Minister vows transparency over $600M media fund, defends inclusion of Unifor
OTTAWA – The minister responsible for overseeing the rollout of nearly $600 million in subsidies to select media outlets is vowing that the decision-making process for who will be getting this funding will be transparent.
“The whole process will be public,” said Canadian Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez in an interview with Evan Solomon, host of CTV’s Question Period.
This comment was made as he sought to defend what has become a controversial decision: to include Unifor, the largest private sector union in Canada, on the panel to pick representatives who will give advice on who should be eligible for the federal dollars.
Over the last few years, the Liberals have begun signaling their intent to intervene to help save or support the news industry, which has seen hundreds of operations shuttered and thousands of jobs lost in the last decade. In the 2019 budget, the government spelled out its plan to support Canadian journalism: Nearly $600 million in subsidies and tax credits to go to select outlets and organizations over the next five years.
Rodriguez announced this week that he is asking eight associations that represent journalists in Canada to offer up a candidate to work on the independent panel tasked with making recommendations on who should be eligible for the tax measures. These groups include journalism associations and advocacy groups that represent reporters across Canada, including French-language and ethnic press organizations, and the union Unifor.
Including Unifor has raised concerns, given that the union has and continues to campaign against the Conservatives and Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer.
The union, which does represent 11,900 people in the media sector, has billed itself as “the resistance” to Scheer, and his “worst nightmare.” The organization as a whole represents workers in several other industries as well including in the auto, retail, manufacturing, education, and hospitality sectors.
Asked why Unifor was included and whether he had any concerns that the anti-Conservative messaging will undermine or erode people’s trust in the media and journalists, Rodriguez denied it, saying that message is largely being pushed by Scheer. He also said that the panel is arms-length.
“We wanted to make sure that the panel was constituted with people from all the spheres from the news world, so you have owners, you have unions representing journalists, and you have minority groups… it had to be balanced, represent the regions, represent the official languages and I think we reached a good balance there,” said Rodriguez. “Are we saying that we don't want the workers to be represented?”
While journalists from the other seven organizations have expressed discomfort with the idea, most of the criticism has been focused on Unifor.
In a statement posted to its Facebook page about the controversy, Unifor called it an “intentional mischaracterization of a process designed to support Canada’s struggling news industry,” from a “rookie” leader. Scheer said this continued messaging has validated his concerns.
Asked if the decisions from this panel will be made public, Rodriguez said “absolutely,” and that all of its recommendations will be public as well.
“We'll listen to them, we’ll listen to what they say. And we'll definitely make it public, it's really important that we do so, and we will,” he said.
The panel is set to convene by mid-June and will have a month to report back, and Rodriguez said he doesn’t know if the decisions about where this money will go will be made before the October federal election.
“We want to protect professional, neutral, and professional journalism and this will be based on experts who know this way more than I do and way more than people in government. They’re the people in the field, they’re the people that run papers, they’re the people that write stories and we need their advice,” Rodriguez said.