COLUMN: Liberal government ignores even its own MPs on supporting Canadian news

With nice words and platitudes, they rejected everything that the Heritage committee recommended

The federal Liberal government has ignored its own Members of Parliament – again.

Anyone following the furor over proposed changes to small business taxes won’t be surprised by this.

But it was disappointing nonetheless to see how Liberal cabinet ministers responded this week to a report done on local news by the House of Commons committee on Canadian Heritage.

MPs on the committee spent 15 months studying what is happening in the rapidly changing news media landscape. They met 44 times and heard from 131 witnesses. Liberals and New Democrats issued a majority report in June that said steps must be taken to help news media navigate this tumultuous period.

Their conclusion: “Given the media’s importance as a reflection of Canada’s diversity and a pillar of our democracy, the government of Canada must implement the necessary measures to support the existence of a free and independent media and local news reporting.”

The government is required to respond to such reports. This week the response came from Heritage Minister Melanie Joly, Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains and Finance Minister Bill Morneau.

With nice words and platitudes, they politely rejected pretty much everything that the Heritage committee recommended.

They said the federal government is already doing lots to help local news media survive, innovate and transform.

This is laughable.

The ministers said the government is ensuring a vibrant, local and reliable news media ecosystem is a pillar of democracy with its Canada Periodical Fund. This is a $75 million program that mostly subsidizes printed magazines and provides some money for paid, printed community papers, especially those catering to ethnic and specialty audiences. It is not open to daily newspapers that still provide the base of the news media ecosystem in cities across Canada.

The ministers point to the business innovation component of the Periodical Fund as a way to encourage innovation to adapt to changing market conditions. This part of the program spends $1.5 million per year. For the whole country.

The ministers have no answer to the Heritage committee’s concerns that foreign news aggregators – like Google and Facebook – don’t have the same tax obligations as Canadian providers.

For example, a business placing an ad with a Canadian newspaper or TV station cannot deduct the expense if the media outlet is foreign-owned. Yet the same business can place ads on foreign-owned digital platforms aimed primarily at Canadian market and deduct the costs.

All the ministers say is that the digital economy poses challenges for tax systems in all jurisdictions and the Finance department is examining the issue.

Another Heritage committee recommendation to help news media is to allow the creation of charitable foundations to support journalism. People could get a tax deduction for donating to this cause. There could be PBS-like campaigns to raise money for news outlets.

The ministers say “it is not clear that amending the Income Tax Act to include not-for-profit media organizations and foundations as charities would be an effective way of supporting the not-for-profit media.”

This is an incredible statement. It suggests that charitable status is not an effective way of supporting not-for-profit organizations. In fact, it is the only effective way of surviving for many non-profits, which is why there are 86,000 charities in Canada.

The ministers also contradict themselves. They say charitable status is for purposes recognized as beneficial to the public. They also say in the letter that the government “recognizes the important role media and journalism play in Canadian society and more specifically their role as fundamental pillars of our democratic process.”

So news media are fundamental to democracy, but not beneficial enough to the public to have charitable status.

The ministers go on to say, essentially, that the government has put enough money into the system, into areas such as the CBC, to ensure the health of local news coverage.

The whole response amounts to a careful, bureaucratic rejection of any change in what the government is doing – which is next to nothing – on what the majority of MPs on the Heritage committee determined was a serious and urgent problem.

I testified before the Heritage committee, hoping that their work would bring greater attention to the issue and lead to action.

I was wrong.

– Bob Cox

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