We live in a dangerous age of misinformation and disinformation which can quickly grow into conspiracy theories fueled by partisan online echo chambers. One story that hit the Internet late last week shows just how big a problem this is. The flames of misinformation were lit on Thursday by Ottawa-based subscription news service Blacklock’s Reporter under the headline “CRTC Will Draft News Code.” The story was soon republished and inflated by other websites of varying repute. Its lede paragraph read: “Federal regulators may draft a pre-election ‘code of conduct’ for newsrooms, cabinet yesterday wrote in a legal notice. The Department of Heritage said under Bill C-18, the Online News Act, already in effect, newsrooms are subject to CRTC guidance on ethics.” Notice how “may” in the lede became “will” in the headline.
There were several grains of truth in the story. One is that the CRTC has been tasked under the controversial new Online News Act with creating a code of conduct to govern negotiations over compensation between platforms that carry links to news stories, like Google and Facebook, and the news media which produce them. “The code will simply apply to the bargaining process,” wrote CRTC spokesperson Mirabella Salem in a Friday email when I inquired about this. The whole thing is now moot anyway, since there will be no negotiations after Meta stopped carrying links to news stories on its Facebook and Instagram platforms and Google agreed to pay $100 million a year to be exempted from the act, with no negotiations. The only question becomes who gets how much of the loot. The CRTC has to decide this, and consultations on a process were supposed to start in the fall, but an update on its website says it “is reviewing the regulations published by the Department of Canadian Heritage on December 15, 2023. The regulatory plan will be updated soon.”
Another grain of truth is that we are now arguably in a pre-election period, as the ruling Liberals must call one by the fall of 2025, but by that standard, we are almost always in a pre-election period. Inclusion of this phrase is obviously meant to suggest that the supposed code of conduct for newsrooms is intended to govern or at least influence election reporting. The biggest problem with the story, however, is that any code of conduct will apply not to newsrooms but instead to the platforms and groups of publishers which were supposed to engage in bargaining, except that there will be no bargaining now. The whole story is thus your basic nothing burger.
Another grain of truth is that the government did publish a required but now moot notice last week that the CRTC will develop and issue further regulations to govern bargaining. Included are exemption order requests; a final-offer arbitration process; requests for eligibility of news businesses; the creation of a code of conduct; and “a complaint process pertaining to how groups of eligible news businesses are to be structured and their conduct under the Act.” Blacklock’s included to illustrate its article a screenshot of that section, with a big red arrow pointing to “the creation of a code of conduct.” It then connected that to Sec. 27(1)(b)(iv) of the act, which states that newsrooms applying for compensation must demonstrate compliance with a code of ethics. “Canada has no nationally recognized code of ethics,” Blacklock’s pointed out, failing to mention that the section also allows newsrooms to qualify if they are instead “a member of a recognized journalistic association and follows [its] code of ethics.” The Canadian Association of Journalists and the Canadian Association of Broadcasters both have codes of ethics, as does the Radio Television Digital News Association of Canada.
Feds serve notice @CRTC_Canada now has unprecedented powers to enforce a "code of conduct" on newsrooms: "We will have to get precise on that." https://t.co/JYGELDTDxt #cdnpoli @SenatorWallin pic.twitter.com/lxFVQTCWFY— Blacklock's Reporter (@mindingottawa) January 4, 2024
In any event, a code of bargaining conduct is hardly a code of newsroom ethics. Another misleading passage in the Blacklock’s article is that under the act, “newsrooms are subject to CRTC guidance on ethics.” No, they are required to subscribe to a code of ethics to prove that they are at least nominally ethical journalists, not follow any CRTC guidance on ethics. There are other requirements, such as that they produce “news content of public interest that is primarily focused on matters of general interest and reports of current events.” For good measure, Blacklock’s threw in some hearsay and innuendo to question the independence of the CRTC and bolster its case that government censorship of the news is just over the horizon. This included a quote from Senator Pamela Wallin, a former journalist, who said “I am told by sources close to the matter there is almost daily contact between the leadership of the CRTC and the [Heritage] Minister’s office.” It would be surprising, at this stage of implementing the Online News Act, if there were not. The story also included a suggestion made in May by the National Council of Canadian Muslims that “any CRTC code include mandatory corrections of stories deemed inaccurate.”
Having conflated a bargaining code with a code of journalism ethics and a process for complaints about bargaining practices with complaints about news content, the Blacklock’s article was thus both mistaken and misleading. But that was just the beginning. The story quickly spread and grew in other publications which licence Blacklock’s articles. It was picked up the same day by the New York-based Epoch Times, which is associated with the Falun Gong religious movement founded in China, whose Matthew Horwood rewrote the story but omitted the part about Muslims. It was also republished that day by the Calgary-based Western Standard under the byline of Jonathan Bradley. The website co-founded by Ezra Levant in 2004 is somewhat suspect as a news source, as it has been forced over the years to retract false reports. Worse was how the Western Standard’s publisher and other co-founder framed the story on social media. “The federal government will be imposing its own code of ethics on newsrooms now,” tweeted Derek Fildebrandt, a self-styled “enema of the state” and “petrosexual.”
On Friday, the story was more carefully picked up by True North under the byline of Quinn Patrick as “CRTC hints at drafting a national code of ethics for newsrooms before next election.” It was also republished by something called Ground News and the blog Blazing Cat Fur, which pictured a grimacing Prime Minister Justin Trudeau captioned “Dear Leader.”
The worst, unfortunately, was yet to come, and it came from the worst of all. Under the headline “Critical reporting about Trudeau ‘might just become illegal,’” Levant’s Rebel News combined the Blacklock’s report with a conspiracy theory floated the night before on its podcast by guest host Sheila Gunn Reid about a plot by the Liberals to “censor dissenting journalists.” Gunn, who is Alberta bureau chief for Rebel News, drew a straight line between the Online News Act and coverage of the next election. “Now if these failing media companies want some of that sweet Google money to make up for the traffic and ad revenue shortfall caused by Justin Trudeau’s shakedown, the news companies need to comply with the government code of conduct for journalists.” Rebel News, of course, is so extreme in its alt-right propaganda that it is regularly denied press accreditation to cover events and was disqualified from receiving government subsidies to news media in 2022 by a panel of academic experts, whose review found that “less than one per cent of Rebel News articles met the criteria for original news content.”
I am about the last person to defend government interference in the press, having warned repeatedly against its increasing involvement in journalism and the attendant threats to press freedom, but it is important to stick to facts at a time like this. The trajectory of such a report when picked up and amplified by partisan websites is frightening and shows just how dangerous mistaken and/or misleading information can be. Blacklock’s does much fine investigative work under the slogan “Minding Ottawa’s business,” but who will mind its journalism? Its publisher Holly Doan ironically urges people to “drop narratives, uncover new facts instead,” but in this case their report seems less fact-based than narrative-driven.
If they are the journalists I think they are, and have proven themselves to be, Blacklock’s will walk this story back immediately. Unfortunately, it will be too late by then.
Marc Edge is a journalism researcher and author who lives in Ladysmith, BC. His books and articles can be found online at www.marcedge.com.