Good news story gets buried in anti-Trudeau wave

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Whatever the Liberals do these days—even if it is groundbreaking, and puts $100-million into the creation of domestic news stories—they cannot win.

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on December 4, 2023.

OTTAWA—The government’s Google announcement last week should have been met with applause all the way around.

Canada has always been a leader in new ideas and instruments to protect culture, and obviously the survival of local news is a key to spawning more Canadian content.

But whatever the Liberals do these days—even if it is groundbreaking, and puts $100-million into the creation of domestic news stories—they cannot win.

Pundits variously described the agreement with Google as “dodging a bullet,” a self-inflicted wound, and another cock-up by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Talk about kicking a guy while he is down.

We know the numbers for the Liberals look grim. According to the latest polls, they are running neck and neck with the New Democratic Party. But how that unpopularity can be expanded to include the government’s Google agreement is pretty hard to swallow.

The Canadian government has followed the lead of Australia, which was the first country in the world to regulate the social media landscape in an attempt to secure funding for domestic content.

This is one area where Canadians have a fair bit of experience, and the decision to take on Google, Meta, and the other social media behemoths was a courageous one. Some said the Liberals should just wait to take their lead from the G7 or the OECD. That advice would have meant no action, as the Americans are usually opposed to public intrusion into what they consider their media space.

The European Union has been making its own inroads into taking on big tech. The EU fought Apple in a decision last year as it moved to standardize chargers for smartphones and tablets sold in Europe. Canada announced a similar decision in the last budget, and the European market of 450 million people will receive a standard USB Type-C charging port by the end of next year.

As Europe takes on Apple, Canada goes for Google. One jaded journalist went so far as to claim the Canadian government was involved in a “shakedown.”

Globe and Mail columnist Andrew Coyne tweeted that there was “no actual legal, logical or moral case for forcing Google to underwrite the Canadian media.” He called the agreement “strictly opportunistic: 1) Google has a lot of money. 2) We want some. 3) Make them give it to us.”

In fact, there is plenty of precedent for content transmitters to chip in on Canadian story development. That model has been used in the television world since the private cable industry was required to establish a fund to support Canadian content.

Their fund morphed into partnership with the government via the Canadian Television Fund, and then into the Canada Media Fund, which currently invests $366-million annually into media production. That investment triggers $1.7-billion in industry activity in Canada, providing employment for more than 244,000 people.

As television and streaming collided through the introduction of internet media content creation, it made sense for the Canadian government to require new media players to do their part in the creation of content. As Google traffics in the news, it can also help to pay for local news creation, using a tried-and-true model that will now likely be copied by dozens of other jurisdictions around the world.

The Liberal government should be congratulated as a leader in public policy on the issue of social media transmission. Instead, even though last week’s announcement will assist in the survival of local media outlets, there were no kudos for Trudeau.

Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre has already promised to trash the Google deal with the same vision he uses to promise defunding of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

The Google story was not big news across the country as it was an inside-the-beltway negotiation, but the outcome of this new investment could be critical for the survival of local media in the next decade.

Most people may not care about the intricacies of public policy when it comes to the creation of Canadian content. But without government leadership, the chance to grow a dying news industry is slim to none.

Last week’s announcement should have been met with at least one day of positive coverage. But when the media decides that it is time for a change at the top, nothing—not even a trailblazing move to save media—will kill the main story.

The appetite for political change is fuelled by negative Trudeau stories on a daily basis.

That is not going to change.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.