Dispatch from the Front Lines: So what the hell just happened, exactly?
Also: you asked for ways to help us? We'll give you ways to help us!
Readers of The Line, good day to you all. You’ll note no podcast or video in this instalment. We were almost afraid to record one — news events in Europe were moving so fast that we concluded, rightly, that anything we’d record would be obsolete before we could publish it.
Important note! Important note! We do have a special request of you today! So please read all the way to the bottom. Do it! DO IT! But first, the #content you all have come to know and love.
As we write this, roughly a day has passed since the sudden end of what briefly looked like a massive event with the potential to reshape global politics for a generation … before it fizzled. The rebellion of Russia’s Wagner mercenary group and its bolt toward Moscow was a stunning story, until it wasn’t. And that itself is a stunning story. Yevgeny Prigozhin, former chef and now Wagner leader, suddenly called off his mutiny, and it just … ended.
When the mutiny began on Friday, and especially when Wagner seized the southern city of Rostov, home to a major Russian military headquarters overseeing the invasion of Ukraine as well as a million other people, we were surprised, but the more we thought about it, we weren't particularly shocked. There had been obvious signs of an imminent rupture of some kind in recent months; Line editor Gurney had wondered on Twitter how long it could last before something snapped. That was about three hours before the entire country seemed to snap and Prigozhin marched into Rostov and began moving north.
Events proceeded at a fairly frantic pace after that, with Wagner troops advancing almost all the way to Moscow while Russian security forces fortified the city and tore up roads along the route. It wasn't clear to us that Wagner had enough men to actually take the city and potentially capture key members of the government. But it wasn't clear that he didn't: there are two sides of that equation — the troops Prigozhin had and the troops Putin could count on to oppose Wagner. It was the latter group that captured our interest.
Wagner encountered some resistance along the way, but not much. Most of Russia's army is deployed in Ukraine, of course, and much of what's left is now of famously poor quality and morale. But even those military and security forces that were able to block Wagner's advance didn't seem that interested in the job. There are reports that some units went over to Prigozhin's side, but it seems that most of them just did ... nothing in particular. And waited to see what happened. For a few hours, we wondered if Prigozhin’s small force would be just large enough in the face of a Russian military that seemed to have no appetite for battle on its own soil.
We can't pretend to explain the bizarre conclusion to this chaotic day and a half, with an apparent deal brokered by Belarus seeing Wagner's advance on Moscow called off, a broad amnesty granted to all participants and Prigozhin apparently set to continue to oversee Wagner's global operations from Belarus in some kind of exile. This is all just wildly unrealistic. Prigozhin cannot be the last person around to realize that he's put a target on his back and that he'll soon experience some kind of fatal medical emergency or tragic tumble out of an open window. The moment his mercenaries took Rostov, he had only one path forward: all the way to the Kremlin. What the hell he's thinking is frankly beyond our ability to guess, and we have fairly vivid imaginations. It's baffling.
Nor will we try to guess what this will mean for Russia. In a situation like this, your Line editors would normally simply confess that we don't have the deep knowledge of Russian domestic politics to turn ourselves into credible instant-experts on this. We'd seek out someone with that knowledge. We could interview them, solicit a column from them, or even — as we've done in the past — allow someone with deep expertise but who isn't permitted to speak on the record in public to provide a blurb for one of these dispatches, to run under our shared byline. But in this case, we had to reject all those options, because at least for right now, all the experts seem as baffled as we are. No one seems to understand what the hell just happened in Russia.
We can say with at least reasonable confidence that if you happen to be named Vladimir Putin, it isn't good. When Prigozhin announced that he was ending his mutiny and began withdrawing his forces from Rostov, the locals cheered them like some kind of conquering heroes. That's gotta be on Putin's mind. Also on his mind: the apparent, ahem, reluctance of much of his military and domestic security force to rally to his side during the crisis. This has wounded Putin. Time will tell how badly. Time will also tell how many other people in Russia today have carefully watched recent events, have adjusted their understanding of the facts on the ground there, and are now pondering a variety of intriguing options accordingly.
And the last thing time will tell is what Putin feels he must now do to assert his authority, such as it is. We must recall that whatever Putin's domestic troubles, he has problems on the battlefield, too. While we haven't yet seen major breakthroughs by Ukrainian forces, they are not yet fully committed, and their counteroffensive does seem to be making gradual progress in multiple sectors. Events of recent days can only hurt Russia's combat performance and morale.
We wish we could offer you all a more firm and decisive statement to wrap all this up. But the best we can honestly promise you is that we'll keep pondering this, trying to figure out what the hell happened, and we'll certainly be watching this. It's been a strange war. And we suspect it might get stranger still before it finally ends.
So we’ve spent a fair amount of time, here at The Line, picking on Marco Mendicino, Canada’s minister of public safety. We’ve not hidden the fact that we think he’s not just incompetent, but not truthful, and that we think he deserves to lose his job.
But he’s not the only minister in the Trudeau government about whom we feel that way, and over the past few weeks and months a dark horse candidate has started to make a late run down the backstretch for the position of worst minister in the Trudeau government. Step up, Minister of Justice and Attorney General David Lametti.
On paper, Lametti is an interesting guy with a stellar CV. Law degree from McGill, graduate degrees from Yale and Oxford, Montreal soccer coach, Oxford hockey captain, huge fan of 70s punk rock. He’s a full professor with tenure at McGill law school, from which he has been on a leave of absence since he became member of parliament for LaSalle—Émard—Verdun in 2015. Over his time in politics, he served a couple of stints as parliamentary secretaries before being named minister of justice in 2019.
Again, on paper this should be a great fit. His academic work focused on property law, but specifically intellectual property — he’s the co-founder of McGill’s Centre for Intellectual Property Policy. Longtime readers of The Line (or even just of today’s dispatch) will appreciate how central this issue is to federal policy right now.
Except now we’re wondering just what the hell is going on with David Lametti. Readers may recall that back in May, at the Liberal party’s policy convention, the party passed a resolution aimed at combating misinformation in Canada. The resolution called on the government to "explore options to hold online information services accountable for the veracity of material published on their platforms, and to limit publication only to material whose sources can be traced."
If that doesn’t strike terror into your democratic heart, read it again.
Notably, while the resolution was quickly dismissed by Justin Trudeau, other Liberals weren’t so quick to see the problem. Permanent backbench MP Julie Dzerowicz tweeted out that it was one of her top three priorities, until she was stiff-armed by the PMO into backtracking.
But you know who didn’t backtrack? David Lametti. In fact, he made it clear that he thinks that while the time might not be right for it, it should certainly not be dismissed out of hand. He compared it to the legalization of cannabis, which bounced around policy conventions for years before finally becoming law. "That policy didn't make it into the platform until 2015," said Lametti. "So there's always a complex mix of policies, policy proposals that have been passed at conventions that remain part of the Liberal discussion, if you will."
This is shocking coming from any minister. Jaw-dropping coming from the minister of justice and a freaking law professor.
But it gets worse. Last week, Canada’s independent special interlocutor on unmarked graves, Kimberly Murray, released an interim report on her efforts to help Indigenous communities search for children who died and disappeared from residential schools.
As part of her recommendations, Murray suggested that Canada should take steps to fight what she calls “residential-school denialism” — people who challenge communities who report the possible discovery of unmarked graves, attacking them on social media and going so far as to show up with shovels demanding to see the bodies.
Let’s be crystal clear: this sort of thing is disgusting and vile. The Line stands full square behind all efforts and promoting and achieving genuine reconciliation with First Nations communities. We are all parents here, and the realities of the residential schools make us sick to our stomachs.
But we also get a bit queasy when we hear the justice minister say that he’s open to “a legal solution and outlawing it,” “it” being denying or questioning the existence of unmarked graves. When Lametti suggests we look to countries that have criminalized Holocaust denial, we get concerned.
Why? Because we couldn’t help notice that one of the immediate targets of the Murray/Lametti law, at least according to the online mob, would be friend of The Line Terry Glavin. Glavin stands accused of residential school denialism for his long report from last summer, which re-reported much of the original reporting on the unmarked graves from 2021. As Glavin found, the world’s media got big parts of the story wrong, running with claims that were at odds with those made by the First Nations communities themselves.
For his efforts, Glavin has spent the better part of the last year being denounced as a genocide denier and worse; we have full confidence that he would be one of the first targets of a bill like the one Lametti would like to look into.
To be fair, David Lametti has not proposed a bill that would criminalize anonymous news sources. And he hasn’t introduced a bill criminalizing residential school denialism. But when given a plain opportunity to denounce both, not only has he not shut them down, he’s made it clear he’s open to the possibility.
It makes us seriously wonder: Just what in hell are they teaching in the faculty of law at McGill?
Further to the "Maybe Oligopolies are Bad" file we began last week, we have an update on BCE Inc. and its subsidiaries brought to us by Mr. Fagstein, who possesses a finer knowledge of the CRTC than we have, or care to. In our previous dispatch, we discussed telecom/media behemoth's decision to lay off 1,300 workers from its journalism subsidiaries, and how this struck us as particularly unjust from a company that had managed to acquire about $3 billion in profit in no small part in due to highly favourable regulatory and policy conditions that allow it to operate in an environment with far less competition than in other jurisdictions. We thought — and, apparently, so do our regulators — that there is an implicit and explicit price to be paid for these conditions. Namely, that BCE Inc. should be obliged to fund certain public goods in exchange for the opportunity to generate those kinds of profits on the backs of public airwaves.
And if Bell has decided it wishes to zero out its journalism obligations, as we’d first suggested publicly here well over a year ago, well, then we think they've opened a door to reconsider the terms of the deal with the public writ large.
On that note, we're sorry to say that our instincts and predictions have proved correct.
As noted on Fagstein's blog this week: "Bell Media has filed applications with the CRTC to eliminate all regulatory requirements for local news at all of its CTV, CTV2 and Noovo stations across the country ... If the CRTC grants all these requests, the only condition of licence related to local programming that would remain is a general requirement that stations outside metropolitan markets must broadcast seven hours of local programming per week (other smaller stations have exceptions for either less local programming or allowing them to group that requirement with nearby stations). This content would have to be local, but not necessarily news."
The company would much rather fulfil the public interest mandate stipulated in its licensing agreements with far more lucrative #content: Canadian reality television, locally scripted dramas and comedies, and awards ceremonies. But even here, Bell is asking for its CanCon burden to be lowered.
To be fair, the business case for news is pretty bloody brutal. Fagstein trolled through the Bell’s application to fish out these particular nuggets. If you'll forgive the business jargon, it's worth the slog, even it it means reading Bell’s dull little rationale:
“Bell Media has been losing tens of millions alone in the production and delivery of local news. In the four-year period between 2016 and 2019, the average annual news operating loss was $28.4M. In 2020 and 2021, due to advertising revenue declines attributable to the COVID-19 pandemic, this jumped to an average operating loss of $51.2M. In 2022, despite advertising revenue recoveries, the operating loss was approximately $40M. Moreover, web giants have had a drastic impact on the advertising market in Canada, capturing a massive share of advertising revenue from Canadian businesses that rely on that revenue to make news. The Internet now has a 68% share of the advertising market in Canada."
The tl;dr version of that is that TV news is facing the same collapse of its business model that is driving newspapers into bankruptcy, except a little later, and a lot faster. The Internet exploded, and while its growth created a lot of opportunity for legacy media and drove a lot of traffic, it also ate the bulk of industry's chief revenue-generating product — advertising. Facebook and Google didn't set out to kill us: they just provided a better and cheaper option to advertisers, and did it by finding audiences for low-quality content unburdened by the additional spending (and ethical) constraints of journalism. With very few exceptions, the legacy media has floundered in the face of this problem, and here we are today.
But, again, BCE Inc./Bell/CTV (etc.) is not the same as Postmedia or Torstar or even The Woodbridge Company, owner of Thomson Reuters. If there are companies we can reasonably demand sustain a loss in the service of a democratic need and mandate, it should sure as hell be Bell. The company as a whole is profitable; a section of one of its subsidiaries is struggling due to unavoidable macro factors.
We grant that Bell is not just looking at its balance sheet today. It's looking ahead and presumably seeing lots to worry about, namely the loss of the TV-gobbling public to streaming services. We think that's a valid concern; fortunately, Bell is well-positioned financially to get ahead of this trend. Why not just get out of TV altogether, then? Convert in-house content-production capacity to supply those streaming services, preferably with local and national news. Consider the loss that journalism presents to be a tax, and take the L. Continue making huge profits on telco, and bingo bango.
We jest, but only a little.
We're under no illusion that any of this is easy, and less so for a major and complicated corporation like Bell: we don't actually begrudge them for trying to wheedle out of corners of their business that are unprofitable.
We just hope they expect neither a happy public, nor a friendly government regulator, on the other side of such mercenary decision making. Nothing is permanent in this world, least of all a favourable regulatory environment. The Great Disruption is upon us, and companies like Bell probably shouldn't expect a docile government on the other side, willing to maintain an oligopoly that charges Canadians exorbitant telecoms in an environment free from competition from U.S. carriers. This is a policy file in which a populist conservative prime minister riding on an affordability ticket might prove totally willing to upend a complacent national status quo. And BCE Inc. would certainly find fewer diehard defenders than CBC, or the Canadian health care system. Perhaps something they should be reflecting on.
And on the matter of media and Facebook and Google and — all that — another bit of news dropped this week. The government passed C-18, which would ostensibly force major tech companies like Meta/Facebook and Google into negotiations overseen by the CRTC with local media outlets to compensate the latter for, uh, distributing their links.
After passing the senate, Facebook responded by announcing that it would stop sharing of those links on its platform, thus making it exempt from the law. Google may follow suit, but as it serves as a search engine, banning access to news articles is a bit more precarious for that giant, and it's not clear what it would have to restrict in order to be exempt from the law.
Of course, news media around the country lauded this announcement as it would mean that the Big Tech media giants would no longer be able to "steal" all of its content, right?
We're not even sure what there is to add to this colossally misjudged clusterfuck. The whole law was ill-conceived right from the start, pushed by a lobby controlled by zombie legacy media organizations desperate to cash in their dwindling political capital to secure some kind of additional revenue stream to sustain the shadow of the corporate corpses. The bill rested on the idea that links to news had value to the platform, and that news outlet should be likewise compensated. The problem is that the very opposite is true: links have little-to-no value to these platforms — they're just another form of content, and relatively small stream of it, at that. The links do have value to the news organizations because they were used to direct traffic back to original news sites, traffic that could then be monetized through advertising or subscription. News organizations should pay Facebook and Google for distribution; not the other way around.
We told both the media companies and the government that this was a bad idea. Re-assigning the value of a news link, and then using the power of the state to force the tech companies into negotiations against their own business interest, all overseen by the CRTC (?!) was a bad plan. Even if it "worked," this is a system that would disproportionately benefit barely functioning legacy brands, or send more money to the CBC. In Australia, which first tried this kind of law, it's believed that the majority of the income generated from these deals went to Murdoch-owned papers, not cunning and adorable little digital start ups.
This would give legacy outlets a permanent advantage, while not providing enough income to rectify the damage wrought by two decades of collapsing business models and the subsequent terrible business decisions. And because there is no even playing ground when some outlets get access to cash and others do not, this is a bill that incentivizes dependence on these deals. It would eventually make every single media outlet in the country reliant on some form of government classification, CRTC oversight, government-leveraged funding and big-tech dependency. Nothing about this would foster a healthy media ecosystem, nor a vibrant discourse, to say nothing of the inevitable hit to public trust.
But, of course, C-18 isn't going to "work" even by this sad-sack metric. Because Facebook was more than candid about its plans if C-18 passed: they would simply pull out of the market. Because of course they would: it makes no sense for a major global corporation to hand the media outlets in a mid-tier market a blank cheque that could then be replicated by similar ham-fisted legislation around the world.
But the government thought this was a bluff, because this law sorta kinda worked in Australia, except that it didn't, really. And Canadian media, dollars in the eyes, thought likewise, because our industry remains implacably convinced of its own importance.
So C-18, of course, passed. It was always going to pass. The entire democratic process was a sham; the media industry debased itself like dime store whores to ensure the bill was a fait accompli.
Facebook is pulling out. Google may follow with some version of a content restriction.
Now not only are the media not going to get much sticky C-18 tech money, they're also going to lose access to some of their most lucrative platforms for link distribution. They'll probably lose the private side-deals negotiated with these companies prior to C-18 now, too.
New media outlets are going to find it near impossible to establish brands in a market that won't let them share their content. Small local media outlets disproportionately dependent on Facebook for distribution are totally boned. And to top it all off, Canadians on Facebook are going to have less access to high-quality information, thus worsening the disinformation crisis.
Just a fuckin' win all around, eh?
We mean, we almost hate to say this, except we're not sure what else needs saying. We told you so.
As further addendum to the morale above, we would also like to note the sorry situation at the Montreal Gazette. Even as C-18 passed the finish lines, this item appeared in — hey, an indy outlet called The Rover — noting that the storied daily owned by Postapocalyptic Corp would be taking another hit.
Editor-in-chief Bert Archer and deputy editor Lenie Lucci are out. The paper will now be overseen by one manager, which is notable to us because it means an entire metro daily is now staffed by fewer editors than The Line. Archer's departure is a particular shock as the poor dude has only been in ihs position for a little more than a year. (We would have advised him against taking anything resembling an ostensible "leadership" position at Postmedia, where the levers of power and status are no longer actually attached to outcomes, but we suspect he wouldn't have listened to us, either.)
And despite the federal government's best efforts to Save Journalism, the layoffs don't appear to be abating. Funny, that.
The Gazette is an interesting case study because the residents of Montreal have a particular attachment to the storied brand, and there has been some interest expressed among the city's business community in salvaging it. Namely, buying the paper off Postmedia and running it as an independent title under the Jeff Bezos model. We don't think this is totally financially far-fetched; there ought to be enough Anglo-speakers in Montreal willing to pay some fee for access to the print or digital paper to ensure a healthy local newsroom.
We would warn any potential media sugar daddies (or mommies); as the example of the current Toronto Star ownership might demonstrate, salvaging these brands is not as simple as it might appear. A healthy Respect for Holy Mission must be paired by a willingness to Sustain Serious Financial Losses.
And after becoming a lifetime appendage of the corporate equivalent of a dying cancer patient, the Gazette is worse off than the Star.
Whomever buys that brand, and presumably severs it from Postmedia's workflow, is going to need to rebuild the paper from scratch. Take it outside Postmedia's highly streamlined nationalized content system, and there's not much left besides a handful of local staff and the brand itself. Legacy brands bring with them legacy liabilities: debts, unions, real estate, useless infrastructure, and old, counter-productive habits. We also suspect Postmedia would be looking for some cash for the value of the brand alone, and probably too much.
We can't quantify the emotional attachment to the brand itself, but we're pretty confident that wealthy Montrealers looking for an Anglo media outlet would be better off financially by simply starting a new newspaper from zero. Either way, we wish you all well, and good luck.
Okay, folks. Here it is. The important stuff. It’s time for The Big Ask, as it were.
In last week’s dispatch, we discussed at length why we think the collapse of the media is accelerating. And look where we are a week later, as recapped in this very dispatch. Bell is explicitly asking to be freed of the burden of supporting TV and radio news. The Montreal Gazette has been reduced to such a husk that The Line, plucky little startup that we are, now actually seems to have more editors than they do.
Think about that for a moment. Really think about it. Our three-year-old independent little startup can reportedly now out-editor a centuries-old daily newspaper in Canada’s second-largest city.
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That’s it, folks. We have a light week coming up as we head to the long weekend, and we’ll be off the week after Canada Day, getting to know our neglected families again. We will also send notes to both our paid and non-paid readers this week, just covering off some housekeeping items before we head off for a little break. And, of course, we’ll cover all the news that’s fit to stare at with shock and horror. Talk to you soon.
The Line is Canada’s last, best hope for irreverent commentary. We reject bullshit. We love lively writing. Please consider supporting us by subscribing. Follow us on Twitter @the_lineca. Fight with us on Facebook. Pitch us something: firstname.lastname@example.org