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Watching the Watchdog: Saving Canadian Journalism From Itself

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Tim Knight writes the regular column Watching the Watchdog for HuffPost Canada.

Situation Critical -- It's getting very scary out here in journalism land.

Slowly, slowly, month by month, year by year, the various players in Team Savage Capitalism are whittling away at Canada's democratic tradition of public interest journalism. Even the people's network, CBC, is affected. Today it's but a shadow of the proud public servant I worked for more than 20 years ago. Once its journalism roared, now it mostly whimpers.

Meanwhile, the tiny (and getting smaller) group of rich and powerful media companies owning private broadcasters, newspapers and magazines increasingly have as their sole priority the making of the biggest possible profit in the shortest possible time.

Public service and the protection and furtherance of democracy by accurately and honestly informing us about the world in which we live has slipped way down their list of priorities. Profit -- not service -- is their new holy grail.

Draconian newsroom cuts are made in all our media. "Downsizing" becomes routine. More and more journalists are hired under contracts which can be torn up every six months or so. Journalists with short contracts fear frightening the horses and as a result just do what they're told.

Meanwhile, senior journalists -- elders, guardians of the tribal journalistic memory -- are retired, laid off and not replaced. Profit rules. You read, hear and see the results every day.

  • Less and less investigative reporting -- which can be defined as revealing information in the public interest which someone with power wants to keep secret.
  • Fewer and fewer foreign correspondents to bring us a Canadian understanding of our world.
  • Fewer and fewer reporters to cover and examine our national, provincial and local governments.
  • Lots and lots of mostly favourable business stories, almost no labour coverage.
  • More and more super-easy-to-cover, super-cheap, super-meaningless stuff -- crime, celebrities, disasters, weather and "human interest".
  • Less and less professional training for journalists to help them serve and protect the free marketplace of ideas, comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Real estate agents get more training.
  • More and more secrecy as our political and economic lords and masters learn how to evade their responsibility to be accountable, open and transparent with the people. (Not incidentally, our Conservative federal government won this year's much un-coveted Code of Silence Award from the Canadian Association of Journalists.)

Slowly, slowly, the dwindling band of journalists who survive all this are being acclimatized to the notion that their job is no longer to serve the people in our democracy -- a tradition proudly built up over the past couple of hundred years, often at great cost -- but to serve their employer.

They might as well sell cappuccino at Tim Hortons. But newsrooms aren't cafés. And journalists aren't baristas.

Slowly, slowly, something called free market fundamentalism is persuading us that the interests of society can best be achieved by allowing the private media owners to pursue their own financial self-interest with no need for accountability, responsibility, restraint or regulatory oversight.

All of which -- if we don't act very, very soon to prevent it -- will eventually destroy our fragile democracy. So what can we do about it?

An Immodest Proposal -- Once it was advertising that subsidized print and broadcast journalism. But today, advertising dollars are far more likely to go to the Internet.

So why don't we, the people, take over -- subsidize our precious democratic journalism ourselves?

Before you scream commie-pinko-Marxist at me, may I remind you that we subsidize a host of essential services already. Like education, the military, police, firefighters, infrastructures and our various overstaffed bureaucracies and legislatures. Along with our monarch and her various lieutenants around the country.

Is free, honest, journalism -- so vital to the preservation of Canadian democracy -- any less important? Here's what our Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms says about that:

"Everyone has the following fundamental freedoms: ... freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication."

Ah yes, you say. If they're called fundamental in the Charter, these freedoms truly must be a vital public good. But these are difficult financial times and we simply can't afford to subsidize such freedoms ourselves. Frankly, I don't think we can afford not to subsidize them!

So what if we set up a non-governmental, non-profit Canadian Journalism Consortium? It would be made up of any journalistic organizations -- print, broadcast or digital -- that wish to join and subscribe to the concept of free journalism.

How to fund it? Start with a substantial, one-time government grant. (Once the money is handed over, governments are barred by law from having anything to do with it. Anything.)

The Consortium sells advertising. Any profits are plowed back into resources and salaries. Foundations are invited to endow. As are public-spirited private companies sympathetic to the Consortium's aims. Canada's media already get huge tax breaks and subsidies from various levels of government. The governments simply grab back those tax breaks and subsidies and give them to the Consortium.

As for the CBC, wrap it into the Consortium, give it increased and guaranteed five-year funding and after that let it fight for funds with all the other members.

The problem with newspapers and magazines, of course, is that we simply don't know how long they'll continue to exist in their present dead-tree form.

Montreal's hugely-prestigious Le Devoir (founded to "support honest folk and denounce scoundrels") would be a splendid founding member. The newspaper is already precariously supported by donations from its employees, corporations and readers and would bring with it considerable experience in such public funding.

Whatever happens, it's vital that the traditions, the heritage of our printed media -- whatever's left of their "publish and be damned" spirit -- be retained in the Consortium. Whether or not they merge into the Internet.

Our American cousins have many of the same problems.

In their 2010 book The Death and Life of American Journalism, Robert W. McChesney and John Nichols argue that compromises and corruption are destroying American journalism's "old order." That we have to "grab what is good and necessary from the crumbling edifice ... and raise it up on a new platform."

"The era of commercial news media is ending and a new system of independent journalism must be created and subsidized by the public if democracy is to survive and prosper."

Our own Canadian media critic, Naomi Klein, says of McChesney and Nichols:

"No two people are more dedicated to the transformative, democratizing power of journalism not as it is, but as it should be."

Next Step -- One definition of a conservative is someone who takes the best from the past and adapts it to the future. Oddly but delightfully, under that definition, public funding of Canadian journalism is eminently and logically conservative. So the present government should support it. With gusto.

When it does, it will forever wipe away that otherwise indelible stain on its honour left by the CAJ's Code of Silence award.