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Give Competition Bureau Teeth to Protect the Public Interest, Says Hedy Fry

Heritage committee chair argues Canada lags behind other countries on using competition laws for public good.

Jeremy Nuttall 29 Nov

Jeremy J. Nuttall is The Tyee’s reader-funded Parliament Hill reporter in Ottawa. Find his previous stories here.

As more newspapers shut down, Canada must strengthen the Competition Bureau’s mandate to include matters of public interest as recommended in a committee report earlier this year, says Vancouver Centre Liberal MP Hedy Fry.

Fry’s comments come after newspaper giants Postmedia and Torstar swapped dozens of publications across Canada this week, with the result that more than 40 newspapers will be closed by the start of next year.

In many cases, the closures mean surviving papers owned by Torstar or Postmedia in the communities losing newspapers will enjoy market monopolies.

“The Competition Bureau has shrugged itself off,” Fry told The Tyee. “We need to change the Competition Bureau, the way it works, other countries have done that.”

The bureau will conduct a review of the deal, but industry experts say they don’t expect much to come from it.

The House of Commons Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage, chaired by Fry, delivered a report in June aimed partially at helping the beleaguered news industry. Among the report’s recommendations are changes to the Competition Act.

The report suggests creating a new section in the act specifically for media and forming a panel of experts to ensure a sales deal involving newspapers won’t create dominance in a marketplace for any one publication.

The bureau looks at proposed sales or mergers leading to monopolies only from an economic point of view, Fry said. It examines how potential deals affect those buying advertisements and bypasses concerns the public might have about journalism.

But oversight of such deals needs to include the public interest, Fry said.

“If the public doesn’t get accurate information about let us say politicians, political parties, how the government is doing, what the government isn't doing, they make decisions based on fake truth,” she said. “Democracy is challenged.”

Marc Edge, associate professor of media and communications at the University of Malta and the author of several books on Canadian media, said the regulation of advertising in media by the bureau also falls short. He pointed to the 2015 deal in which Quebecor Media sold its Sun Media chain to Postmedia. Many Canadian cities had either a Sun Media paper or a Postmedia paper and the deal made them all Postmedia.

“They somehow concluded, in allowing the Postmedia takeover of Sun Media, that those newspapers did not compete for advertising,” he said. “That’s ridiculous.”

Fry said the problem with Canadian media goes deeper than mergers and monopolies, but little help has come from Parliament. She said despite more than a decade of warnings the weaknesses in Canadian media ownership have been ignored.

Many MPs don’t understand how desperate the situation is, Fry said, but she remains hopeful more of the committee’s recommendations will be implemented down the road.

So far few of the 20 recommendations in the heritage committee’s report have been taken up by the government. Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly has said she wants to support “innovation” of outlets “experimenting” with their transition to digital platforms.

Saving Canadian journalism requires more than simply switching news to online, Fry said.

“The minister says we will be helping transition for newspapers from print to digital, but that is not the only answer, that’s not what people are asking for,” Fry said.

In addition to changes to the Competition Bureau, the report recommends allowing charitable status for non-profit journalistic outlets and not allowing the CBC to sell digital ads.

New Democrat heritage critic Pierre Nantel, who also worked on the heritage committee’s media study, said inaction on its recommendations is allowing further losses in Canadian media.

Nantel said more of the report’s recommendations should be acted on.

“The government could at least attempt to do something,” he said. “We had 20 recommendations [from the committee] and it’s been pushed out.”

Nantel said the committee’s work was “smacked in the face” by government the moment the report was released and that government disrespected the work of the MPs and witnesses involved.  [Tyee]

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