Trudeau must not ignore bold report on media in internet age

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Image: Gerd Altmann/Pixabay

The time has come for Canada to take the new media environment made possible by the internet seriously.

The government must rewrite its regulations for media and telecommunications and radically reform the institutions -- notably the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) -- tasked with carrying out the regulations.

It must give a new mandate to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) -- accompanied by much increased, long-term funding -- and should get the public broadcaster out of advertising. 

At the same time, the government should start treating Netflix and other online curators of content more or less like broadcasters, by obliging them to fund a significant volume of Canadian programming. (And Canadian programming means written, directed and acted by Canadians. It does not mean films or TV shows shot in Toronto or Vancouver dressed up to look like New York or Los Angeles.) 

Those are some of the key recommendations of a special advisory group the Trudeau government named in 2018, the Broadcasting and Telecommunications Legislative Review Panel. 

The panel's main job was to bring Canada's antiquated laws governing all aspects of media, including the mandate and role of the CBC, into the contemporary era of the internet and mobile communication. The main federal legislation governing all forms of media and electronic communications goes back decades, to the pre-internet days.

The panel was chaired by Janet Yale, who has had a long career in both the public and private sectors. She held senior roles at, among others, the CRTC and telecommunications and broadcasting giant Telus. 

The rest of the panel was made up of three lawyers who specialize in technology communications, and Monique Simard, who has been a labour leader, head of French production at the National Film Board and CEO of Quebec's funding agency for cultural industries.

'Netflix tax' a red herring

The panel's recommendations are thorough, well-researched and detailed. The members did their homework and their recommendations are reasonable and practical.

There will be a lot of chatter about the fact that they recommend a Netflix tax. That -- as Simard explained at a news conference in Ottawa on Wednesday, January 29 -- would be nonsense. The panel only recommends that the HST, which applies to other communications services in Canada such as cable fees, also apply to fees paid to Netflix and similar companies.

More important, the panel wants the new, internet-based media giants such as Netflix to fulfill Canadian production and content requirements analogous to those that apply to broadcasters. 

Historically, the law has required broadcasters licensed in Canada to devote a certain proportion of air time to Canadian content and to invest in Canadian productions. In the case of Netflix and similar entities there is no way to allocate air time to Canadian productions. 

Instead, the panel talks about "discoverability." 

That means the media giants of the internet age should make sure they promote Canadian shows that tell Canadian stories, and organize their online offerings in such a way that viewers can easily find them.

As for Canada's public broadcaster, the CBC, Yale points out that on a per capita basis Canada underfunds it, compared to other, similar economically advanced countries. 

In fact, the Friends of Canadian Broadcasting have pointed out that Canada spends far less than half the OECD average of $87 per person on public broadcasting. Canada stands third from the bottom on a list of 19 advanced economies on that score. Only New Zealand and the U.S., rank lower than us.  

Over the many years since its creation in the 1930s, a bugaboo for the CBC has been that its funds are allocated annually in each year's federal budget. 

It is very difficult to plan and schedule productions if you do not know how much cash you will have from year to year. As a remedy, the panel recommends that the government give the CBC guaranteed funding on a five-year basis. It also suggests that the public broadcaster needs more money than it gets now to properly fulfill its mandate, which would include a huge increase in local and regional news and information programming.

For decades, tight budgets have forced the CBC to seek economies of scale and continuously cut back on local production. When the government appointed Catherine Tait as CBC president in 2018, she promised to start reversing that trend. To date she has made little progress. 

The panel now wants the government to allocate sufficient resources to the CBC so that Tait and those who follow her can fulfill that promise.

Lots of resistance to any new regulatory measures

There is much more in the report, all of it worth considering. But politicians and polemicists of the right have already started taking whacks at it. 

They say that Netflix already invests in lots of production in Canada -- an argument Netflix's own people make. All is good, they say, we don't need regulations. 

The fact is that a lot of the activity in Canada is what they call industrial production. The producers use Canadian technical services, which are often cheaper than south of the border, to make what are, essentially, American movies and TV series -- written, directed and acted by (mostly) Americans. There is no effort whatsoever to tell Canadian stories. 

When it comes for the need to regulate broadcasting activity that has migrated to the internet, the panel is pretty specific, and its main recommendations have already attracted some fire. 

The panel recommends the licenses now awarded to broadcasters be mirrored by what it calls a "registration regime" for the folks who broadcast media content via the internet. 

A new body that the panel recommends should replace the CRTC would regulate both broadcasting licenses and the new registrations for the online world.

There is an important caveat -- which is that registration would only be for the big guys, the true online broadcasters, not the many little guys, such as rabble. But there are already howls of protest from some of the little guys. At the news conference one gruff questioner even raised the spectre of North Korean-style control.

That was over-the-top. However, in determining what it will implement from the report -- and how -- the government will need to do a better job of explaining and justifying such touchy issues as a new registration regime for internet players than the panel has done so far.

Overall, the task before this panel was monumental. 

It has been a long time since the Canadian government did a root and branch examination of the entire media universe. In this age of declining real news generated by qualified journalists, and rapidly increasing false news aided and abetted by social media, the work of the panel is long past due. 

And before naysayers nickel and dime the whole exercise to death, it might be worth considering the panel's statement of the values which motivated its efforts.

"Our work is firmly rooted in an overarching vision for the legislative framework," the report states, "one that reaffirms Canada's sovereignty, supports our democratic values and inclusivity, and aims to realize the promise of advanced technologies for the benefit of Canada's economy … and Canadians as citizens, users, and creators."

This is one report that must not be consigned to the Trudeau government's "failure-to-act" file.

Karl Nerenberg has been a journalist and filmmaker for more than 25 years. He is rabble's politics reporter.

Image: Gerd Altmann/Pixabay

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