Independent Panel of Experts on Journalism and the Written Press — June 20 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 panel discussion began with an exercise to identify issues and ideas to park in a separate list, to ensure these ideas are addressed during the course of the discussion for the day and in future meetings. These included:
- Keeping in mind that the formal obligation to have 2 journalists currently excludes a significant number of small publications; the panel should explore recommending more flexibility in this criterion;
- The idea that there might be a need for another program for this, since the Budget law gives tax credits for hiring journalists — the program might not be made for smaller publications that don’t hire many people;
- The requirement that government fulfill its official languages mandate and should consider doing direct ad buys to achieve this;
- The need to clarify the notion what is meant by the exclusion of single-topic publications and to differentiate between choosing multiple angles to cover a whole field and publishing on one subject.
In their discussions, panel members also considered the Budget law and recognized that they could propose amendments to the law to specify interpretation rules. However, they would need to be careful that regulations do not end up contradicting the legislation. Providing clear criteria would make it easier for bureaucrats and leave less room for interpretation.
They also noted the importance of keeping in mind that the panel’s decisions will affect the next generations and the future of this country; as well as the need to recognize the democratic issue underlying the crisis.
Panel members listed a series of questions that they then discussed:
- In establishing a definition of original news content, would there be additional exclusions to those listed in the law?
- A definition could list specific additional topics what is excluded as additions from the Quebec Government’s program.
- Caution in proceeding as Ontario had done with its digital publishing tax credit was expressed, as those criteria were too loose, allowing everyone to qualify.
- Panel members discussed the exclusions of certain types of content such as offensive content, hate propaganda, pornography, sponsored content, media that primarily produce opinion, etc.
- List of excluded content identified by the panel included:
- Ad or sponsored content
- Publications produced primarily for industrial, corporate or institutional purposes.
- What about certain types of publications, such as newsletters? Should they be excluded?
- The panel could look at what publications put out. A lot of them produce newsletters, for example. Do we want to include that?
- What would be the definition for “primarily focused on matters of general interest and reports of current events”?
- The approach adopted by Investissement Québec for the provincial tax credits for newspapers with regards to how the organization defines its requirements for content of general interest was noted, particularly the idea of requiring a newspaper to cover at least 3 of 7 given themes.
- The panel debated the practicality of a list and the fact that it could be very difficult to establish a complete list.
- It was pointed out, however, that the Budget emphasized coverage of current events, including coverage of democratic institutions and processes.
- A list could be drawn up by the panel and include such topics as democratic institutions, education, health, etc.
- While the legislation does not address frequency of publication, is this a criterion on which the panel should provide recommendations?
- The consensus was that there should be a recommendation to this effect.
- The question then posed was: What should be the criterion as to how often QCJOs should minimally publish?
- The idea was put forward that a QCJO has to publish 10 times per year with a content refresh of at least once per week; etc. Putting such criteria together is good as they are measurable; otherwise it’s too interpretative for CRA staff.
- Is once per week too demanding? There were views in favour and against but as was noted, once per week was a realistic criterion and not a terribly high bar – a bar that has to be set somewhere.
- The concept of “refresh” will need to be defined. Is it just changing the headline? The panel will need to provide guidance around what a significant refresh means.
- Could the requirement to regularly employ 2 journalists be reviewed?
- After a discussion, it was decided to ask Finance Canada officials if the panel could make recommendations to change this criterion in the context of the existing law, and if a recommendation could focus on equivalencies instead of 2 employed journalists.
- It was also suggested that the panel could make a strong recommendation for 1 FTE, rather than 2.
- Members also debated whether to include independent contractors and freelancers as part of a criterion. Caution was raised that this could lead to publishers relying on freelancers rather than hiring journalists in the future.
- It was noted that the intent was to broaden the notion of “employee”, the same way the notion of “publication” was broadened from only print to include digital and mobile.
- Other questions for government officials included: could there be different rules for small and large publications? Does the word “employees” include independent contractors, and can the panel recommend combining different types of employees, e.g. permanent part-times; contract and independent contractors? What about organizations that were found guilty of a criminal offensive in the past?
- What is understood by “arms-length”, and is there an established definition?
- CRA documentation was reviewed and members decided to continue the discussion with Finance Canada officials to get a full understanding of the phrase and find out what options existed to modify the term or its meaning.
- How should “journalist” be defined?
- One definition provided by a panel member was reviewed and suggestions for additions were made, including videography, fact-checking and interviewing.
- It was noted that the problem with the list is that it will never cover everything.
A new topic was subsequently proposed: What level of standards does a journalism organization need to have?
- Some members favoured the idea that QCJO’s be required to adopt a journalism code of ethics or journalistic standards, while others did not.
- It was noted that the question could not be resolved through a Budget law. However, the idea of evidence-based journalism, fact-checking and a process of correcting errors could be introduced instead. We’ve received the definition of arms-length. If you have a family operation, none of you are arms-length.
Should the panel review the tax credit requirement surrounding the percentage of time spent by an eligible employee on original news content?
- After discussion, it was decided that the criteria not be subject to review or to a recommendation, as it is difficult to assess and can in fact change daily.
- The distinction on percentage of time rather than another metric is good since it is operational and measurable.
Should the panel review the criterion of Canadian ownership?
- After discussion, panel members agreed that it would not review this criterion since it is based on the definition found in Section 19 of the Income Tax Act, already used to define ownership.
- At the same time, the news content produced should be by and for Canadians.
Representatives from the Department of Finance were invited into the meeting to answer their questions.
On the question of having equivalencies to 2 employed journalists, officials responded that it is the prerogative of the panel to make such recommendations, but that some, such as this one, would require a legislative change. Some changes could occur immediately, especially in the context of providing definitions to criteria.
On the question of having publications choose between the tax credit and funding from the Canada Periodical Fund (CPF), officials indicated that the parameters for each program were thought out at different times, under different circumstances, and that access to CPF funding could be more advantageous to some publications. In this way, they are provided with a choice. A legislative amendment would be required to change this.
On the question of arm’s length, officials noted that determining such a relationship can be complex and that the concept is used in other places in the Income Tax Act, such that any change to the notion would affect it everywhere it is used. The arm’s length text was added to ensure that only organizations that produced real journalism benefit. The two-employees test was a way to get there, after several options were looked at.
Officials agreed to provide the panel with documentation on the methodology used to arrive at the estimations found in the Budget.
Additionally, Canadian Heritage would provide funding data from the CPF for a variety of community newspapers identified.
Panel members agreed to put aside for now the idea of recommending a separate program to cover expenses (contractors, freelancers) related to the production of news content.
Panel discussion continued after Finance Canada officials departed.
The panel agreed that, to proceed with its work, one panel member would create a document with 3 columns as basis for the next discussion: 1) Budget law (Bill C-97); 2) the panel’s clarifications (what they were asked); 3) the panel’s discussion/extensions/prospective.
In discussing how to define”regularly employed” journalists, panel members asked that officials from the Canada Revenue Agency be called at the next meeting to shed light on how they define and administer this type of criteria.
The panel further asked to be able to discuss the panel’s mandate item touching on the 2nd panel with other government officials. On reviewing the Budget law, members concluded that that panel’s exact function and responsibilities were unclear. Various scenarios for its existence would need to be discussed with appropriate officials.
End of meeting
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