Australia’s struggling print media will be watching the next Canadian federal budget closely, when the Trudeau government is set to reveal its much anticipated aid package for the country’s struggling newspaper business.

The package will be contained in the budget due around the last week of March. It will add to existing aid packages for the broadcast sector and for magazines that already total close to CA$450 million a year (around the same amount in Australian dollars). If the amount the publishers want ($350 million a year) is granted, total government aid for Canadian media will reach close to $1 billion — a huge sum. 

The Trudeau government last year boosted the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s budget by $135 million a year. The Canadian Media Fund paid $371 million to television and digital projects in 2015-16, and the Canadian Radio and Television Commission (a bit like our ACMA) introduced $90 million for local TV last September. The Canadian funding idea will also be of interest to Australia’s struggling commercial TV operators — Ten collapsed last year, while Seven West Media saw its shares hit a new all-time low of just 54 cents last week in the wake of news of more job cuts coming at the West Australian in Perth. Only Nine Entertainment looks healthy, but that was after hundreds of millions of dollars in write-downs in 2016-17.

The financing is expected to be paid through the Canada Periodical Fund, which already assists print magazines, non-daily newspapers and digital periodicals to the tune of $75 million a year. Discussions were held late last week between print media union leaders and the government. Prime Minister Trudeau told Quebec-based newspaper Le Soleil in mid-January that the decision on federal funding would come in the next budget.

Newspaper companies last June asked for $350 million a year for their sector, even though this would bailout a motley collection of companies, led by Postmedia which is controlled by a collection of hedge funds: “The Canadian Journalism Fund would reimburse newspaper and web-based journalism providers 35% of a journalist’s salary, capped at $85,000, ‘in line with five-year union rates,'” writes the Financial Post.

Australia has already handed out hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to the commercial TV sector (and radio) after the abolition of licence fees (which saves more than $300 million a year) eased takeover, ownership and audience regulations. A new $50 million civic journalism innovation fund is being pushed to support small and regional publishers (though there have been calls that this will be at the expense of public broadcasters). On top of that, $30 million has been funneled to Foxtel for no disclosed reason, though it’s generally believed to be a sympathy payment to the Murdoch-dominated company because it missed out on the free-to-air TV licence fee cuts (because it didn’t pay any in the first place).

But of real interest will be the way the Canadians finance this largesse. For example it could come from consolidated revenue (much in the way money is paid to Screen Australia each year to help finance TV and filmmaking). But the Canadian newspaper owners say another way could be to tax the Canadian ad revenues of Google and Facebook — that would raise upwards of $400 million. That was a suggestion by the Canadian Public Policy Forum, commissioned by the federal government. Don’t be surprised if you see News Corp (and all the Murdochs), Foxtel, Fairfax Media, Kerry Stokes and Seven West Media urging this line of financing on the Turnbull government.

Peter Fray

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