Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Image: Justin Trudeau/Twitter

In this space last week, we predicted that the report of the federal government’s Broadcasting and Telecommunications Legislative Review Panel would attract fire for its recommendation that the government institute a registration regime for online broadcasters such as Netflix, to mirror the licensing regime for traditional broadcasters.

That prediction has come true, and then some.

Writing in the Globe and Mail, columnist Andrew Coyne called the recommendation “a regulatory power grab without precedent.” 

On the floor of the House of Commons, Conservative MP and former broadcaster Peter Kent inveighed that the panel’s recommendation was “an Orwellian tool used by ruthless authoritarian governments.”

For good measure he posed the (purely rhetorical) question: “Are the Liberals so desperate to cling to power they would emulate dystopian societies in Russia, China, North Korea and Iran?”

Kent’s Conservative colleague Michael Chong, perhaps the last of the Red Tories, was equally apocalyptic: “The recommendations propose that the government regulate all commercial content on the internet, both domestic and foreign. If adopted, these recommendations could lead to the largest regulation and restriction of free speech in Canadian history.”

Andrew Scheer is still the Conservative leader, and he could not resist getting in on the act.

“This is about more than just freedom of the press. The author of these recommendations even suggested that all media content be regulated,” he said in the House on Wednesday, and asked Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “Will the prime minister confirm that he will reject the entire report?”

The prime minister tried to make a distinction between news and entertainment media, although the difference between the two is not always clear-cut.

“The report we received proposes to exempt news media from licensing requirements,” Trudeau told the House, “but allow me to be absolutely unequivocal. We will not impose a licensing requirement on news organizations, nor will we regulate news content.”

Scheer was not placated. 

“This is not just a question of the independence of the press,” he thundered. “This report goes far beyond requiring licences for news organizations … This report calls for the CRTC to ‘impose codes of conduct…regarding all media content undertakings,’ not just news organizations. Will the prime minister reject this report in its entirety?”

The government’s answer is, sort of: No, we will not throw out the whole report. 

In fact, the government has indicated it intends, without too much delay, to bring in legislation enacting many of the report’s recommendations. It will likely get started in the budget we expect later this month. The government could extend the Harmonized Sales Tax (HST), which now applies to such media services as cable and satellite, to Netflix and similar online content curators, to use the panel’s term.

But the government is running scared on this file. And it does not help that Trudeau entrusted the Canadian heritage job to a rookie minister, newly elected Montreal MP Steven Guilbeault.

Not the right job for a rookie?

Guilbeault is the third Canadian heritage minister since the Liberals were initially elected in 2015. 

Trudeau first entrusted the job to Montreal MP Mélanie Joly, a 30-something public relations executive who had earlier shot to prominence as an out-of-nowhere candidate for the mayoralty of Montreal. 

Joly flamed out. She made no friends in her own province when she promoted a bad deal with Netflix. The deal was supposed to assure Netflix would invest in Canadian productions, but included no guarantee that any of the films or TV series would be in French. When challenged, Joly resorted to a completely irrelevant non sequitur. She talked — in a bizarre fashion — about all the Quebec directors who had made it big in Hollywood. Those directors made it big by working, in English, on American movies. It was a bad moment from which Joly never recovered.  And so, Trudeau shuffled her out of the heritage portfolio and named another Montreal MP, Pablo Rodriguez, to the job. 

During his short tenure, the new minister seemed to be able to navigate the choppy waters of this portfolio with skill. However, in a minority Parliament the Liberal brains’ trust decided they needed the veteran MP’s steady hand and experience as House leader. The other potential candidate for that crucial role was Ralph Goodale, who lost his seat in the 2019 election. 

And so, the PM decided to give the job of overseeing and regulating everything from national museums to the CBC to Guilbeault, an MP Trudeau had recruited only a few months earlier to be a star candidate in the Montreal riding of Laurier-Sainte-Marie. 

There was symbolism to that riding. 

It had been held for more than a decade by former Bloc Québécois leader Gilles Duceppe and then for two terms by the NDP’s Hélène Laverdière. There had not been a Liberal member elected there since the early 1980s when the tenure of beloved advocate for the poor Jean-Claude Malépart ended with his death. 

The Liberals dearly wanted to win Laurier-Sainte-Marie in 2019 and the highly respected environmental activist Guilbeault seemed to be just the ticket.

Following the 2019 election they couldn’t give Guilbeault the environment job. He has stated, unequivocally, that he does not agree with the government’s policy on pipelines. And so, the Liberals found another reward for him. 

From day one, folks in media and cultural circles expressed considerable concern about the new Canadian heritage minister’s utter lack of demonstrated familiarity with the sectors he was to manage. One senior media executive commented, ruefully: “I think he’s seen a movie.” 

Guilbeault’s shaky performance in explaining and defending the panel’s recommendations has borne out those initial concerns. 

In fact, the new minister and the government have lost the first round of the debate over extending broadcast regulations to include the internet. 

That is a pity. 

Indeed, it is a kind of political and policy malpractice, because the panel’s recommendations are, overall, a balanced, reasonable and long overdue response to the real-life situation of our rapidly changing media environment.

Broadcasting entails public responsibilities

At its origin, the idea of licensing broadcasters arose out of the fact that those who transmit television and radio content, and make money from it (mostly via advertising), use a limited public resource, the airwaves, and so should be subject to public interest requirements. For Canada, those requirements have included providing content made in and about this country.

Historically, Canada’s broadcasting rules and regulations were built on that principle. For broadcasters, the privilege of access to the limited space on the airwaves entailed some measure of responsibility to the Canadian people. 

In practice, it has been a rickety system. Three decades ago, broadcast historian and scholar Marc Raboy described the story of Canada’s broadcasting regulation, going back to the 1930s, as one of “missed opportunities.”

Nonetheless, imperfect though it might have been, the regulatory regime did achieve some success. 

It helped create a Canadian music industry through Canadian content rules; it assured that private broadcasters provided at least a minimum quota of local and national news; and it fostered the development of some Canadian drama, variety and entertainment programs. Some of those programs have even been of excellent quality — and highly popular.

Successive governments have all had concerns with the prospect of Canada being swamped by broadcasting content from the huge and powerful entertainment and media industry south of the border. To a greater or lesser extent, all Canadian governments have perceived the U.S. media and cultural behemoth as a threat to Canada’s cultural sovereignty and basic sense of identity.

The question confronting governments and regulators has always been: If the media we consume no longer reflect Canada back to Canadians, and if we cannot have anything resembling a national conversation via the media, can we continue to exist as a country?

It remains a valid question, but the internet and the digital world have rendered the existing rulebook archaic. We still want to have a country that can see and hear its own stories, and where, via the media, citizens can engage in civil conversations. Now, new technologies and new business models require new and innovative government strategies. 

That is what the panel which just submitted its report had to grapple with. Looking to the future, the panel’s report said: 

“In place of a system composed of a handful of well-known players in well-defined categories, communications markets will feature rapid entry and exit, innovation from all sides, and complex new business models that will be difficult to characterize in consistent ways. The regulatory processes and practices currently in place are not … well suited to address such a dynamic environment. Rapid and continuous change in the communications and broader technological environment demands adaptation and new approaches.”

And the panel’s basic, arching prescription is that the regulator, the body it recommends supplant the CRTC, “must shift to a more proactive and forward-looking style of regulation. Rather than an administrative tribunal that hears evidence commissioned and presented by third parties, the CRTC must be reinvented with an enhanced focus on strategic foresight and research.” 

Read all about it here.

The panel’s recommendations have nothing to do with government control of the news and everything to do with the ability of Canadians to tell each other their own stories. 

The panel report is legitimately preoccupied with the crucial role information plays in a healthy democracy, and with the need to support Canadian voices in a new media world where private, for-profit U.S. corporate interests, endowed with massive financial resources, are so dominant.

Based on the halting and not-always-coherent tone of their rhetoric, it is not always evident that the prime minister and his new Canadian heritage minister have fully assimilated those messages. 

They need to do so, and quickly, lest red herrings and canards about North Korean-style control hijack serious debate and take hold of the public imagination.

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

Image: Justin Trudeau/Twitter


Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover news for the rest of us from Parliament Hill. Karl has been a journalist and filmmaker for over 25 years, including eight years as the producer of the CBC...