First, the good news. Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly’s new “Creative Canada” strategy, once promised to be a much-needed “revolution” for a “broken system,” is a timid, ineffectual rehash of existing policy that for the most part avoids dealing with any of the questions raised by the vast changes sweeping the communications industries, except for those it punts to other agencies and a later day.

That’s also the bad news, of course: Canadian cultural policy is overdue for root-and-branch reform, and has been for decades. But since neither the minister nor her department gives any sign of understanding this, still less of the kind of fresh thinking that is so urgently needed, the plan’s signal failure of ambition is no doubt to be welcomed. Lacking the courage of their lack of convictions, they have at least managed not to make things obviously worse.

They have not attempted to tax the internet, for example, or the sky. The “Netflix tax” that its domestic competitors had demanded to punish it for showing programs people want to watch in a format they find convenient, is nowhere in evidence. In its place is a greatly hullabalooed pledge to spend $500 million over five years producing content in Canada. If, like much of the creative community in this country, you are excessively thrilled by inputs — more spending! more work!— this will be good news. If you are more interested in outputs — in the quality of what is created, not just the quantity — you may wish to hold your applause.

(Even from a quantitative standpoint: we’ve no idea how much Netflix would have spent in the absence of this promise. Or rather, there is some evidence it was already spending as much or more, an 80 cent dollar being a pretty powerful incentive on its own. But now the company ostensibly faces a $10,000 per day fine if it does not keep its promise, so I suppose we can look forward to the profound contributions to our national identity to be had from posing Toronto as New York in the next Master of None or Marvel’s Luke Cage.)

Otherwise all is much the same, only more so. The federal government will be in all the places, doing all the things — which is to say everywhere and everything — it does now: mandating content quotas, restricting foreign participation, and funding every conceivable form of artistic expression or employment, with the same sublime disregard for necessity and indifference to results.

Only now it will be even more omnipresent than it was before! Among the measures included in the minister’s list of “announceables”:

• examining “what more could be done to support and enhance early-stage development of content, such as script-writing and pitch development” (how can people be expected to pitch a script on their own dime?);

• “investing in the next generation of cultural spaces – Creative Hubs – where artists, creators and creative startups can build their entrepreneurial skills” (nothing builds entrepreneurial skills like hanging out in a government funded Creative Hub);

• and “promoting access to the government’s $1.26 billion Strategic Innovation Fund” (funding people to apply for funding is getting pretty meta), et cetera, et cetera, per ardua ad astra.

Oh, they’ve made some adjustment to changing realities. Are thousands of Canadians “cutting the cord” every week, abandoning the carefully protected and regulated world of cable and broadcast television — and the revenues each pays the government in return for its patronage — for the wilds of online TV, thus imperilling the Canadian Media Fund, without which dozens of unwatchable programs would not continue to go unwatched? No matter: the government will hit up the taxpayer for the difference.

Indeed, uneasily aware that the whole creaking edifice is about to collapse — cable, networks, television itself, all will soon be either obsolete or altered beyond recognition under the twin onslaught of digitization and the internet — the government has tasked an organization known for its commitment to transformative change to think about what this means for the impenetrable thicket of regulation in which all of these remain ensnarled. That organization? Why, the CRTC, of course: the dead hand of regulation itself. (The CRTC! If the Bomb dropped, the CRTC would be coming up with reasons why it should regulate what remained.)

If you were in any doubt how little has changed, fundamentally, how unwilling the Liberals were to alienate any of their traditional clientele, you had only to look at the long, long list of industry associations — sorry, “cultural groups” — lining up to kiss the minister’s ring for her “vision” and “inspiration,” for all the world as if it were her own money she was doling out.

Actually, you only have to look at the existence of all of these associations, each of them bulging with the private sector equivalent of the useless arts bureaucrats with which every level of government is now clogged, on the theory that for every person handing out the dough there must be two to intercept it: the Canadian Arts Coalition (itself representing some 30 different groups), the Canadian Music Publishers Association, the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists, the (sigh) Writers Guild of Canada, Re:Sound, Ontario Presents and organizations more obscure still (Opera on the Avalon was careful to ensure its contribution to the deluge of flattery did not go unnoticed).

Nowhere in the pile of bumf the department put out is any hint of a philosophy of the arts focused on the audience, rather than the government, as the artist’s partner in creation. For the cultural community in this country have long been taught to view the audience with suspicion, to be dismissed as disembodied “market forces” or “the lowest common denominator,” rather than the lifeblood of the arts through the ages — as, indeed, the purpose of the exercise.

But I know what you want to hear about. Did the minister “bail out” the newspaper industry, as I have feared and prophesied? Not as such, or not yet, or not in a way that presents as obvious a target as the industry seems determined to make of itself. True, there was the ritual declaration, to which way too much attention was given, that “our approach will not be to bail out industry models that are no longer viable.” Many in our industry, whose business model is crushingly unviable, took this to mean they would be cut out of the loot. I only wish it were so.

Leave aside that the minister is bailing out lots of industry models that are no longer viable — for example, the CBC’s. No government ever announces it is bailing out firms or industries that are no longer viable. It’s always presented as “transitional” assistance to help them “turn the corner” and whatnot. And indeed, in the very next sentence, the minister declares “we will focus our efforts on supporting innovation, experimentation and transition to digital.”

What does that mean? Well, they’re going to expand the Canadian Periodical Fund, on which virtually every magazine in the country is now dependent, to include digital content, presumably erasing the distinction between magazines and newspapers in the process. Plus, ominously, the minister said the government “expects” internet companies “that aggregate and share news” — Google and Facebook — to “contribute to our goals.” It’s all left purposefully vague, but it doesn’t take much imagination to see how a bailout could be laundered through the government’s “partners.”

So: we will not bail out the unviable. We’re just going to bail out the viable. I remain full of dread.



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