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Breitbarting to be legally facilitated by Harper government

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The Harper government wants to legalize theft -- the appropriation of newsclips without permission for political advertising.

So much for property rights, eh, fellas? But that’s always been a bit of a code term anyway, meaning ours and not theirs. Just ask any First Nation whose ancestral lands have been drilled, fracked and dug up by outsiders, backed up by cops and courts when folks dare to protest. The powers that be will whine about property missing from the Charter and put a pipeline up your backyard at the same time. But when the Conservatives want to hit their opponents below the belt, they come up with an utterly self-interested exception to copyright law to make it all legal.

Copyright can be, and certainly has been, used to stifle free expression, in Canada and elsewhere. You can be sure the Conservatives will use that argument to advance their dubious cause. But the issue here is not so much their helping themselves to the labour of others -- it's the potential (and actual) abuse of the material itself that should be at the centre of the debate.

Permission from news organizations (undefined at this point -- could this include blogs and news aggregators?) acts as a filter, however imperfect, against that sort of thing, if only because they have professional reputations to maintain. But as Michael Geist pointed out yesterday, the proposed exception to the law is not subject to the fairness analysis that current "fair dealing" provisions require. Since when, however, has the Harper government ever played fair?

Those of us who have had first-hand experience with the mainstream media know, of course, that there is no inviolable guarantee of decent treatment at their hands, to put it mildly. Just ask Stéphane Dion. I once gave a half-hour interview to a CBC radio reporter back in my union days, which went very well, other than a fifteen-second bit of awkwardness on my part. Guess which fifteen-second segment the CBC aired?

But what we are now faced with is far more serious than politically-motivated media ill-treatment. By way of explanation, let us cast our eyes south. In 2010, a U.S. federal official named Shirley Sherrod was targeted by a far-right blogger, the now-deceased Andrew Breitbart, who ran edited clips of a video to give a completely false impression of statements she had made to an NAACP meeting. This led to her firing by the White House and a denunciation by the President of the NAACP, both of whom later had to apologize to her and retract when the truth became known. She is now suing the Breitbart estate -- but this is an expensive and after-the-fact option, and it is not inevitable that that she will win.

What is being proposed is nothing less than the legal facilitation of Breitbarting by the PMO short-pants brigade. Any clip of a political opponent would be subject to "editing" at will, which could (and knowing these guys, likely would) stretch, distort, even reverse the intent of the original message. There would little practical recourse against this grossly deceptive practice, next to nothing to hold Harper’s whiz-kids back. While Dion eventually won his case against CTV with the Canadian Broadcasting Standards Council, no such avenue, weak as it is, would be open to the various targets of Harper's regal wrath. And, unlike the media, the Harper boys and girls have no prudential concerns at all about professionalism or ethics.

"[A] strong communications plan will be required to manage vocal stakeholder reactions," says a Cabinet memo on the subject. I can just imagine. But the chief stakeholders here, with respect, are not the well-heeled news corporations and their journalists, but those on the Harper government's growing "enemies list" and the Canadian electorate in general. Time to get vocal, folks. Think political discourse in Canada has already sunk to the bottom of the barrel? Guess again.

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