A reporters’ association invited to join a federal press bailout panel yesterday said the work is so secretive it may quit the process before it begins. Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez asked eight groups to suggest criteria on which Canadian publishers will receive $595 million in subsidies.
“Everything should be public,” said Karen Pugliese, president of the Canadian Association of Journalists. “I’m a journalist. If there is some privacy issue – and I can’t imagine what it would be – they can explain that in public, and let the public decide.”
Minister Rodriguez in a statement said he would determine final members of the “independent panel of experts” assigned to make recommendations by July 31 on criteria for subsidy seekers. “We are reaching another milestone,” said Rodriguez.
The actual awarding of subsidies to A-listed “qualified Canadian journalism organizations” will be left to unnamed cabinet appointees under Bill C-97 The Budget Implementation Act. Criteria can be changed by cabinet at any time. “The government will decide whether or not to change certain criteria,” Maude Lavoie, Finance Canada director general of business tax programs, said in May 14 testimony at the Senate national finance committee.
The Journalists’ Pugliese said her group only learned of its invitation to the expert panel through a late phone call, and questioned the entire process. “We even had a hard time finding out who we should speak to,” said Pugliese. “We had a sense a lot of decisions had already been made.”
“We got a call from the Department of Heritage on Tuesday saying they would be letting us know we’d get an invitation,” said Pugliese. “We just found out. Our participation is not a given. We have a lot of questions.”
“We consulted our members and this is very controversial,” said Pugliese, director of news for APTN of Winnipeg. “There are concerns the government should not even be appointing this panel.”
The eight groups invited to “submit a name of a candidate to take part in the work of the independent panel of experts” were the Associations de la Press Francophone; Canadian Association of Journalists; Fédération Nationale des Communications; Fédération Professionnelle des Journalistes du Québec; National Ethnic Press & Media Council; News Media Canada; Québec Community Newspaper Association; and Unifor.
“Done Behind The Scenes”
Bill C-97 proposes a 15 percent tax credit to a maximum $75 for subscribers of federally-approved websites – an $11 million annual cost – and 25 percent payroll tax credits to approved publishers to a maximum $13,750 per newsroom employee. The payroll subsidies are worth $360 million over four years, by official estimate.
The Journalists’ Pugliese noted digital start-ups are disqualified unless they have at least two employees and cover narrowly-defined news content. Cabinet also failed to commit to ensuring all deliberations are public, and that publishers who apply for aid and do not receive it are named alongside A-listed newsrooms, she said.
“We want all applicants to be public,” said Pugliese. “People want to know. This came up in consultations we had with members. Why shouldn’t that be public? What would be the reason not to do that?”
Another reporters’ association said it asked to join Minister Rodriguez’ expert panel to ensure subsidies were not misspent by news corporations, and was not accepted. “We asked to be included,” said Martin O’Hanlon, president of CWA Canada of Ottawa. “We wanted to be involved, and we were excluded.”
CWA Canada represents 6,000 members with newspaper guilds and typographical unions nationwide. “We would like more transparency here,” said O’Hanlon.
“We told a government official we wanted to be informed, then a lot of stuff was done behind the scenes, and all of a sudden an announcement is made about an expert panel,” said O’Hanlon. “We thought we had an important contribution to make for media workers – exclusively media workers – since this program is supposed to be about preserving journalism.”
“We have some pretty strong views on who should be eligible for federal funding,” said O’Hanlon. “Our biggest concern is that anybody who gets public money should not be using that to pad executives’ pay. It’s all about ensuring the money really goes to journalism.”
Minister Rodriguez yesterday also announced the appointment of seven groups to divvy up grants under a $10 million-a year Local Journalism Initiative promised in cabinet’s 2018 budget. Rodriguez’ department in an earlier Access To Information memo estimated the grants would create 60 to 80 jobs nationwide.
Appointees to the grant panel were the Association de la Press Francophone; Canadian Association of Community Television Users & Stations; Community Radio Fund of Canada; Fédération des Télévisions Communautaires Autonomes du Québec; National Ethnic Press & Media Council; News Media Canada; and Québec Community Newspapers Association.