Think Anew, Act Anew

observations and opinion

Saving the Free Press

 

 

We must create a public and self-funded non-profit infrastructure for independent journalism.

Now.

 

We know there is a financial crisis afflicting journalism. We know the traditional institutions and infrastructure of journalism are collapsing. With that, we can readily predict that those working inside those structures – independent journalists –  will flee or perish (metaphorically) in the rubble. Where will the survivors go to practice their essential business?

My thesis is that the free press is as vital a part of our democracy as the legislature and the judiciary. It is as key to our social survival as organized education. The press is as integral to daily life as electricity, hospitals and roads. There is a compelling historical, maybe constitutional duty, to create a safe structure for independent journalism. And now is already too late.

What do we do?  Let’s remind ourselves first of  what we do not do: pour money into the quicksand of the existing media companies. Enough has disappeared down those holes and frankly, saving them now will not repair the damage already done.

On to what we should do:  

  1. Do nothing to injure or interfere with the existing for-profit press. Leave that option open forever, to everyone. Let them figure out a way to succeed. But don’t prop them up, either.
  2. Create a class of non profit or even charitable corporations, expressly for journalistic enterprises. Encourage private investment in, and donations to, those enterprises through tax breaks.
  3. Parliament should pass a quasi-constitutional Act, akin to our human rights laws, acknowledging the centrality of the free press in our society and government and enshrining its enduring independence and vibrancy as essential elements of our polity.  Let’s call it “the Free Press Act” for sake of simplicity.
  4. In the Free Press Act, create a “free press tax” or tithe on (1) every internet service provider and (2) every taxpayer, individual or organizational.
  5. How much of a free press tax? Let’s keep it simple and say 1 percent of federal revenues. In 2017 that would be 3 billion dollars.  That’s probably enough.
  6. Immunize the free press tax from diminution by Parliament, by requiring a legislative super-majority to do so, and by moving as swiftly as possible towards a Constitutional amendment to protect the free press act from government meddling.
  7. Earmark the proceeds of the free press tax to an independent Journalism Council.  The Journalism Council would be the body protected by statutory and constitutional provisions.
  8. The Council might be chosen nationally, by the provincial and federal legislature, or through some other means that distributes the power of selection very broadly so as to prevent partisanship. This is an important element in the process, but we manage it with the judiciary so there is no reason why we can’t manage it with journalism.
  9. What does the Journalism Council do? It establishes guidelines for the allocation of funds, by grants, matching payments, subsidies, loans, whatever – like the Export Development Bank or whatever – to organizations and individuals engaged in non-profit journalism.
  10. What does the Journalism Council not do? Pick winners in the private economy, prop up for-profit enterprises, decide on appropriate content.

Sceptics (that will be most people who read this) will want to know how we protect independent journalism from the power of the purse. Isn’t there a possibility of state interference or control of journalism, through money? Yes, if we get it wrong. But it is not hard to get it right. We already do it, better than just about anyone on the planet.

Where? With our judiciary. No serious person doubts the independence or integrity of the Canadian judiciary, at any level. We have a model for this and experience with it. We also have an urgent need.

The only reason not to do this, or something like it, is because we don’t think society needs a safe financial structure for independent journalism. Such a view would be based on one of two beliefs: (1) the free press is not that important, or (2) we don’t believe it is at risk. But who among us really believes either of those propositions?

When the financial sector was set to collapse in the USA, taking the world with it, even that country adopted widespread forms of temporary government action to avert disaster.  None of the errors in that need be replicated (no one in media is “too big to fail” and no private for-profit operator should get a nickel in public money) in taking far more modest steps to create a public and self-funded non profit infrastructure for independent journalism.

It is time for journalists, citizens and public officials to open their minds to a realistic way to sustain the free press, on a permanent basis.

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One comment on “Saving the Free Press

  1. Pingback: We call it the Oldernet | Think Anew, Act Anew

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This entry was posted on June 25, 2017 by in Canada, Free Press, Journalism.
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