Forget everything you've heard: Stephen Harper loves journalists.
Yes, okay, he has spent most of his time as Prime Minister cutting off reporters' access to government sources. And, true, he has an unfortunate track record of muzzling bureaucrats, scientists, statisticians and even his own cabinet ministers. During the last election campaign, he imposed a strict limit of four questions a day for all of the journalists travelling with him. (That is, four for all of them, not each of them.) Yes, it would be easy to argue that, in boycotting this year's official election debates, he's telling the news departments of this country's major broadcasters to all take a hike.
But put all of that out of your mind, because this week a proud parade of his very own caucus members spoke passionately at a meeting on Parliament Hill about the vital role that news coverage plays in our democracy. And I would never suggest that they have suddenly all got religion just because an election is looming.
(No, seriously, I would never suggest that, because then my colleagues might suddenly have their media credentials revoked.)
On Wednesday of this week, the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage, which normally concerns itself with inoffensive studies of our domestic cultural industries as well as pieces of legislation such as Bill S-218 (An Act respecting National Fiddling Day), summoned a trio of Rogers Media executives to explain their recent decision to axe Punjabi, Mandarin, Cantonese and Italian-language newscasts from the company's multicultural broadcaster, Omni. In announcing the move, Rogers noted that Omni's ad revenue had plummeted from about $80-million in 2011 to less than $34-million in 2014.
While Omni is replacing the Punjabi, Mandarin and Cantonese news with cheaper current affairs programming in those languages, Italian-Canadians are only getting telenovelas and a new 30-minute lifestyle series focusing on "the contributions of first- and second-generation Italian-Canadians."
Last month, Rathika Sitsabaiesan, the NDP MP for Scarborough-Rouge River, had asked Shelly Glover, the Minister of Canadian Heritage, what the government might do "to ensure that [ethnic] Canadians have access to media that covers their stories and keeps them informed about what is happening in Canada in their own language?"
Glover responded in character, noting that it was not the government's business to meddle in such affairs. "Our hearts go out to those who are affected by this decision, but this is a decision made by a private broadcaster," she said. "I would suggest that this member pose that question to the private broadcaster."
And so, on Wednesday, she did.
So did a series of Glover's Conservative colleagues, showing an extraordinary amnesia of their own party's cultural policies. Under Harper's direction, the CRTC, the broadcast regulator, has turned a blind eye to the unique financial problems of this country's traditional broadcasters such as Omni. That's helped create the conditions under which, last year, the conventional commercial TV industry (which includes CTV, Global and City TV, but not the money-spinning cable networks such as TSN or the Oprah Winfrey Network) saw its pretax losses spiral from $69-million (in 2013) to $276-million.
"Advertising on conventional television is declining at a torrid pace," said Keith Pelley, the president of Rogers Media, during his appearance before the Committee. "This is not just a bad couple of years, or a cyclical problem. It is a fundamental structural change." Pelley has been saying this for years, including during Rogers's licence renewal hearings last year, when Omni got a new licence. Like just about every other conventional broadcaster in this country, Omni's business model was based on using the high margins it earned on U.S. programming such as The Simpsons to subsidize its news shows and other original programs. Now that those programs are available everywhere, including on-demand services such as Netflix and Shomi, the ad dollars have dried up.
Chungsen Leung, the Conservative MP for Willowdale, declared that, as a trained public accountant, he had done the math and couldn't figure out why Omni wasn't able to expand its audience to include the 280,000 immigrants coming into Canada on an annual basis, and the tens of thousands of Chinese-language students in Toronto. Pelley noted there are about 130 foreign-based TV services carried on cable systems that allow people to keep up with the news in their home country – not to mention all of the apps and Web-based news services.
Leung asked for clarification on where all the advertising money had gone, which frankly made it seem as if he hadn't been listening the first few times Pelley had explained the problem.
Leung's colleague, Wladyslaw Lizon, Conservative MP for Mississauga East-Cooksville, marvelled at the changes that technology has wrought. After all, when he was a kid, if he wanted to talk to someone, he actually had to walk to their house. "Now, I can sit in front of a computer!" he said to Pelley. "Are you saying that you were surprised by this dramatic change and that you didn't foresee it?"
Pelley looked exasperated. "Yes, we did see this coming. That's why we have been talking about it for three years."
Terence Young, the Conservative MP for Oakville, asked Rogers VP Colette Watson about comments she'd made to The Globe recently defending the Omni cuts as a business decision not unlike those made by Wal-Mart. "Is it the position of Rogers," asked Mr. Young, "that ethnic programming, which is by its nature culture, is like the products sold in Wal-Mart?"
Ms. Watson apologized for her comment, but she shouldn't have: Instead, she might have noted that the Conservative Party has consistently treated culture as just another product.
The hearing was scheduled for two hours, but it started late because of votes in the House, so ended up being cut short. (Dinnertime called.) It was probably enough time, anyway; a few more minutes, and tempers were going to start flaring. Toward the end, Pelley noted that nothing he had said during the meeting was exactly new: Indeed, over the previous three years he had had a series of meetings with members of all three parties to make the industry's case.
"What surprises me today," he said, teeth gritted, "is that all of you seem surprised."