conference.
A photo posted to the X (Twitter) account of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, along with the comment, “There’s no democracy without a free press. #WorldPressFreedomDay.”

In 2022, the Toronto-based Globe & Mail newspaper ran an editorial attacking Canada’s federal Conservative opposition leader, Pierre Poilievre, on the basis that he hadn’t taken questions from Ottawa journalists for over a month. “Can you imagine the country led by a PM who refused to speak to the Parliamentary Press Gallery, and who only talked to friendly reporters guaranteed to lob him softball questions about his awesomeness?” asked the authors, adding that “a free press is a critical part of a healthy liberal democracy, and politicians need to do their part, like it or not.”

As a general rule, that last part is true. But the applicability of such high-flown sentiments is brought into question when the reporters in question depend for their livelihoods, as in this case, on government wage subsidies. Just as politicians who shun the media limit journalists’ ability to gather information, so do politicians who lavish money upon journalists compromise their ability to earn the trust of audiences and interviewees.  

In this regard, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government offers the rest of the world a troubling cautionary tale. As reported by Michael Geist of the University of Ottawa, “Qualified Canadian Journalism Organizations” (as that term is defined by the government) can now claim 35 percent of their journalists’ salaries as tax credits—up to a salary limit of $85,000 per employee. Put another way, $29,750 of the annual gross pay earned by senior Canadian journalists—including the ones seeking to put microphones in front of opposition politicians such as Mr. Poilievre—is now effectively provided by the federal government.

And if you’re wondering how the government came up with that figure, there’s a simple answer: It corresponds exactly to what Canada’s newspaper lobby group, News Media Canada, asked for in 2023.

Indeed, Mr Trudeau’s government has exceeded the demands of corporate lobbyists. According to calculations supplied by Rudyard Griffiths—executive director of The Hub, an (unsubsidised) Canadian news and opinion site—additional contributions made under the auspices of Canada’s recent agreement with Google have brought the real annual figure to about $40,000 for every $85,000/year journalist—almost half of his or her salary.

Half of private Canadian journalism could now be government supported

As Prof. Geist writes, all of this “raises enormous concerns about the independence of Canadian media. While the government claims this is being done to ensure a ‘strong and independent’ press, it is not hard to see how the opposite may be true.”

None of this is to suggest that the Globe & Mail, or any other “Qualified Canadian Journalism Organization,” is consistently tailoring its content in a bid to curry favour with government officials. Indeed, that newspaper’s Ottawa bureau chief, Robert Fife, has repeatedly broken stories that embarrassed Mr Trudeau’s governing Liberals. Moreover, the same cash pool that funds the Globe & Mail also provides funding to conservative-leaning outlets such as the National Post, which often publishes scathing columns about the Prime Minister.

But the fact remains that since 2019, many Canadian journalists—including those who regularly cover the country’s federal government—have come to owe their livelihood to the politicians they write about. We know this because newspaper owners themselves have, for years, been forthright in declaring that their continued corporate operations now depend on generous public bailouts.

From an ethical point of view, this is obviously a troubling arrangement, as it creates a clear conflict of interest for journalists, especially with a federal election on the horizon. Polls suggest Mr Poilievre has a good chance of becoming prime minister sometime between now and Fall 2025. And if elected, it is fair to expect, he will revisit many of the Liberals’ pet funding programs—including this one.

To put things less delicately: the future paid employment of many Parliament Hill reporters may well depend on whether the Liberals manage to claw their way back in the polls, which, in turn, depends on what sort of treatment Mr Trudeau and his fellow Liberals get in the press.

No doubt, the vast majority of Canadian journalists will do their best to firewall this fact from their editorial decision-making. But as countless scandals in the public and corporate spheres attest, such firewalls are wont to break down. That’s why editors typically divulge outside contributors’ conflicts of interest, whether real or perceived, in the accompanying author-credit information they publish.

Back in 2014, when it was discovered that the (recently departed) Rex Murphy was being paid to deliver speeches at oil-industry events, even as he was opining on energy issues for the CBC and National Post, many of Canadian journalism’s leading lights declared themselves shocked and troubled. And in the aftermath of these disclosures, the CBC drafted new policies that forbade on-air employees from accepting speaking requests from groups that lobby government or otherwise seek to influence Canadian public policy. It isn’t clear to me why the same principle underpinning that policy shouldn’t apply when the influence-seeking entity is government itself.

Canada isn’t alone in confronting this issue. Sweden and Norway have been described as “media welfare states” for decades. And beginning in 2022, Australia began subsidising regional and local newspapers under the auspices of a larger media-support program that also benefits community broadcasters.

In Canada, government news-media bailouts were marketed as “coronavirus-related emergency wage subsidies.” In Australia, politicians claimed they were intended as a means to help publishers “absorb newsprint price increases, which threaten the sustainability of newspapers and journalism jobs.” The reality, of course, is that many legacy media had been petitioning for bailouts long before the arrival of COVID or recent upheavals in the newsprint market. And so it’s hard not to see these stated rationales as anything but pretextual.

While my publication, Quillette, does not receive (or seek) wage subsidies from any government, my colleagues and I freely acknowledge that the economic pain in our industry is real; and we understand why owners are amenable to cutting ethical corners as a means to keep the newsroom lights on. Google and Facebook have hollowed out our ad markets, and our audiences’ news feeds are flooded with free clickbait from around the world, making it difficult for regional outlets (or even national outlets in smaller countries) to convince readers to sign up for paywalled content. But government subsidies aren’t the answer to this problem, insofar as they inevitably serve to tarnish (and therefore devalue) the very product being subsidised.

Consider the above-referenced 28 October 2022 Globe & Mail editorial. Because it criticised Mr Trudeau’s main political opponent, the Prime Minister’s chief of staff couldn’t resist the urge to promote it on her social media feeds—a gesture that, naturally, feeds popular suspicions that the Liberals and the journalists they subsidise have now become symbiotic entities. It’s hardly irrational that Mr. Poilievre and his supporters should then respond to such suspicions by continuing to exhibit the same media-sceptical attitudes that the Globe & Mail editorial board saw fit to criticise in the first place. After all, conservatives have long argued that the mainstream media exhibits a left-wing bias. Thanks to the creation of payroll subsidies totalling almost half a billion (Canadian) dollars in budgeted funds, those claims now come with a clear economic rationale.

Even putting aside the corrosive effect of subsidies on the integrity and reputation of journalists, it’s not even clear that they meaningfully bolster the long-run viability of news outlets. Even before Mr Trudeau began throwing money at newspapers, the state-funded CBC had been receiving over $1 billion per year in taxpayer subsidies, even as its status and influence have waned steadily under its (comically) inept current boss, Catherine Tait. Because the CBC relies so heavily on public funds, its editors and producers evidently feel at complete liberty to ignore the tastes and interests of ordinary Canadian news consumers, and instead focus on harvesting plaudits from their own art-house cliques. One memorable specimen, published two weeks ago by the CBC “Arts” desk, for instance, was titled, “Canada’s horniest newsletter is changing the way we think about sex, desire, and queer culture.”

Canada’s horniest newsletter is changing the way we think about sex, desire, and queer culture | CBC Arts
Toronto photographer Christopher Sherman’s mantra is “Have a horny day,” and the guiding principle for his newsletter is “What if Juergen Teller took my Grindr photos?”

A recently published paper in the journal Media and Communication examined financial data from 2005 to 2019 regarding newspaper publishing companies in three Nordic countries—Sweden, Norway, and Finland—to determine if the direct press subsidies offered by the Swedish and Norwegian governments were associated with more robust news media environments vis-à-vis the Finns, who offer no such subsidies. The results, as summarised in the abstract, were as follows:

Based on our analysis, we argue that direct press subsidies in Sweden and Norway have not been able to prevent a decrease in the number of titles and, importantly, have resulted in a number of subsidy-dependent news outlets unable to survive on their own income. By contrast, the Finnish newspaper publishing industry has been in a better financial situation in terms of almost all indicators and throughout the review period, despite Finland abandoning direct press subsidies in the 1990s.    
Press Subsidies and Business Performance of Newspaper Publishing in Three Nordic Media Welfare States | Article | Media and Communication
Mikko Grönlund, Mikko Villi, Marko Ala-Fossi

For all the edifying talk one hears from subsidised Canadian journalists about “a free press” and “healthy liberal democracy,” it’s notable that an atmosphere of self-censorship often surrounds the topic of how they themselves remain gainfully employed. Canadian journalists who support the subsidies generally are reluctant to defend them publicly because they (rightly) fear that such talk might encourage public distrust in their reporting—while those journalists who oppose them (again, rightly) fear incurring the wrath of their corporate bosses.

By the same token, Mr Trudeau has little interest in drawing attention to the fact that his government is effectively bankrolling the reporters who are supposed to be holding him to account—just as Mr Poilievre presumably has little interest in emphasising the possibility that those same reporters will have more difficulty making their mortgage and car payments should his Conservatives win the next election.

Does any of this sound conducive to maintaining the checks, balances, political transparency, and robust political discourse required by, as the Globe & Mail puts it, “a healthy liberal democracy”?

Last month, I added my signature to The Ottawa Declaration on Canadian Journalism, a public document calling attention to the fact that Canada’s subsidy regime “creates an uneven playing field, whereby some news outlets—primarily legacy media companies—are able to qualify for generous government support and others are not, stifling innovation and deterring private investment.” Overall, the signatories believe, it is in the long-term interest of private media owners and the journalists they employ to reject payroll-based subsidies, whether such subsidies come through direct government payments or from corporations, such as Google, dispensing funds pursuant to the terms of government-negotiated financial settlements. 

The Ottawa Declaration on Canadian Journalism | Macdonald-Laurier Institute
OTTAWA, ON (MAY 30, 2024): Today the Macdonald-Laurier Institute (MLI) unveiled The Ottawa Declaration; a public call by some of Canada’s leading Today the Macdonald-Laurier Institute (MLI) unveiled The Ottawa Declaration; a public call by some of Canada’s leading independent news and current affairs outlets for the media industry to reject the federal government’s payroll subsidies for journalism.

I have no illusions that any such manifesto will bring a sudden end to news-media subsidies in Canada or anywhere else. One iron law of human nature is that when free money’s on offer, people find reasons to justify taking it. But The Ottawa Declaration does at least formally set out the privately expressed reservations that many Canadian journalists have concerning the funding model now governing their industry. Stating the problem forthrightly is a necessary (if not sufficient) condition for eventually solving it.

As with many other industries, the news media has its share of in-house taboos that everyone is supposed to tiptoe around, on the unstated premise that maybe if we stay mum, the rest of the country will follow our example. But our audiences aren’t so easily fooled or misdirected: Everyone of ordinary common sense understands that workers, institutions, and even whole industries can become corrupt in spirit without anyone formally breaking the rules. Sometimes, in fact—as in this case—it’s the rules themselves that have become the problem.

Jonathan Kay

Jonathan Kay is a Quillette editor, podcaster, and advisor to The Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism. His books include Among the Truthers, Legacy, Panics & Persecutions, and Magic in the Dark.

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