Independent Panel of Experts on Journalism and the Written Press — July 3 2019 meeting
Panel members present
- Bob Cox (chair)
- Esther Enkin
- Brad Honywill
- Pierre-Paul Noreau
- Brenda O’Farrell
- Thomas Saras
- Pierre Sormany
- Pascale St-Onge
The chair started the meeting by checking with all members to see if there were major concerns that needed to be addressed during the day. With none identified, the panel proceeded to review the draft document on definitions prepared by one of the panel members as well as the draft introductory letter prepared by the chair.
- When asked, members thought the tone was appropriate and to the point.
- A suggestion was made to make the reference to ethnic press and government advertising stronger.
- On referring to the 2nd panel, the letter should suggest to the government that it make the 2nd panel’s mandate clear on what it would be doing and how it would operate. Some members was some concern about the fact that its role is not well defined.
- One member noted that there is a need to implement the tax measures as soon as possible and questioned the need for a second panel since crating it and operating it would slow down the process.
- Discrepancies were noted between the Budget, other government documents and Bill C-97. This however was due to amendments to the Bill at committee. The question was asked about the phrase “if necessary” and reserved for review with Finance Canada officials later in the day.
- Discussion focused on how tax credits are administered and on the process. If an application is straight forward, then it should flow quickly and not be held back by a 2nd panel evaluation. It was proposed that government should be able to proceed with applications that are not problematic and only refer the difficult applications to the 2nd panel.
- It was pointed out that the 2nd panel is only active on the application for status as a QCJO, not for any of the tax measures themselves.
- Questions were set aside for officials on the anticipated process of administering the applications (is it analogous to applying for charitable status or applying for tax credit for medical expenses?) and on the necessity of having a second panel.
- Turning to the criteria, the was a discussion on limiting or excluding organizations who give executives bonuses. A text was proposed and reviewed. Some members agreed in principle but could not see how such a criteria could be applied. Concern was also expressed about overstepping the panel’s mandate. On the other hand, an argument was made that it is a question of eligibility and as such, it really isn’t outside the mandate. There could be difficulties in identifying what is excessive and who executives are, according to one member.
- It was suggested that it could be mentioned in the report as a preoccupation without developing a recommendation on it. Another member suggested that the panel should say something on it as it has been a source of difficulty to get support from MPs. Executive bonuses invariably make their way into the conversation. The point was made that these are public funds and the measures must make sure the money goes to employees, not to executives.
- Debate continued on how to address the issue since it is recognized as being outside the mandate. Ultimately, there was agreement among panel members to add a sentence to the introductory letter suggesting the government limit funding to companies that receive bonuses.
- The panel then focused its attention on the working document containing proposed definitions and precisions on the criteria. The review started with criteria related to QCJO status. One member remarked that the paragraph in the top section need to be taken as a whole, not a discreet sections. There was agreement to use the word news rather than information as it is consistent with the legislation, as in “original news content”.
- Proposed exclusions to what is original news content were then discussed, with some discussion around the exclusion of content from press agencies. Specific wording changes were made to the proposed text after which panel members agreed with the text on original news content.
- In the next section, the panel reviewed the list of accepted topics and freed to a list of 9 from which an organization would need to cover at least 3. Panels members proceeded to make changes to the order of the paragraphs, syntax and some wording changes to the proposed text. This included changes to the French and English documents to ensure both versions were saying the same thing.
- Draft definitions reviewed, changed and ultimately agreed to “original news content”, “matters of general interest”, “regularly employs” and “journalists”.
- On the concept of regularly employs, members debated the notion of being under contract and the exclusion of freelance journalists from the criteria.
- The question was then asked if the panel should define what is excluded from the functions undertaken by a journalist as part of that definition. There was consensus to have the exclusions.
- The panel also looked at a list of types of news organizations that would be ineligible for QCJO status that was prepared based on the discussion from previous meetings. Panel members debated the wording related to the exclusion of publications receiving funding from foreign entities and how this could be applied by a review body.
- Panel members examined certain terms used in the three fiscal measures including the definition of “digital news” under the digital subscription tax credit and “eligible newsroom employee” under the refundable labour tax credit.
- On the qualified done tax incentive, it was suggested that the panel recommend that charitable foundations be allowed to fund journalism, including in for-profit publications. Under such an change, foundations that are set up specifically to support journalism would be allowed to fund news organizations and have charitable status. They cannot currently have charitable status. A member illustrated the limitations of the situation using the example of Les amis du Devoir. It was admitted that a change in legislation which would only occur at a later date.
Department of Finance officials joined the meeting at this point
- When asked about the 2nd panel, officials confirmed that it is an advisory body and that this changed at the committee level as thinking around it evolved since the Budget was tabled. They also confirmed that there is nothing in the legislation that addresses criteria for the composition of the second panel.
- When asked if they think Canadian Heritage could carry out the assessment as it does for CAVCO and the film tax credits, officials reminded the panel that the government, in the recent past, has publicly declared that it wanted a second panel to ensure the independence of the press by removing itself as much as possible from the process.
- When asked if CRA could administer the applications and only refer difficult or uncertain applications to the 2nd panel, and while uncertain if this could work, officials indicated that some flexibility was built in to the legislation. Regardless, the Minister of National Revenue is required to take into account any recommendations but if there are none, then there is no obligation.
- Officials were asked how they see the process of application working. Officials answered that in a normal process, applications would be sent to CRA for initial screening. Following this, all applications that passed this step would be sent to the 2nd panel. Again, the legislation provides flexibility in this respect. Some of the elements in the process still need to be determined.
- Officials pointed out that CRA has expertise on certain criteria such as determining is Canadian-owned and controlled but for criteria like “primarily focused on original news content”, CRA would likely be looking to a second body to carry out this portion of the evaluation,
- Finance officials were then asked to review the draft definitions developed by the panel to see if any of the proposed language was unworkable.
- On the term “original news content”, officials expressed uncertainty at being to apply the definition as written. This was from a non-expert perspective. Officials suggested that the more precise the definitions are, the easier it will be to apply them. But, as one panel member pointed out, there is a point where it becomes very difficult to be more precise since even within the journalistic community, consensus on more precise definitions becomes very difficult.
- Still in the context of the QCJO criteria, officials indicated that CRA was looking to the expert panel for more precision on the term “primarily” and in particular a quantifiable measure such as a percentage.
- Officials also noted that language about coverage of democratic institutions and processes could be made more precise as well, again to lessen the level of interpretation. Officials explained that from the department’s perspective, this should be about governmental activities but the panel could suggest that it do this but also that it should be broadened. The government’s intention was on the coverage of governmental institutions first and foremost.
- A panel member suggested that perhaps removing the expression “social issues” and add “municipal institutions, school boards, etc.” might be better. The panel agreed to develop new language for this section.
- One member expressed a problem with the insistence on coverage of democratic institutions and that is a much broader process than the narrower topic of covering parliaments only.
- On the definition of “eligible newsroom employees”, officials indicated that there are well-defined criteria defining who is an employee. Officials noted how close the definition for this expression were to that of journalists elsewhere in the panel’s document. But as one panel member pointed out, it is about eligible employees, not all employees found in the newsroom.
- Given some ambiguities officials expressed regarding certain expressions used by the panel, officials suggested that it would be very useful to have either definitions, precisions or examples to better understand the terminology. Many of the expressions are specialized and could be difficult for non-experts to properly understand.
- Regarding the qualified done tax credit, the panel asked officials if regulations could address the issue of registered charities being allowed to donate funds to for-profit news organizations. The answer was that could not occur in the existing legal context and would require a change in the law.
End of meeting
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