The Department of Industry in a secret Access To Information memo cautions against federal meddling in media under the guise of combating fake news. The 2018 memo predates a plan to have subsidized media monitors “expose” election-year coverage deemed unreliable.
“Reasons for government intervention, as well as whether there are appropriate tools to target issues, must be clear before actions are considered,” said the briefing note Advice To The Associate Deputy Minister. The censored three-page memo said Canadians should “continue to access the legal content of their choice with confidence”: “This is critical,” it said.
The memo said any federal action against fake news could have consequences for free speech, and that remedies were already found in the private sector. “It is important that we enable private sector leadership, innovation governance approaches and new business models to flourish,” wrote staff.
“Policies that constrain the flow of data, free speech, consumer choice or the rights of businesses to innovate online would impede economic potential,” said Advice. “In light of concerns with ‘fake news’, social media companies e.g. Twitter and Facebook are already developing and implementing solutions”; “It will be important to ensure there will be an appropriate consideration given to the private sector and economic impacts before determining a way forward,” the memo said.
The note is dated February 5, 2018. Six months later, the Department of Canadian Heritage began negotiations with an Ottawa-based group called Public Policy Forum to “monitor digital and social media in real time” for “disinformation in the lead-up to the October 2019 federal election.”
The Policy Forum in a statement last November 28 defended the monitoring scheme. “The country lacks adequate understanding of what’s being put through our media ecosystem,” wrote CEO Edward Greenspon, a former Toronto Star executive: “This project is designed to expose these attempts and determine how best to counter them.”
Neither the Forum nor the department would discuss the cost or rationale for the project. Elections Canada already monitors campaign disinformation under a provision of the Canada Elections Act that outlaws “false statements of fact” about any candidate or political party.
Surveillance of digital media would coincide with cabinet’s promised $595 million bail-out fund for newspapers. Cabinet in its November 21 Fall Economic Statement proposed to award subsidies to publishers deemed reliable. No criteria have been disclosed to date.
Conservative MP Peter Kent (Thornhill, Ont.), a Canadian Broadcast Hall of Famer, yesterday in Commons debate described the bailout fund as “a cynical, election-year attempt to co-opt, to buy off, media owners and publishers.”
Kent called the offer of subsidies “an unacceptable intervention that will compromise independence” by having a government panel decide “which newsrooms are credible and worthy, and which newsrooms are not”. Kent is a former NBC foreign correspondent and chief anchor for CBC-TV’s flagship National newscast.
“News organization CEOs and publishers who draw multi-million dollar salaries and equally outsized bonuses as their newsrooms are depleted are delighted,” said Kent. “Then-Postmedia CEO Paul Godfrey enthusiastically welcomed the finance minister’s Fall Economic Statement announcement. Mr. Godfrey recommended everyone in journalism should be ‘doing a victory lap’ around their building.”
Postmedia last year paid CEO Godfrey $5.04 million in salary and bonuses, according to a Management Circular obtained November 28 by the Halifax Examiner. Other executive pay included $2.2 million to Postmedia’s chief operation officer, and $1.2 million to its chief financial officer.