Op-ed: Why we’re taking the Trudeau government to task

The hundreds of publications that belong to News Media Canada are in the business of reporting the news – not making it.

But this week, we’re breaking that rule by bringing together our disparate, cross-Canada member publications to speak in one united voice – in both official languages – in an unprecedented open letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, which has been given prominent place (in print and online) in our member publications.

We wish it didn’t have to come to this. It wouldn’t have if the Prime Minister and his government had kept their word. But when the future of local news is at stake in Canada, we won’t hesitate to put aside our usual differences and take a strong public stance to hold the government to account.

For months now, the Prime Minister and his Minister of Canadian Heritage, Steven Guilbeault, have promised legislation to rein in the monopoly abuses of Google and Facebook and their attack on local news in Canada.

It’s part of a relentless onslaught by the two web giants around the world.  They exploit their position as de facto gatekeepers of the Internet to hoover up the lion’s share of online advertising and distribute the work of hardworking, professional journalists without compensation. News media are choked off from the financial resources they need to report the news. And the news media ecosystem is shattered.

All the while, Google and Facebook use these syphoned-off revenues to increase their own wealth and consolidate their power. It’s a vicious cycle that results in shuttered newsrooms and the silencing of credible local news.

Canada is one of the countries where the web giants’ stranglehold is the tightest – they divert 80% of online advertising revenues in Canada into their own coffers.

Last fall, we issued a comprehensive report on the crisis, titled Levelling the Digital Playing Field.  We called on the government to follow Australia’s example, which is standing up to Google and Facebook, requiring them to negotiate collectively with that country’s media over fair compensation.  And they’re backed up with tough, effective enforcement.  In effect just a few months, it’s already having a significant positive impact in Australia, reversing the two behemoths’ control and financing precious local journalism jobs across the country, in media large and small.

Importantly, none of this requires new government funds, or fees, or taxes for the general public. Nor does it require government to step in and regulate news content – something we, like most Canadians, vehemently oppose.

In talks with the government, over the subsequent months, we were promised similar action in Canada.  The government made the same commitments publicly, with Mr. Guilbeault promising – several times – legislation this spring. We’ve also been talking to all the opposition parties in Ottawa – and they have all expressed support for reining in the web monopoly.

Well, spring has come and (almost) gone, with no legislation.  Not even the hint of it.

The government’s clear commitments of recent weeks have given way to silence.  A deeply disturbing silence.

We’re not the only ones who have noticed it.  Facebook recently pressed their advantage.  Late last month, they signed short-term commercial arrangements with a few Canadian media outlets.  Until all news media in this country can negotiate collectively with Google and Facebook, the two multinationals will continue to use their power and market dominance to drive terms that are in their interests.  Far from contributing to the resolution of the problem, this approach only deepens it.

And as long as there is a vacuum of government action, Google and Facebook won’t let up.

Parliament will be rising for its long summer break in a matter of days. Less than two years into its mandate, the air is filled with talk of a snap fall election. Meanwhile, the day-to-day struggle against the monopoly abuses of the two U.S.-based multinationals will go on in newsrooms across Canada.  How long it can go on without the government doing its job is an open question.

The COVID pandemic has proven once again how vital local news media is in keeping the public informed and in holding governments at all levels accountable. It’s literally made the difference between life and death.

Now we must face another life and death struggle – for the survival of local news. We’re fighting it with everything we’ve got.  But in order to push back foes this big and powerful, we need the government in our – and Canadians’ – corner.

Jamie Irving is Vice President of Brunswick News Inc. and Chair of News Media Canada.