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Kirk LaPointe: Thank you, Ottawa, for saving journalism from tools it needs

The baffling week of how the Liberals can't help themselves in trying to help media but failing
Justin Trudeau
Justin Trudeau's Liberals are sending terrible signals to media, argues Kirk LaPointe.

Welcome to another instalment of: “We’re from government. We’re here to help.”

Yes, thank you federal Liberals, your presumptions about the craft of journalism, how it ought to operate and be financed, definitely hit the spot. In the last week, we journos have taken in quite the mouthfuls of your medicine – some from the spoon of government, some from the spoon of the party that guides it.

Let’s take these one spoonful at a time.

For a little while there, you deserved the benefit of the doubt on the idea that Canadian media ought to share in the spoils of behemoths Google and Facebook as they dominate online advertising. It was when you told us how – by taxing online links, a world first – that you lost all credibility.

Your Bill C-18, now winding its way through a Senate committee, is an example of how the road to Hell is paved with good intentions. Some in your party that I know are insistent this is the best solution to compel online giants to yield dividends for news on their platforms. They look me in the eye and say they think they’re helping media. I worry about them.

What they fail to comprehend is that a) the search and social media platforms of these online giants actually deliver audiences to news at no cost and are the backbone of digital news growth so crucial to our future business model, b) many companies have long since satisfactorily worked out compensation from Google and Facebook for this, and c) the giants don’t need news to remain wildly successful, and d) at least in Facebook’s case, they seem serious about blocking news from its platform to avoid the link tax – and presumably, walking away from their deals with media companies.

The problem with a link tax is that it’s unworkable because it is hard to identify copyrighted material and what is and isn’t news. It’ll be the slipperiest of slopes. No other country has chosen to use this approach. They understand the Internet is meant to freely connect and not to charge a toll as you do. The legislation needed encourages negotiated settlements and, when there are disputes, arbitration – the Australian model, the one that rejected the link-tax idea.

But your leader, our prime minister, has a stubbornness and insistence that often gets in his way, and this week he was again chiding Facebook as “deeply irresponsible and out of touch” and deriding the Internet giants as “dangerous to our democracy, to our economy.”

Unless the Senate can truly live up to its billing as the chamber of sober second thought and send the bill back to the Commons for reconsideration, the legislation will prove phenomenally harmful. Media will lose audiences, media will lose advertising that goes with it, media will lose agreements, and the titans go to work the next morning as if nothing happened.

And then there was what happened last weekend at your party’s national convention, thanks to the spadework from the Vancouver-Quadra riding association. Again: good intentions, road to Hell.

A party resolution emanating from the riding called on the government to “limit publication only to material whose sources can be traced” and to hold online information services “accountable for the veracity” of information they carry. It was argued the resolution aimed to deal with misinformation.

There are three easy, queasy implications: this veracity requires a regulator and who knows what that would look like, information wouldn’t be published if sources couldn’t be identified and who knows what that would look like, and anonymous sources are largely necessary because yours and other governments won’t tell us important things. I’d venture this resolution would help the government more than media, a lot.

I’m dating myself, but your leader’s father, the architect of our Charter of Rights and Freedoms, must have shouted “fuddle duddle” from his grave about the constitutional breach. Anyone taking the Grade 11 Introduction to Law class would know that, too. Pierre’s son, our leader, took his sweet time – three days – to declare his government wouldn’t respect the resolution and would “never harm journalists’ capacity to do the professional, independent work that they do.”

On that, of course, it is to giggle. This is a government miserly with disclosure, masterful with deflection, and our freedom of information law is a farce. This is the same prime minister who took pains to ridicule media reporting of Chinese interference in the last election, then this week expelled the embassy official identified as a perpetrator. His history of evasive Commons performances reminds us of the good reason the daily exchange with the opposition is called Question Period and not Answer Period.

To add a little kerosene to the flambé in the pan, Vancouver Centre Liberal MP Hedy Fry’s heritage committee last week deduced that a good title for a session with the tech titans should be “Tech Giants’ Use of Intimidation Tactics.” Excellent strategy to bring them to their knees! Call them bad names! Facebook’s president of global affairs decided not to show; a statement was read into the record. The session title was changed, the executive has been summoned, but the relationship is a wreck.

On all of this, the Liberals don’t fret; it’s the media business that loses sleep. Many thanks for the helping hand, folks.

Kirk LaPointe is publisher and executive editor of Business in Vancouver and vice-president, editorial, of Glacier Media.