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BC Politics

Why Governments Want Weak News Media

Tyee founding editor David Beers on the future of news and progressive politics.

By Alban Goulden and David Beers 27 Feb 2018 |

David Beers is founding editor of The Tyee.

Alban Goulden is a writer and author of two novels and the short story collection As If. He taught English for many years at Simon Fraser University and Langara College.

[Editor’s note: Writer Alban Goulden recently sat down with Tyee founding editor David Beers for a wide-ranging discussion on the death of the American Dream, marketing-driven politics, technology, the meaning of community in the 21st century, the future of news media and more. The full interview is available in the always interesting print and online publication subTerrain here.

We're pleased to present this excerpt focusing on the future of news and information and The Tyee's role. ]

Goulden: What is the future of publishing and other media in the digital age? Has the corporate model failed? Are we instead looking at fragmented “indies” - partly (or fully) subscriber-funded operations similar to NPR, PBS, CKUA, and the Knowledge Network that appeal to a focused, niche audience? The Tyee seems like a good example here.

David Beers: “The corporate model is now the Facebook model. Media money lies in owning the means of distribution and harvesting behavioural data from the audience and selling it to the highest bidder. The highest bidders for that data these days are corporations, who want to know how to groom more buyers of their products. But the ultimate customer, with the most resources and most incentive, will be governments. They will use such info to monitor their citizens and propagandize them. This may sound paranoid, but given Facebook so far won’t even admit it’s in the publishing business, won’t take responsibility for the content it distributes and profits from, why assume much stands in the way of the dystopia I just conjured?

“Claims by Facebook or Google that they are engines of digital democracy and diversity are laughable. For example, The Tyee rarely registers on the Google News home page because… why? I don’t know. We don’t have the right secret algorithm. So we’ll run an important investigative piece, and under the heading of British Columbia, Google will showcase instead a Vancouver Sun piece on gardening. Because they have a bigger footprint, and Google, rather than supporting diversity, reinforces the bigfoots. Facebook is similarly a filter harming small independents. So while the Internet may make it easy to post information, the real issue in Canada is one of scaling up small sites to gain more audiences, and the twin, related barriers to that are resources, and discoverability.

“That’s the reality, and everyone knows it. But Canada, under Trudeau, is about to whiff on a great chance to lead the world in recognizing the threat to democracy posed by a failing corporate media and a starved independent small media sector.

“Now that pretty much everyone realizes we are on the brink of a crisis, the question is what role could, or should, government policy play in making sure the citizenry is well informed?

“To date, the same year the CBC seeks over a billion in funding, there has been virtually zero government support for independent digital news media in Canada. Trudeau’s government keeps in place barriers, in fact, to charitable funding or other ways of building capacity allowed all over the Western world. To be clear, I’m not saying The Tyee should be government funded. It has five revenue streams at least, the biggest is reader donations. But without going into detail, government policy has everything to do with how hard or easy it is to raise money for, and raise the profile of a Tyee-like entity. By the way, to give some perspective, the budget of the CBC could fund over 1,000 Tyees.

“Now that the media situation here has become so dire, the government could use its funding leverage to force the CBC to become a platform for high-calibre independent media. It could institute policies to help flow financing to independent media, and largely let corporate media suffer the results of its bad decision-making over the past decade. Instead, it looks like it will either do nothing, or funnel taxpayer money into a CBC that remains walled, and reward corporate media with bailouts that has enriched its top execs and financiers while stripping its journalism capacity to bare bones. The government seems to see a selfish benefit in having media concentrated, mediocre, and lacking diversity - posing less of a threat to its agenda, I presume.

“We have all we need in Canada to create a vibrant, diverse, eco-system of digital news media. And if we believe what we say, the more vibrant conversation conducted via that media would lead to a stronger, braver, more innovative Canada.

“But instead - and I hope I am proven wrong - it looks like we are going to rig the game to keep the CBC bland and walled, and give the edge to Postmedia, which is right-wing run and owned by a U.S. hedge fund which is relentlessly stripping the company of its cash and assets.”

In keeping with the crystal-ball theme, how do you see the processes of “progressive” politics, the environmental movement, and capitalism playing out? As of this writing, in Canada I’m noting an uneasy conflation of all of them in the NDP government of Alberta and the Liberal federal government. We may soon see the same thing with the NDP/Green Party alliance in British Columbia. Can these three philosophies become long-term bedfellows in the progressive left? Or is that a temporary aberration?

“Thanks for raising that because it’s probably the key question The Tyee was created to explore. We were tired of corporate media, and even the CBC, constantly framing political conversation as “left-right” debates and in the process oversimplifying or just ignoring the nuances and tensions within progressive coalitions. Which is odd, given that in B.C. the tensions were so fascinating between militant labour, Greenpeace enviros, anti-poverty advocates, etc. So The Tyee has been a place where you could look in and see people of all progressive stripes trying to figure out how to get past their differences and achieve some collective victory. I think the conversation led to some fairly mature realizations - like the fact Notley’s hold on power in Alberta of course depends less on what kind of a person Notley is, and more on the fact that Alberta is an oil state, much like, say Venezuela or Saudi Arabia. Its citizenry has been lulled into dependence on a single industry, which subsidizes its public expenditures to such a degree that citizens don’t really know the price of self-determination as a province. As writer Andrew Nikiforuk has pointed out, oil states disconnect the source of tax revenues from the citizenry, who as a result forfeit their role as final arbiter of the state budgeting and administration. Notley can’t change that culture overnight, no one could. She’s trapped in something of the same predicament that faces the new president of Venezuela.

“The narrative that emerged over time on The Tyee that drew all political stripes into the conversation, from say, self-reliant conservatives to environmentalists to labour progressives, was a narrative of transition from a fossil fuel economy to the next one. It recognized it wouldn’t happen overnight. It didn’t demonize people making a living in that industry now. But it recognized that we face limits. And we at The Tyee poured a lot of resources into documenting where citizens designed practical solutions to environmental and social problems. All of this conversation was informed by basic progressive values - inclusion, sharing and social justice. But it was a mature, grown-up conversation that took place over a decade and half and, as such, I think it’s a wonderful resource for the Green/NDP alliance as it explores policy options and message framing.

“During that time in B.C., we saw the BC Liberals doing all they could to replicate Alberta’s model around LNG and fossil fuel pipelines. The Tyee ran critical reporting on that not because of any fetishistic opposition to “dirty” energy but because a new era of opportunity was in danger of being missed, and oil states infantilize their citizenry by disconnecting them from the tough conversation about how wealth will be created and shared. Now, the BC Liberals clearly liked the cronyism and simple mapping of political power that a one-industry state entails.

“My fervent wish is that the Green/NDP coalition carries through on what it’s signalling - a healthy skepticism towards the fossil fuel state model and a willingness to treat B.C. citizens as grown-ups ready to discuss what it will take to fashion a diverse and sustainable economy.”

David Beers and Ed Greenspon of the Public Policy Forum discussed the state of Canadian news media on an episode of The Current. Have a listen here.  [Tyee]

Read more: Energy, BC Politics

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