October 16, 2018

by on February 14, 2011
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U.S. News, You Lose

iStock_000012102928XSmallThe CRTC has proposed amendments to broadcast regulations which would effectively remove the current ban on reporting “false and misleading news.” Nearly twenty years ago, Canada’s Supreme Court struck down a similarly worded criminal statute on free speech grounds and the current CRTC provision does appear to conflict with that ruling. However, the proposed amendments are a serious misstep for the Harper Government (the driving force behind the CRTC’s proposal) because: (1) they are not necessary; (2) they represent a poorly timed rejection of the uniquely Canadian tradition of civil discourse; and (3) they highlight Harper’s misplaced and blind belief that emulating U.S.-style politics and practice is the way to bring about increased global recognition for Canada.

The CRTC regulations currently prohibit a licensed broadcaster from reporting false news. As amended, the new regulations would prohibit only those reports that the broadcaster knows are false and that would endanger the lives, health or safety of the public. CRTC officials cite the 1992 ruling by the Supreme Court and subsequent scrutiny by joint parliamentary committees as reason for the amendment.

If not pretextual, the CRTC’s concerns are overblown. While the CRTC should endeavor to ensure that its regulations pass Constitutional muster, the particular regulation at issue is just not a pressing matter. A review of CRTC enforcement over the years indicates that the regulation has never been cited as a basis for the issuance of mandatory orders against a broadcaster. The vast majority of CRTC orders relate to improper record keeping or Canadian content violations. The “false and misleading news” provision is a vestige of a long ago concern of the British Crown which has never posed a modern day Constitutional threat. The Supreme Court concluded such with regards to the criminal statute that it struck down: “The fact that [the statute] has been so rarely used despite its long history supports the view that it is hardly essential to the maintenance of a free and democratic society.”

Rather than addressing a genuine concern, the CRTC’s push on the amendment instead appears to be tied to the pending debut of Sun TV’s 24- hour conservative cable news programming.  Directed in large part by former Harper staffer Kory Teneyche, Sun TV promises to feature exclusively conservative political punditry and plenty of U.S.-style invective.

The CRTC insists that its proposal to amend the regulation on the eve of the Sun TV premiere is coincidental. Perhaps. Yet, it also comes just as Harper appointed good ole boys Tom Pentefoutas and Pierre Gingras to senior positions at the CRTC and CBC respectively. This pincer movement on Canadian broadcasting, the CRTC’s sudden interest in a sleeping dog of a statute, a conservatives-only news station waiting in the wings, and Harper’s scorched earth policy when it comes to quashing opposition suggest more than just coincidence.

In any event, the welcome mat for Sun TV should be pulled out from under it. A conservative television news station is fine. A conservative television news station fashioned after the U.S. version? Not so good.

Canada is home, probably, to as many diverse and even extreme political opinions as the U.S. But whereas the U.S. thrives on drama, Canada thrives on decision making. Civil discourse has always won the day here, and hopefully always will, because Canadians have long understood that disrespect for those with whom you disagree results in deadlock.

Ironically, what may save Canada from the attack dog divisiveness that Sun TV seems so keen on unleashing is the U.S. itself. Since the tragedy last month in Arizona, frenzied discourse below the 49th parallel has leveled off significantly. If Sun TV does indeed insist on following the U.S. lead, perhaps the trend of right wing demagoguery will die out there before it can catch on here.

In the past ten years, the notion that “Canada catches a cold when the U.S. sneezes” has become an archaic one. Canada did not follow the U.S. into recession after 9/11. Nor did it follow the U.S. into recession after the ‘08 financial meltdown. The Canadian dollar grew into its own. Canadian businesses of all stripes now thrive in overseas markets.

This disentanglement from the U.S. has given global visibility to the Canadian economy. But it also promises to give that same global visibility to the Canadian voice. Canada’s true gift for the 21st Century is not its vast energy resources or its stable business and political climate. It is its unique cultural strengths. This includes Canada’s respectful approach to debate and commitment to consensus. These are among the necessary ingredients for new leadership in a global community.

Jane Fonda once remarked: “when I am in Canada, I feel this is what the world should be like.” Free from bombast, and now free from the bombast south of the border, Canada and its voice have a real chance to recruit many who would join in that refrain.

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