Finding a way forward for Canadian press accountability

There are four people hunting in the woods for their next meal. If they catch a deer, it will provide enough meat to feed all four of them. However, they must work together to catch the deer; if even one person doesn’t contribute, the deer will get away, and they will go hungry.

A rabbit, however, is much easier to catch. It only takes one person to do that, and it will provide enough meat for that one person.

There are four people hunting in the woods for their next meal. If they catch a deer, it will provide enough meat to feed all four of them. However, they must work together to catch the deer; if even one person doesn’t contribute, the deer will get away, and they will go hungry.

A rabbit, however, is much easier to catch. It only takes one person to do that, and it will provide enough meat for that one person.

So, these four people are hunting in the woods. They’ve got a deer in their sights, but then a rabbit runs by. What do they do? Does each individual trust that the other three in the group are not going to jump at the chance to grab a rabbit, thereby ensuring his or her own satiation and leaving the other three deerless, and thus, hungry? If not, do they go after the rabbit?

According to some schools of thinking in game theory, each person goes after the rabbit.

Game theory—more specifically in this case, the stag hunt, as first described by Jean-Jacques Rousseau—is one most often used in economics and political science as a way of explaining individuals’ reasoning in cooperation. When a former professor of mine had the class demonstrate the previous example, there was at least one in every group who chose the rabbit.

But can’t such a theory be applied to the self-regulation of the press accountability industry as well?

Can press councils function to their stated objectives when there are publications that aren’t working to catch the deer?

In Canada, at least, this may ring true.

“An extremely porous system of accountability”

Ivor Shapiro and Lisa Taylor conducted research into the future of press councils last year for Newspapers Canada. Though the organization says the report is still being reviewed and is not yet ready for release, Shapiro said their research found a need for something different than the status quo accountability mechanisms.

“I think the provincial structure in Canada is dead or dying,” Shapiro said. “It’s just not financially feasible for it to be any better than it is now, and it’s clearly endangered.”

Provincial and regional press councils outside of Quebec—the ones that are still in operation, at least—rely heavily on contributions from member organizations. But with memberships waning, what is a publisher’s incentive to be part of a press council? And what teeth does a precariously-funded accountability regime really have?

“One of the things that’s clear is that we have, in Canada, an extremely porous system of accountability in the way of press councils,” Shapiro said.

The press councils that remain fall into two groups: The Quebec Press Council, and everybody else.

The Quebec Press Council is funded as a “serious operation,” Shapiro says, by a combination of news organizations, government and unions. To the critics who say that government should have no part in the accountability mechanisms of the press (see no further than the reaction to the role government would have after Lord Justice Leveson released his report in December) Shapiro says he doesn’t see it as an issue in Quebec.

“I haven’t heard anybody suggest that it does not exist as an independent watchdog over the press and as quite a rigorous organization with a robust infrastructure,” he says. However, “The same is not necessarily true outside Quebec.”

“One of the reasons it’s not true outside of Quebec is because the funding regime is heavily dependent on the goodwill of a dwindling pool of member publications.”

For some recent examples:

Sun Media pulled its papers out of the Ontario Press Council in 2011, leading Torstar chair John Honderich to say the “$80,000 in annual dues saved by the group’s withdrawal is a minuscule price to pay for maintaining both credibility and accountability with readers,” and that it was a “a sad time for newspapering in Ontario.”

Perhaps most indicative of the fragility of provincial press councils was the Manitoba Press Council’s decision to shut down after a number of newspapers, including the Winnipeg Free Press and the Brandon Sun, withdrew their financial support.

How serious of an accountability undertaking can press councils be when in such a precarious position, relying on the goodwill of member organizations who seek transparency and accountability?

“The smaller that pool of organizations gets, the more dependent you are on their goodwill, the less likely you are to be a robust accountability structure,” Shapiro says. “That is the key problem outside of Quebec that I see.”

To be clear: None of this is to suggest that Canada take any sort of legislated approach to press regulation as Lord Justice Leveson recommended in December.

Dealing with the issues that arise when membership declines is where the stag hunt game theory comes in.

When everybody is a member, things are good for press accountability. Nobody wants to be the one who isn’t a member and risk the appearance of not being accountable. But as the pool of member organizations get smaller and smaller, there is hardly any incentive to stay and thus, much more difficult for press councils to operate.

What about a national press council?

Earlier this month, Don McCurdy, executive director of the Ontario Press Council released his 2012 report, which outlined the struggles the council is facing financially, in the wake of Sun Media’s departure. He describes “significant budget cuts” to the tune of having lost one-third of the funds for their annual operating budget over the last two years.

He says the OPC made “significant operational reductions” in response to this loss of funds, which allowed them to create a surplus.

“Those funds have been set aside to deal with emergency situations, which may include the loss of additional revenues or the possible establishment of a national press council.”

National press standards adjudicators are not unprecedented in Canada, of course. The Canadian Broadcast Standards Council exists with the support of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters and with the approval of the CRTC to deal with queries and complaints. Digital publications—including those of broadcast organizations operated by CBC, Shaw, Bell and Rogers, to name a few—currently answer to neither the CBSC or press councils for the most part. (The Ontario Press Council now has four online-only regional publications.)

Shapiro and Taylor’s report will be considered first by publishers and then by the press councils, McCurdy’s report explained. “While [the report] made no recommendations, it did indicate the need for a new press council model, financially stronger and with expanded media supported,” he wrote.

In his interview with J-Source, Shapiro described what a national press council could mean and described the opportunities and challenges it would entail.

For one, a national press council, being a new initiative, could bring in digital organizations that are currently not under the mandate of the CBSC or the existing press councils, Shapiro said. This larger pool of stakeholders would bring in more revenue.

Shapiro continued, saying a new national initiative could work with existing structures in Quebec, though its funding structure would differ. (On the possibility of federal government contributing funding: “I see no evidence that any citizens want it, no evidence that this government wants it, and no evidence that any opposition party wants it.”)

But, as exists in the current Quebec model, Shapiro says the unions that represent newspaper employees may have some “interest in defending their members’ reputations by putting in something into the accountability mechanisms.”

And then there are the publishers. In a time where newspapers are reining in spending, cutting jobs and centralizing productions, there has to be something in it for them.

“All of this depends, really, on publishers having the willingness to actually make an investment in accountability,” Shapiro says, noting the public editor and ombudsman appointments that have been made by the Toronto Star, Globe and Mail and CBC. “These are investments presumably for a reason, because they see a potential return on that investment in terms of their reputation with their audiences.”

Press accountability mechanisms post-Leveson

In the wake of the News Corp.’s News of the World phone hacking scandal, Leveson was tasked with heading a year-long investigation into the culture and practices of the British press that culminated in a 2,000-page report that contained evaluations and recommendations. Among them was what the Guardian pointed out would be the first press law since the 17th century. Critics took the report to task.

"A media regulatory body anchored by statute cannot be described as voluntary," Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, said in a release. “Moreover, adopting statutory regulation would undermine press freedom in the U.K. and give legitimacy to governments around the world that routinely silence journalists through such controls."

This is not the approach anyone has suggested Canada takes in figuring out the future of press councils.

It isn’t clear if a national model is viable—it’s more clear that the press council model currently in place outside of Quebec no longer is. Maybe press councils are a thing of the past. Perhaps the tightening of the relationship between readers and publishers (see: comment sections, social media, citizen journalism, etc.) can shoulder some of the load as the public directly holds journalists to task over their work.

Regardless, the public needs to be able to trust its journalists. And this is where accountability of any sort comes in.

So what about one remaining big question: Why would it be in the publishers’ interest to have a stronger accountability regime? “The only way they would do that is that they saw a possibility that their audience would reward it or that they would save themselves from audience negativity by doing that and I don’t see any sign that that has happened yet,” Shapiro says.

He continues: “[It’s possible] that it will take a major scandal in Canada that will take publishers to that position where they feel motivated to address the rather embarrassingly weak accountability framework that we have in Canada.”

Perhaps only then will our media try to catch that deer. Here’s hoping we won’t have starved to death by then.


For more on Shapiro's thoughts on press accountability, check out his closing keynote at the International Seminar for Press Accountability held in November (en Francais).