Fake news and media licensing: a slippery slope

Photo Credit: Rishabh Sharma from Unsplash

Photo Credit: Rishabh Sharma from Unsplash

One of the only good things to have come of the Trump presidency has been the creation of the term ‘fake news’. While Trump and his administration have used the fake news card to dismiss any and all negative coverage that they receive, in broader society it has generally led to a rise in media literacy and scrutiny from the people. This vigilance is increasingly important as media companies continue to concentrate into fewer and fewer hands; in Canada for example, four companies own virtually all of our news media.

This has not only led to an increase in actual false stories being called out and retracted by these major companies, but it is also forcing them to cover more hard hitting topics (ones that might not always appease their corporate owners) and commit to a more rigorous journalistic practice, something that’s better for everyone.

Fake news is really just a simplistic, catch-all term, made popular by a simplistic man, that can refer to any journalism that is lazy, malicious or purposefully biased. While it might have started as a blanket term for all antagonistic news media, it has since morphed into a movement that has pushed back against the lazy and has lifted up some really important voices and stories.

With all that said, I would say that the government has a role in regulating the news media to discourage fake news. For starters, the media companies ought to be broken up as there’s too much corporate ownership that limits the scope of their coverage. Second, the government needs to invest more in the CBC so that they can expand into local markets and combat the decline in local journalism. And third, the news media must abandon the for-profit model, so that they can remain focussed on covering the most important and hard hitting news first and foremost, instead of their bottom line.

According to a recent slip up from the Trudeau government, however, they may have been at least considering making it required that news companies have a government license to operate in Canada.

Given that this was just a musing based on recommendations provided to the government in a report from a few years ago, it’s very likely that this never comes to fruition. But regardless of that, I have mixed feelings about this whole idea.

There are certainly benefits of requiring licenses for news and other media organizations to operate in Canada. For starters, it may be one way to ensure that all news and media companies that operate in Canada pay Canadian taxes, something that several companies, most prominently Netflix, are currently able to avoid.

Additionally, it would be a simple way to weed out some of the obvious fake news sources. Depending on how they go about enforcing this type of licensing system, it could be something that is largely positive. They could ban sites or outlets that show a pattern of releasing fake news or those that are considered highly partisan or otherwise don’t uphold a general degree of journalistic rigor.

However, a lot of these positives are dependent on the implementation of this licensing system, meaning that they could very easily be misused and/or abused by any government. Obviously giving the government the ability to dictate who is and isn’t considered the news is a big power, one that any government would likely use to benefit themselves.

While it might seem like Trump is the first politician to pick a fight with the media, he’s really just the most blatant about it. The current Liberal government (like any government in Canada) would likely provide licenses primarily to media companies that are preferential to them or companies that donated to their party and so on. That type of behaviour is more understandable and excusable from a political perspective when they don’t have the power to actually choose who represents ‘real’ news. If the government were to actually do this, it would have to be done by an organization at arm’s length of the government of the day, not the Ministry of Canadian Heritage (and even so it would likely trigger a flurry of court challenges).

Lastly and most importantly, is that this feels like only one part of a larger response to tackling fake news. Tackling the economic side of news media and journalism ought to be top priority if we want to maintain the notion of journalistic integrity, because corporate media ownership and for-profit journalism really calls this into question.

To illustrate this, consider this example. If Company A owned a bank and a newspaper, and the bank was caught in a massive scandal where they were overcharging their customers, what are the chances that Company A is going to allow their newspaper to investigate this story that negatively impacts them?

While that might sound like an extreme and simplistic example, issues like this happen all the time. There are various examples of this and also situations where you could potentially see something like this happen. Jeff Bezos, the owner of Amazon, recently purchased the Washington Post. Now, the Washington Post is under the same corporate umbrella as Whole Foods, Audible, Twitch and much more. ABC and 21 Century Fox are owned by the Walt Disney Company, one of, if not the single largest company in the world. Seems unlikely to me that they would buy those companies if they wanted them to cover stories that paint them in a negative light.

So clearly I’m split on the issue of news and media licensing. While perhaps a decent idea as part of a larger plan to combat fake news and corporate concentration, it leaves a lot of room for abuse and as the only measure proposed by the government, it’s nothing more than a half measure.

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