Newspapers around the world are losing revenues, both subscription and advertising. As Terence Corcoran of the National Post reports, newspaper revenues in Canada declined 35 per cent ($1 billion) from 2012 to 2014, with a significant further decrease expected also in 2015, once all the numbers are in. Such declines, likely to continue, are due to the exponential growth of news and editorial content available through the Internet. Many newspapers have closed, and others have merged or been absorbed by larger papers. Many journalists have lost their jobs.
This has brought about cries that something must be done to stop the decline, and particularly, to preserve ‘a diversity of perspectives.’ The lamenters, many of them journalists, fear that one large corporation, or a very few large ones, will own most newspapers, and therefore, there will be “corporate control” of news and editorial content. The solution they offer? Corcoran reports that the ‘lamenters’ want government subsidies (i.e., tax payers’ money) to block ‘corporate control’ of newspapers so that their independence can be preserved.
One can understand that the journalists behind such proposals want to ‘protect’ their jobs, but government subsidies will not preserve newspapers’ independence, or jobs. Quite the contrary, government subsidies will lead to the loss of freedom of the press, and more broadly, freedom of expression.
Freedom of the press and freedom of expression are aspects of the right to liberty, the cornerstone on which the existence of the press, and news media in general, depends. The purpose of the newspapers is to report the news but also, importantly, to comment on and analyze current events, including criticizing the government, so that the readers are informed and can hold the government accountable. If the government subsidizes or operates newspapers, the important role of independent investigation and criticism of government actions—and the hope for changing the government—is lost. We may not end up with the equivalent of Pravda right away, but government subsidies will erode freedom of the press. See the Corcoran article for evidence from Sweden, where a government minister attempted to cancel subsidies to newspapers that are critical of government immigration policies.
Advocates of government bailouts—and control—of newspapers who prefer them to “corporate control” fail to grasp that accepting government subsidies means giving up their freedom of expression and will kill the newspapers. There isn’t much demand (paying customers) for papers that are being censored by the government. Why would anyone pay for news and editorials which they cannot trust?
The second error the advocates of government bailouts make is not understanding the difference between the political power of government and ‘corporate control.’ Only the government has the power to censor newspapers (whether by threatening to pull subsidies or by fining, or jailing, journalists and editors). Newspapers owned by corporations can of course report news non-objectively and advocate particular political views (the latter they often do, of course). However, they are accountable to their readers. Even when corporate-owned newspapers report news with a bias and advocate only one political view, their readers are not forced to pay, unlike taxpayers who have no choice but foot the bill for government-subsidized papers—whether they read and like their content or not. (Consider the government-funded Canadian Broadcasting Corporation as an example from the broadcasting world). And if readers do not like the offerings of one newspaper, they can seek alternative sources of information and opinion, or start or invest in independent media.
But when government subsidizes newspapers, it is more difficult for independent papers to compete because a portion of potential investors’ and readers’ money has been appropriated (through taxes) for government newspaper subsidies. However, as long the right to liberty is not completely abolished by the government and we have freedom of expression, we can affect change.
The freedom of the press matters. It matters both for our ability to get unbiased news reporting and editorial content (to inform our choices and actions) and for our freedom of expression. If we want to preserve these and our right to liberty, we should protest government bailouts and subsidies of newspapers through any means open to us.