By Richard Forbes.
Featured image via Hannah Yoon, CP.
If nothing else it’s become clear over the past few weeks that the only thing standing between the awesome power of the Oval Office and the deranged circus act of its new ringleader is the free press – among them, the New York Times and the Washington Post – something a very frustrated Donald Trump is also becoming increasingly aware of; that is, if his recent spat of angry tweets directed at the media are any indication.
Most recently, the president tweeted, that “the FAKE NEWS [his emphasis, not mine] (failing New York Times, NBC News, ABC, CBS, CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American people!” adding “Sick!” in one version of the tweet, soon deleted. Only an authoritarian would equate the open criticism of his administration with an attack on ‘the people’ but such are the unusual times we live in: Trump wants his supporters to see an attack on him, the president, as unpatriotic and an affront to America.
Two major exposés this week from the NYT, “Trump campaign aides had repeated contacts with Russian intelligence,” and the Post, “National security adviser Flynn discussed sanctions with Russian ambassador, despite denials, officials say,” have gone a long way to revealing the comprising relationship between Trump’s team and the Kremlin. The latter article, which suggested National security adviser Michael Flynn inappropriately communicated with Russian diplomats, soon prompted Flynn’s resignation less than four weeks after his appointment. Indeed, although only a long fortnight has passed for this new administration in Washington, the free press has been instrumental in investigating the Oval Office’s supposed Russian bedfellows and its rapport with Moscow; instrumental, especially, given the noticeable absence of any meaningful intervention or investigation from the Republican controlled Congress.
The chaos rightfully has some Canadians wondering if Canada is prepared for the kind of Russian interference occurring south of the border. And while the federal government is currently focusing its attention on the cyber security of Canadian elections, the case of Donald Trump has clearly demonstrated that it is the free press, rather than a well designed firewall, which is the last defense against the spectre of foreign interference and authoritarianism; the very same free press whose recent layoffs, merged newsrooms, and debt restructurings have had some writing it off as an endangered species here in Canada.
In this respect, Canadians ought to be worried: an ailing news chain like Postmedia, which amassed another 175 English newspapers in 2014 with its controversial merger with the Sun Media tabloids, controls every major english newspaper in Canada barring the Toronto Star, the Globe and Mail and the Winnipeg Free Press – two hundred newspapers – all delivered from merged, emptied, debt-ridden, near insolvent shells of a newsroom.
For its part, a new report, the Shattered Mirror, started a national conversation recently on support for news media when it suggested changes to the tax code to support failing newspapers and changes to the CBC digital mandate.
But such an object of imminent deterioration as Postmedia, one caught in a death spiral of bad circulation, bad advertising revenue and bad content, cannot be expected to be a democratic institution in its own right; the notion these tawdry little tabloids could muster a substantial, investigative response to Moscow meddling in Canada is more of a joke than a serious question, the answer is ‘no.’ Postmedia is not up to the task, no. But therein lies a potential vulnerability for Canada: what isn’t apart of the solution is part of the problem. As Canadians, we’ve been discussing these issues in isolation: ‘a failing news media’ and ‘the potential for Russian interference’ but they are connected – a weak news media cannot comprehensively report on corruption, but worse still, a weak news media, financially dependent on advertising revenue, may forgo the very ethical practices that have prevented the compromising of the fourth estate.
In another life, perhaps when I was a whole seven months younger before the presidential election (it feels like a lifetime doesn’t it?), I might have dismissed these sentiments out of hand as pure red scaremongering. Certainly the last thing I would want to do is ‘pull a Joe McCarthy’ so to speak. As much as I am nervous for the future of global democracy, it would be irresponsible to proceed in speculating about Russian interference without asking the right questions and considering its true likelihood. If the supposition is that Canada’s news media is vulnerable to Russian interference, particularly during an election, there are a few broad questions that first need to be answered. It’s not enough to simply prove it could happen, there needs to be a sign it would happen – which is a harder test; it’s a question of desirability versus viability.
To that end, I would consider three major questions that ought to be considered, an answer in the negative to any of these questions would be sufficient cause for dismissing the supposition, but answering in the affirmative (if only in tentative terms) to all three questions should be cause for concern:
(1) Is print media a viable avenue for interference?
There’s little preventing such intrusions via paid political newspaper adverts, paid political op-eds and coerced editorial lines and endorsements.
Legally speaking, spreading fake news hasn’t been a crime in Canada since the Supreme Court struck s.181 down in its decision with R. v. Zundel (1992) finding incarceration for willfully publishing “a statement, tale or news that he knows is false” to be unconstitutional; while laws related to hate speech, state security and sedition have distinct ends, the Supreme Court ruled that an overarching law against falsehoods was “anachronistic” and in their view, “hardly essential to the maintenance of a free and democratic society.” This gives tabloids quite a lot of latitude in terms of criminal law to exaggerate and misrepresent, while exasperating race relations, islamophobic sentiments and economic anxiety.
The Canada Elections Act prohibits “inducements by non-residents” to vote a certain way; indeed, “foreign third parties are not permitted to incur election advertising expenses totalling $500 or more.” However, a covert shell business, front or hedge fund could be used to cycle advertising money and resources between the Kremlin and Canadian newspaper publishers – it would be necessary regardless to maintain the appearance of an arms length distance between Russia and the elections. In 2014, Simon Fraser University adjunct communications professor Donald Gutstein raised similar concerns about foreign ownership when he found American hedge funds held more than 50% ownership over Postmedia.
During the last federal election, Postmedia CEO Paul Godfrey took the shocking position of requiring all of Postmedia’s major newspapers to endorse Stephen Harper, resulting in the resignation of National Post‘s then comment editor Andrew Coyne. Worse still, Postmedia’s newspapers ran a front page wrap two days before the election – a paid political advertisement – that mimicked the aesthetics of Elections Canada (the neutral yellow, the minimalism, the ballot box) with the bold headline, “Voting Liberal will cost you.” In this sense, it would not be much of an evolution for Godfrey and other desperate publishers to work collaboratively with Russian partners in much the same manner: his populist politics already align with Putin’s vision, supporting it with forced endorsements and extravagant ad space would hardly be a stretch for someone who’s enabled it in the past.
(2) Is print media a desirable avenue for interference?
As of recent, Russia’s modus operandi in its alleged interference has been digital: exploiting cyber security and WikiLeaks, an internet activist non-profit group, while spreading disinformation through open social platforms – fake news sites, facebook and twitter. Exploiting chain news in the case of Canada would be a comparatively more ‘old school’ avenue for Russia but there’s reason to believe it would be invaluable to disrupt a more diverse spread of information sources in the Canadian context. The Canadian electorate is, to be blunt, old. While boomers and older made up about 61.4% of America’s voting electorate in 2012, that same number was as high as 74% in Canada with the 2011 federal election which saw Stephen Harper win his first and only majority.
Likewise, compared to their American counterparts, Canadian seniors and boomers read – established print news, whether physical or digital, is not a dead medium among these generations: 25% of boomers and almost half of Canadian seniors subscribed to a daily newspaper in 2016 (this is comparable with the US) but among the 62% of boomers who also used online news sources, 42% of them accessed newspapers online, which only slightly trails news broadcaster sites (like CTV.ca) and dwarfs the use of social media for news (23%.) It’s in this sense, as the complimentary newspaper in a greasy spoon or as a recognizable brand outside of paywalls, that the grubby, stained Canadian tabloid remains an enduring institution whose reach to white middle class men and its merit as an avenue for electoral interference exceeds its own financial sustainability.
Given how extensively regulated television and radio is in Canada under the CRTC, which censors false or misleading news from broadcast, Russia can be expected to adapt to the media and legal environment in Canada; this would mean, in my estimation, interfering through two streams – the digital world and the establishment – making use of the financial dependency, loose ethics and near insolvency of Canadian tabloids as a unique and distinct vulnerability.
Would it, as a vulnerability, work? It certainly didn’t for Stephen Harper in the last federal election and in that same election, millennials, drawn into the fold by Justin Trudeau, participated in record numbers. As a generation raised on the borderless cosmopolitanism of the internet, millennials are the wrinkle in Putin’s plans: they’ve consistently rejected ethnic nationalism; in Britain we’ve witnessed this in the Scottish independence referendum and the Brexit referendum, in the US, during the presidential elections, and in Canada, the decline of support for Quebec independence and the support for open immigration speaks to the mindset of young voters who’ve opposed the populist disintegration of the western world at every available opportunity. Despite recent successes, Putin’s attempts to disrupt western countries may be thwarted by underestimating its youth.
Canada could prepare itself for interference via newspaper chains by taking a closer look at ways to support the newspaper industry and perhaps consider reasonable restrictions on newspaper adverts (particularly ones that can be confused for the content of the newspaper itself) and paid op-ed space during federal elections. The conversation that occurred after the publication of the Shattered Mirror was an oversimplification of the news support debate: the Shattered Mirror was suggesting creative changes to the CBC (distributing articles under a Creative Commons license, for example) and floating ways to reform the tax code to rebate advertisers as was done before during the transition to digital – a bailout or a politicalised subsidy was never on the table and even if it were, such a subsidy has operated quietly for some time now for Canadian magazines under the Canada Periodical Fund (indeed, Paul Wells spent a lot of time decrying subsides in his recent Toronto Star op-ed for someone who made a name for himself as Maclean’s political editor – the Canada Periodical Fund’s top benefactor.)
The fair and de-politicized subsidization of Canadian print journalism isn’t an impossibility but it is the last resort – there are other options available.
(3) Would Russia interfere in Canada’s elections?
It’s not unfathomable to say the least…
Russia’s area of interest is certainly not exclusive to America. For starters, there is compelling evidence to suggest the Kremlin is interfering with the upcoming French presidential elections to support their favoured candidate, Marine Le Pen, a far right wing nationalist, over social liberal Emmanuel Macron. The New York Times has reported that Moscow has been financing Le Pen’s campaign, supporting her after French banks refused her for a loan; meanwhile, Russian-directed hacks of Macron’s emails have been funneled to Wikileaks and Russia (not unlike with the DNC hacks) and government outlets, like Russia Today and Sputnik, have been spreading disinformation, including unsubstantiated allegations about Macron’s sexuality and rumored extramarital affairs.
While some commentators would focus on the geographical location of Canada and its strategic and tactical importance (its recent ban on offshore drilling in Arctic waters certainly puts Canada on the wrong side of a Russian oil and gas industry looking to expand northward), I would argue whether Russia would see value in interfering in Canadian elections primarily hinges on the current political context rather than geopolitics. If Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is regarded as having the potential to foil the Kremlin’s plans to disrupt NATO and Europe in the same way that German chancellor Angela Merkel is, then of course for Putin there would be value in pushing Trudeau aside for a more right wing, more disruptive force. Trudeau and Merkel are more or less regarded as the last remaining champions of a free and open economy on the international stage.
Traditionally, Canada – bilingual, multilateralist and compassionate – has acted on the world stage as a diplomatic bridge between America and Europe, a middle power that can act as a go-between, forging peace and understanding.
It’s in this capacity, the world needs Canada more than ever. Just this past week, Trump showered us with praise during Trudeau’s Washington visit, saying “America is deeply fortunate to have a neighbour like Canada.” Meanwhile in Europe, the European Parliament was in the process of approving its first trade pact with a G7 country and it’s hardly a coincidence it’s with Canada; CETA, a comprehensive free trade agreement, is a vital showing of confidence in free trade and a sign the EU is a functional political-economic institution. “It’s easier for the Canadians to speak to the Americans,” the European Parliament President was quoted as saying by the Toronto Star, speaking to this intermediary role Canada is said to play in interceding on behalf of the US or Europe.
True to Canada’s role as a unifying player, Trudeau also used his stages this past week in Strasbourg, Berlin and a black-tie gala in Hamburg to voice the economic anxiety of the middle class and their dissatisfaction with free trade or rather, its perceived effects.
If this ‘bridge’ in two years time is still paying the same political, diplomatic and economic dividends it has this past week in Washington and in Europe, Putin would have all the more reason to want to burn the bridge to accelerate the deterioration of rival institutions, NATO and the EU. Canada will have to be vigilant and take care in securing not only its digital infrastructure but the whole of its fourth estate from foreign interference. In these times of confusion, good journalism is a democratic necessity; there are forces here and abroad that wish to foment discontent by exploiting the prejudices and perceptions of some here at home, feeding them a steady diet of distorted and false stories to place the fundamentals of everything – our immigration system, our refugee resettlement efforts, our climate change, social and foreign policy – under unfair criticism.
Donald Trump’s recent tantrum against the media is a reminder that it’s up to us to stop what’s happened in the US from happening here and that first means preventing the exploitation of our information society.
Richard Forbes studied Political Science and Philosophy at the University of Waterloo. Winner of the Peter Woolstencroft Prize in Canadian Politics (2015).
When asked what ‘one does exactly’ with said degree, he laughs and politely declines to answer. A perfect night for him involves a cup of Lady Grey, writing and a re-run of Yes Minister.