observations and opinion
This is an excerpt from the August 2015 “A Modest Proposal to Save Democracy“ asserting that, like the judiciary, free and independent journalism is key to the survival of democracy and demands public support.
To be truly free, the press must be independent. To be independent, it must be endowed with sufficient financial resources to support the rather modestly-paid talent which chooses to report and write, rather than do other things. The question is, where can the free press find the money to fulfill its mandate and, in the process, protect and improve our democracy and way of life?
In a perfect world, a free press would be voluntarily funded by those who benefit from it – all of us. Problem is, we tried that approach with the old media and got mixed results. With the new media and the dwindling value of advertising in our hyper-fragmented market, it is not obvious that serious journalists can attract the sums of money necessary to do their essential work.
When I say journalists do “essential work” that is precisely what I mean. Without them, our way of life will actually die. If you look out the window at the social infrastructure around you – sidewalks, roads, telephone poles, power lines, streetlights – you see the physical essentials of civilization. You could readily imagine a list of other “essentials”, such as hospitals, fire houses, police officers, physicians, nurses, hospitals, soldiers, without which a free and decent society could not function. Just as essential is honest and excellent journalism.
In a society of increasingly large, complex institutions – private and public – we need a journalistic capacity that is also large, bold, independent and good at what it does. To be blunt, in an age when everyone is trying to sell something to someone else, we need more people who aren’t selling anything. We need more telling.
The press is no less a pillar of democracy than the legislative, executive or judicial branches of government; it therefore needs and deserves the capacity to fund itself without commercial or state pressure. Already protected constitutionally, the press must have the practical means of support necessary to fulfill that constitutional function. And that means money – tax money – and plenty of it.
You will blanch at the idea of government funding the press (they do that in lots of places, you will say, few of them “free”). I agree, we cannot make the press dependent on the state for funding. What the press needs is an independent source of revenue, drawn from the public whose interest it manifestly serves, insulated from any external pressure or gift. We need a “press tax”, collected by the usual revenue authorities but allocated to a separate treasury designed to fund independent, non-profit journalism.
That treasury, the “Press Fund” call it, would require administration and that would need to be shaped like a non-profit corporation or perhaps even the judiciary. That authority would have absolute autonomy from state influence, or private power, to support with short and long term grants the activities of professional journalists and their organizations (on the Internet or in any medium that works).
In some ways, what I propose here is not unlike the manner in which we fund universities – supporting institutions which have a social purpose and doing so with little or no immediate expectation of concrete deliverables or marketable products (or even people). Again though, the press being especially important and especially vulnerable, it needs greater autonomy and separation from the normal government budgetary process. It needs its own source of money.
The Press Fund would not be the exclusive place to fund news: any private organization that chose to do so for profit, could opt to do so. They would have all the benefits and limitations of the marketplace they currently experience and, because Press Fund-supported journalism would not need or take advertising, private outlets would have no complaint of unfair competition from publicly supported enterprises.
It is key to understand that the Press Fund proposed here, would not be a government program or a budget item. It would be, in a true sense, a new branch of government – akin to the judiciary in terms of its independence and professionalism, performing a crucial public service: reporting the news.
In my view, there is a fair argument today that if market conditions and technological change imperil the free press, our constitutional right of free speech will become an increasingly hollow thing. The Canadian courts have recognized that civil liberties are more than “freedom from” oppression but also include the right to the legal and other means necessary to utilize that freedom. We need the means to be free, not just the right.
Our politicians, public institutions, academics and citizens generally, must wake up to the terrible hazard ahead as our societal capacity for journalism declines. We need a robust, fierce and brave free press – and it shouldn’t need to be all that brave. The technological revolution has, like a strong storm, shattered part of the journalistic economy and laid bare the frailties of what’s still standing. There must be a quiet revolution – now – before the forces of money and power and technology blind the eyes and silence the voices we need to survive as free people.