Paying for News

I’m writing to oppose the recent call by Canadian newspapers to require by law that companies like Google and Facebook pay for news items they link to in their search or news feeds.

We are told “They are using their monopoly power to scoop up 80% of online advertising revenues and to free ride on the news content produced by hardworking journalists and publishers across Canada.”

The campaign is being depicted as a “David vs Goliath” battle between small scrappy local newspapers and global giants. But readers should not be misled. The news media in Canada is heavily centralized and owned by some of Canada’s wealthiest citizens and corporations. They don’t answer to their readers and they certainly don’t represent the interests of their readers.

We need only look at the example of the Irving-owned press in Atlantic Canada where competition not only in news but in many of Irving’s other interests – forestry, oil, trucking – is stifled at first mention. Or the example of the yellow front-page attack ad run across the PostMedia chain on the eve of a Federal election.

What we are seeing in the current campaign is just another example of that media domination. Canada’s corporate media are using their overwhelming voice to attempt to influence opinion and public policy for their own benefit. They are noticeably silent about the fact that these same companies charge Canadians some of the highest internet and mobile data fees in the world.

It’s true that the news industry in Canada is suffering, but it’s not because of the search engines. It’s because of a failed business model that depends on tolls on data, paywalls, tracking and spyware, and content that privileged the perspective of corporations and the wealthy. That’s still true of the news industry in Canada and it’s hard to see why we should pay to support this.

What the news media did not do that both Facebook and Google did was to give people a voice. They welcomed public contributions, linked people to each other, connected communities and families, and served the function that Canadian newspapers largely eschewed in favour of centralization and profit-taking.

Giving Canada’s corporate media legislated funding from Google and Facebook will further reinforce these trends. It would give established media outlets a financial subsidy that will disadvantage community newspapers, local social media, decentralized media, and even local bloggers, podcasters and video producers.

The news media in Canada are using the example of recent legislation being proposed in Australia to support their case. It should also be noted that the Australian government is also using the campaign as a means to defund the ABC, their equivalent of the CBC. Even though the CBC is the best and often the only source of local news stories in Canada, defunding the CBC is high on the list of priorities for Canada’s corporate media.

If Canada really wanted to support local news it would collect revenues from large corporate content producers (including Google and Facebook, but also Canada’s corporate media) and use them to fund individual and independent producers of Canadian news coverage, thus allowing local media to flourish it its original close-to-home grassroots environment.

Creating instead a special tax imposed on digital media payable directly to large Canadian corporations sets a terrible precedent and ought to be resisted at all levels.

The Snowbird

Ontario finance minister Rod Phillips should resign, but he probably won’t, and he won’t be asked to.

In Canada we have this tradition of the snowbird. That’s a person who enjoys our beautiful summer months (often at their cottage by the lake) and in the winter packs their bags and moves to a warmer climate for several month, migrating, just like a snowbird.

It’s thought of as a tradition, but of course, it’s also a status. Not everybody can move south for the winter; you have to have a certain level of privilege and wealth. Most of us can’t move south for the winter.

And this winter, especially, the fiction has been that you’re not allowed to move south to escape the snow. The fiction has been (along with “we’re all in this together”) that unessential travel is prohibited, that we shouldn’t be taking a winter vacation at all. Heck, I can’t even go to Quebec, which is about 50 kilometers from here.

So it takes a certain about of hubris to do it anyway, and of course there’s a lot of nodding and winking all around because as we all know the rules about the pandemic don’t really apply to the sort of people who have the privilege and wealth to be snowbirds. No doubt Rod Phillips is just one member of a very large flock.

But he is also the finance minister for the government of Ontario, the same government that has instituted those restrictions, and more recently, even more severe restrictions, as the pandemic has worsened. Yes there’s a vaccine, but just as we saw with masks and personal protective equipment in the spring, it takes a certain amount of time to produce and distribute these. And meanwhile, people die if we don’t follow the rules.

So when the finance minister doesn’t follow the rules, he is showing a certain disregard for the people who die. And it leads us to suspect that this disregard applies to other aspects of his work and life as a finance minister, the sort of disregard that would, say, cause him to wait until after Christmas to implement a much-needed lockdown, instead of two weeks before, when it was apparent to everyone that otherwise we would see the record levels of new cases we are seeing today.

That’s bad enough. But the finance minister knew it was wrong to fly south for the winter, did it anyway, and then covered it up with a series of tweets and videos designed to make it look like he was still living and working out of his home in Ajax. We can see him patronizing local vbusinesses, participating in interviews, even sending a Christmas message from in front of his fireplace – all while he relaxed on the beach in St. Barts.

So he should resign. If he had any sense of decency and propriety he would resign. The last thing we need is that sort of deception in a finance minister.

But he won’t resign, and he won’t be told to resign, because despite what he said as the story broke, the Premier of Ontario, Doug Ford, knew all along his finance minister was a snowbird, just as he knew when his finance minister also took a vacation to Switzerland in August. Ford says, “I can tell you I’m very upset. I’m very frustrated with the situation. I stand out here every single day and tell people to stay at home,” he said.

But who is he frustrated with? Phillips? Well, no, because he knew Phillips was on vacation and was fine with it. If he’s frustrated with anything, it’s that Phillips got caught. And now he will have a “tough conversation” with Phillips, probably along the lines of “you got caught, you can’t do it again.” And we’ll go back to the same sort of decision-making that puts the interests of his and Phillips’s business friends above the lives of the people of Ontario.

Overall, Ford has done a good job with the pandemic. But the cracks are beginning to show.

Rod Phillips’s Web of Deception. Huffington Post.

Update: Phillips resigned a few hours after I posted this.

The Greenbelts

It’s getting harder and harder to follow issues like this with most of the news media retreating behind paywalls or advertising barriers. Governments count on that.

Just so, it was a struggle to find out just why half the province’s Greenbelt Council (along with its president) resigned this week. The CBC article on this is a convoluted mess (which is unusual for CBC). The double-negative in the headline makes it clear how much they’re trying to tiptoe around political sensibilities.

The Canadian Press is clearer, and here’s the story: “the bill would strip power from local conservation authorities and expand ministerial authority on zoning and other potentially sensitive environmental issues.”

Now why would the province need to do this? Sure, there’s that whole argument about red tape blocking development, but these are conservation lands. They’re not supposed to be developed. So let’s be clear: the province wants to develop conservation lands.

Now as the CBC article (ever so tactfully) says, “Premier Doug Ford’s government has vowed, repeatedly, to not allow development in the Greenbelt — a permanently protected area of green space that surrounds the Golden Horseshoe area.”

But who believes that? More to the point, if the conservation authorities are stripped of all authority, who is there to stop them? In today’s dearth of news coverage, who would even notice? Once the decisions are taken from public bodies and put into back rooms, nobody will know the decision has been taken until the bulldozers roll through.

And that’s a problem. As David Crombie says, as we wipe out these natural areas, we’re less and less able to deal with natural disasters like flooding, which leads to greater costs in the future. We also lose habitats for wildlife, and we lose the green space urban dwellers need in order to rest and relax.

The government can dance around this all they like. But decisions on protected land belong in the public spotlight, where the interests of the entire community can be heard, and not only those of developers looking for a windfall.

Greenbelt forest scene in winter. Photo by the author.

A Clean-Energy Hatchet Job

Re: Quebec Ink: As Hydro-Québec expands into cleantech, entrepreneurs cry foul
https://thelogic.co/news/quebec-ink/quebec-ink-as-hydro-quebec-expands-into-cleantech-entrepreneurs-cry-foul/

This is a hatchet job, with no pretense of being objective. It reads as a screed from the far right, depending on the argument that government-owned companies shouldn’t be in a market competing against private enterprise. This common argument is used repeatedly in other sectors to undermine essential services, and in this case, it’s being used to undermine Quebec’s substantial investment in clean energy.One one point of view is presented in this article.

Now while I’m no fan of balance for the sake of balance, it does appear that there is a very legitimate second perspective here that the author hasn’t even tried to represent. I representative from Hydro Quebec would probably point out that the people of Quebec are entitled to the best return on their investment, an investment all the more notable because it came at a time when almost all private investment was pouring (still!) into hydrocarbons.

And this is exactly why we need public investment in the energy sector. Entrenched private sector interests lobbied hard, and continue to lobby, against clean energy. They show little interest in doing the research and investment necessary, preferring to rely on profits from oil and gas, no matter how harmful they are to the environment. To the extent that they do invest, they do so in order to undermine competition from clean energy.

This is why I won’t be renewing my subscription to the logic. As I have pointed out elsewhere, this publication is practicing advocacy journalism, pushing a pro-business perspective while ignoring interests and issues that represent the broader concerns of the community.The Logic

On Justice and Open Debate

I support free and open debate. I support what the authors of A Letter call “good-faith disagreement without dire professional consequences.” What I don’t support are threats, harassment and abuse. And I oppose people who use their power and privilege to oppress the less powerful and less privileged.

I don’t think it’s too fine a distinction. Arguments are not hard to spot; they are based on reasons, ideally on evidence, and they support some point of view. The other sort of discourse looks nothing like this. It is – at best – dogma supported by more dogma. More often, it’s just a stream of verbal attacks. It is a pernicious form of dialogie, and it ought quite rightly to be censured.

Let’s just for the moment take the following as a given:

“Our cultural institutions are facing a moment of trial. Powerful protests for racial and social justice are leading to overdue demands for police reform, along with wider calls for greater equality and inclusion across our society, not least in higher education, journalism, philanthropy, and the arts.”

Let’s think about what this means. Voices that have been silenced, often violently, in the past have now finally reached the point where they are being heard, and where some of the reforms they are proposing are actually being enacted. These arguments are based on concrete evidence, not the least of which was video of a man being murdered in broad daylight by the police.

But there’s always a ‘but’, isn’t there?

“But this needed reckoning has also intensified a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity.”

I think we can agree that it has awakened a new set of moral attitudes, among them including things like “‘driving while black’ is not a crime”, “it is wrong to simply look away from sexual abuse and rape”, and “advocating for white supremacy is not acceptable”. From my perspective these are long past due, but in some circles of society, they have taken a lot longer to take root.

But these new norms, and others like them, do nothing to weaken our norms of open debate. There are and always have been many many things you simply cannot advocate and expect to keep your job or your publishing contract. Try selling some child pornography and see how your career fares, for example. Advocate for the use of hard drugs, and see what the reaction is. Support and campaign for communism. Call for the defenestration of the wealthy. Deny the Holocaust. You get the idea – nobody does or would support any of these things, and we would not be surprised if people did not vigorously respond, if not throw you in jail outright. And for good reason.

In recent years there has been enough evidence to convince people that this list should be extended, if for no other reason than that the right has been acting as though no such rules apply. From the Bush doctrine that (among other things) legitimized pre-emptive war and sanctioned torture, to the Trump doctrine of sanctioned racism, extrajudicial violence, recognition of Nazis as “good people” and a “grab her by the pussy” ethic, it has become clear that a fundamentally immoral set of values has taken hold in our elite.

I think the case against invasion, torture, racism, fascism, sexism, and LGBT rights opposition has advanced far beyond “ideological conformity”, because I think there are no longer (if there ever were) any good faith arguments to be made in favour of those positions. What the events of the last few years have shown is that support for them is based in nothing more than blunt assertion of power and privilege, and not reason and argument at all. And that opposition to them is an equally blunt – and morally just – rejection of them.

Jessica Valenti offers a nice recap of the behaviours that are being defended by the authors of the Letter. The professor who was investigated was a white teacher at UCLA who used the n-word repeatedly in class. The editor who lost his job ran a piece advocating the use of military force against peaceful protesters. An author published bigoted ideas and debunked myths about trans women. Another editor published an essay by Jian Ghomeshi, who has been accused by more than 20 women of sexual assault.

None of these constitutes a good faith argument. They are all, respectively, attacks on their targets of hate. They are incitements to violence, to social reprisals against the victims of these attacks, simply because the victims pushed back. As Valenti writes, “The only speech these powerful people seem to care about is their own: They want to be able to say whatever they want without consequence, and to paint themselves as the victims even as they wield more institutional and systemic power than anyone criticizing them.”

The push-back is not against dialogue or discussion, but instead against a wall of hard-right propaganda that seeks to undermine the fundamental principles of democracy. There’s no reason why we should accept that in a democratic society; being offensive isn’t the same as offering an argument in favour of it. It’s not that the proponents are arguing in favour of fascism, they are fascist, and expecting us to recognize that as acceptable. They are racist, they are misogynist, they are intolerant. And when we run up against them in the office or on the street, we won’t turn away, but we will confront them, and refuse them the power and the privilege they desire.

And let’s be clear, also, that none of the so-called ‘reprisals’ against those referenced by the authors of a Letter come close to actual illiberalism. Look at what the responses are – an editor loses his job, a writer doesn’t get a book published, a journalist is told not to write about something, professors are investigated, a researcher is fired, heads of organizations are ousted. These pale in comparison to actual illiberalism practiced by their ilk as recently as, well, this week.

The writers of the Letter cannot have it both ways. They cannot argue that they should have carte-blanche to write and behave in any way they please, without regard to the people they harm, while at the same time saying that the people being harmed should not write and behave in ways that defend themselves against that harm. If they really think illiberalism is the danger, then perhaps they should look in the mirror. They are the danger.

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The Logic

I think there should be some way to respond to stories in the Logic.

Today’s drone story is a case in point. Why is it even being covered? As one person quoted states, “These cybersecurity concerns are being artificially created by the U.S. government.” Why is the stance taken by the author that we are not complying with U.S. policy?

It actually feels to me – given the Canadian government’s currently active RFP for additional drones – like an attempt to influence the government’s selection process, with the threat of creating a ‘made in China’ issue behind it.

I wouldn’t normally leap to such a paranoid conclusion, but the Logic’s journalism in general has exhibited a significant bias toward a specific industry perspective. This disappoints me, as I had been hopeful that the substantial subscription fee might be a guarantor of a more objective stance.

But that’s why there should be a way to respond to stories. The Logic’s authors need to be held to account, and right now there is no obvious way – other than this relatively obscure and unused Slack channel – to do that.

drone_080418gn_lead

The Covid Response

In these early days of the Covid pandemic in Canada my estimation is that our government has been doing the right things, taken the right tone, and made the right response. It has been a stellar example of good government.

I am relieved that we have competent even-handed people running the key instruments of public policy.

As the pandemic has progressed from a few cases in China to breakouts in Korea, Italy and Iran to widespread community contagion in the U.S., day after day sees evidence of a carefully considered emergency plan being rolled out in this country.

It has not just been a medical response. It has been a multilevel response.

When two presumptive cases hit our building, some of the earliest in the city, we had already taken the steps that we needed to ensure we could work online. Not just me – I’ve always been ready. But everybody.

When it began to look like people would be forced to stay home, immediate measures were taken to make sure they could collect unemployment insurance without delay. Finance minister Bill Morneau has been announcing progressive emergency financial aid packages.

A wave of panic buying on Friday barely dented our supply chains, as as people realized that the shelves weren’t going bare things quickly returned to normal. If you’re running your economy right at the limit of sustainability, that doesn’t happen, but we don’t do it that way in Canada.

Our Prime Minister is in isolation as his wife has the virus. He walks out, calmly delivers a press conference, still clearly on top of things, still clearly able to manage his responsibilities.

Our deputy prime minister Chrystia Freeland has excelled, working with the provinces and various departments making sure everybody has the information they need and that everybody is working in the same direction.

Now this could change. The conservative opposition could prevail when the economic downturn really hits, convincing the government to cut back expenditures and remove the supports for workers both inside and outside of government. It could change as foreign-owned companies like Tim Horton’s apply foreign employment practices – no sick leave, no sick pay – on Canadian workers.

But for now, it has been the right response at the right time.

covid

 

 

 

The Shareholder Primacy Rule

Like most others, I was dismayed by the loss of Ukrainian International Airways Flight 752 from Tehran, which was shot down by accident following an exchange of missile fire between the U.S. and Iran.

And so it is not with even the remotest of surprise that I read the comments of Maple Leaf Foods CEO Michael McCain condemning the attack and criticizing Donald Trump for his rash and ill-thought actions that precipitated the crisis.

However, according to this news report, “According to the business principle of shareholder primacy, there is an argument that Sunday’s Twitter attack on U.S. President Donald Trump by the CEO of Maple Leaf Foods, Michael McCain, was dead wrong.”

The article explains, “the question from the business point of view is whether, as the boss of a company owned by shareholders, he should have spoken out at all. The question was especially relevant as the share price fell on Monday, closing down about one per cent on the day.”

This is how censorship works in capitalism. The restriction doesn’t just impact the CEO, but ripples through the entire company, as the sole motivating force of the company must be to increase shareholder value. Thus sayeth Milton Friedman.

This principle has been a thorn in the side of our society since its inception. It prevents companies from acting ethically, it prevents them from contributing to the social welfare, it prevents them from considering the environment.

Moreover, it commits corporations to a mythical ontology of cause and effect, one where the stock market (for all its irrationality) determines what is true and false, good and bad, and one where there is at the same time a completely mythical chain of causality drawn between a CEO’s statements and a one cent fall in stock price.

It also commits the company to a short term perspective, one measured in hours and days, rather than weeks and years, much less the long term life of both the corporation and the community it lives in. Far be it for someone to point out that McCain’s remarks were directed toward preserving society as a whole – there was a one cent price drop today!

Now I have no particular desire to actually listen to CEOs, as they tend to be among the most conservative of thinkers (though probably by necessity). But I object strenuously to the existence of a structural mechanism that eliminates even the possibility that they might contribute to the social good in a positive way.

maple leaf

 

 

The Mailing List

I’ve just unsubscribed from the NDP mailing list.

Explaining why, I said that it had become an unending stream of requests for money, with no engagement or consultation, while meanwhile the party can be hijacked at a convention.

This needs to be fixed. There needs to be a way to enable to have the party represent its membership. It’s almost 2020; there are ways to do this. And they would be a lot more effective and democratic than an in-person convention.

What would make this work?

There are various ways to design online forums, and we could try some different models, with the caveat that participants must be registered party members. That does not (necessarily) mean that every comment must be signed, but it does mean that we can conduct our conversations without the input of botnets and trolls from outside.

Within such a structure, we should be searching for the consensus that unites us. I think sometimes that political parties lose sight of what matters in the pursuit for power. That does not (necessarily) mean a statement of principles or any such thing – too much is lost in the search for exact wording.

We should also be seeking consensus on the issues of the day. Surely we can do better than a ‘pipeline versus no-pipeline’ debate. It was a significant failure that we could not have found common ground on an issue like this, one that recognizes the legitimate needs and aspirations of the people of Alberta, while also recognizing the need for safety, indigenous rights, and the environment.

The failure – in my mind – wasn’t simply the lack of a vision here, it was that we didn’t even try. There was no national dialogue on this, no attempt to draw upon the collective intelligence of the party as a whole. Rather, it was simply a retreat into media statements and political posturing.

We can do better. The party needs to use its online media to get members to talk to each other, to engage, to come up with ideas, and more solutions forward, rather than simply ask people for money.

The convention system of party governance should be abolished, the delegate system ended, and mechanisms put into place for the membership to reach agreement, point by point, on a comprehensive platform and strategy.

The majority of people in Canada are progressive-left. Yet we are constantly governed by parties from the right, because they have addressed the issues of engagement and identification with an idea in a way that we have not. The only way to change this is to bring people in, and make them part of the solution.

ndpb

The Arc Reactor

There has been a great deal of fuss in the right-wing press recently about a breakthrough deal announced by the premiers of New Brunswick, Saskatchewan and Ontario – Tories all – “to fight climate change by working together on small nuclear reactors.”

“The Ontario government said Premier Doug Ford will meet with Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe and New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs for an announcement at a hotel near Pearson International Airport on Sunday afternoon,” said the CTV press report. The exact same report (plus a few paragraphs) was carried by Global. Nobody else carried the announcement.

Both articles took pains to note that “All three of the premiers are opponents of the federally mandated carbon tax.” The CTV article ended on that note.

This plan has been in the works for years. It has nothing to do with carbon pricing, and nothing to do with this announcement the three Tory premiers.

GEH (a General Electric and Hitachi joint venture) licensed technology to Advanced Reactor Concepts LLC (a Delaware-based company with murky financing) and the two announced back in 2017 that they were going to set up shop in Canada, pending a regulatory review of the ARC-100 by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission through its Vendor Design Review process (which it passed in October).

In 2018 New Brunswick announced an agreement to deploy at NB Power’s Point Lepreau. And a deal with LA-based AECOM, an infrastructure company, was announced last March. Insofar as the three premiers are ‘investing’ (if they are actually investing anything at all) they are investing in American nuclear reactor technology is direct competition with Canadian vendors. The CEO on the Arc Canada team came out of the Bruce generating plant. GEC sold its business assets to BWXT Canada, which was also involved in work on the Bruce generating plant.

The Telegraph-Journal, an Irving spokespaper, says that nuclear is New Brunswick’s Next Billion Dollar Industry. Irving loyalist David W. Campbell, now of New Brunswick Energy Solutions Corporation, is involved. And there are Irving fingerprints all over this. This worries me more than the fact that it’s nuclear. Irving has a terrible safety record (c.f. Lac Megantic) and dumped the Canadian reactor’s turbine to the bottom of Saint John harbour. It also has a record of voiding taxes and systematically depressing the New Brunswick’s economy even while running billion dollar industries.

As for the ARC reactor itself, its main feature isn’t that it’s small and modular, but rather, that it uses sodium as a coolant rather than water. This is what makes it essentially meltdown-proof. The small size is only important because it means that parts can be shipped using regular transportation networks. It’s main competitor is Moltex, a crowdfunded Canadian-British-based company that uses molten salt instead of sodium. It also recently announced a demonstration project in New Brunswick. Obviously, though, it’s the Americans that have the support of the Conservative premiers.

This is all stuff that CTV News should have reported, but didn’t. Readers are invited to speculate as to why.

Sources

https://www.genewsroom.com/press-releases/ge-hitachi-nuclear-energy-and-arc-nuclear-announce-steps-further-collaboration

https://www.aecom.com/ca/press-releases/arc-nuclear-canada-inc-and-aecom-will-collaborate-on-new-brunswick-small-modular-reactor-project/

https://www.arcnuclear.com/company https://www.arcnuclear.com/norman-j-d-sawyer

https://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20180709005830/en/ARC-Nuclear-Announces-Agreement-Work-New-Brunswick

https://www.arcnuclear.com/arc-100-reactor

https://www.arcnuclear.com/arcnews/nuclear-energy-insider-proven-technology-helped-arc-nuclear-canada-pass-initial-stage-of-cnscs-vendor-design-review

https://business.financialpost.com/pmn/press-releases-pmn/business-wire-news-releases-pmn/arc-nuclear-canada-inc-meets-a-major-milestone-cnsc-phase-1-design-review-completed

https://www.therecord.com/news-story/8565034-bwxt-canada-in-cambridge-awarded-642-million-contract-from-bruce-power/

https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/new-brunswick/lepreau-nuclear-energy-climate-change-spent-fuel-1.5063225

http://world-nuclear-news.org/Articles/Moltex-Energy-raises-USD7-5-million-through-crowdf

p.s. There’s probably more to this story that I don’t know. This is basically what I found out in a couple hours research while waiting for a flight at Pearson.

tory shills