Government program intended to support — not control — journalism

The following is an op-ed written by News Media Canada chair Bob Cox about the recent federal government’s announcement to invest in Canadian journalism.  

I love oxymorons, those combinations of contradictory words, like jumbo shrimp, lead balloon and civil war.

I love them because one aptly describes the work I have done for almost a quarter of a century – journalist manager.

People in other occupations are constantly amazed at the stories that newsroom managers tell. “You mean you sent the reporter to an assignment and she came back and told you that she wasn’t going to write a story?” Or, “He wrote that terrible thing about the mayor and you didn’t fire him?”

Well, yes. Professional journalists are among the hardest people to manage. That is not surprising for people who are trained to ask questions, to challenge authority, to expose and to criticize.

This is why I am amused and puzzled by people who think that the federal Liberal government is trying to buy good coverage with a new program to support Canadian journalism, specifically written journalism in print and digital formats.

This week, the government announced the process for setting up an independent panel to set criteria for journalistic organizations to qualify for the program and for how it will be administered.

Eight different journalism groups across Canada will be asked to nominate one person to the panel. These eight people will meet and make recommendations. Among the nominating groups is News Media Canada, which represents daily and community newspapers. I am currently board chairperson of News Media Canada.

The panel is meant to achieve the principle that any mechanism designed to support the news industry must be independent and at arm’s length from the government.

This has not quieted critics of the program, which, among other things, would provide $75 million to $95 million annually in tax credits to cover part of the salaries of newsroom staff.

The Conservative party immediately sent out a fundraising plea to supporters accusing Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of putting his political allies in charge of which media outlets will get handout money in an election year. The plea accuses Trudeau of co-opting the media and stacking the deck to win the next election.

These critics seem to have missed the kind of coverage the federal Liberals have received lately. The program was first announced in November. In February, the Jody Wilson-Raybould avalanche started, producing some of the most critical coverage of a federal government that I have seen since I started following and writing about politics after sitting in the House of Commons public gallery one night in 1979 to watch the defeat of Joe Clark’s short-lived Conservative government.

The work on the Wilson-Raybould story proves the need for trained, independent journalists being paid to unearth facts and expose truths. Economic factors have substantially weakened this capacity in most newsrooms. The federal program will go a long way to restoring and preserving it.

If the Liberals had a plan to get good headlines, it sure didn’t work. But I don’t believe they had any such plan. A government that supports independent journalism does so in the interests of sustaining a healthy democracy, not to get favourable coverage.

A healthy democracy needs journalists who are difficult to manage – the sort who are going to do their job professionally, without bowing to outside influences, regardless of who helps pay their salaries.

This is the type of journalists who are employed at this newspaper, and at news outlets across the country.

It is certainly open to people to argue that government should not subsidize journalism. However, doing so means arguing against a lot of history. There are already direct and indirect public subsidies for various forms of journalism in Canada. They existed long before the CBC was created, even before Confederation.

Through it all, journalists have maintained their independence. And if you think journalists can be told what to do, I invite you to come to the newsroom one day and try.