INDEPENDENT MEDIA by Steve Anderson
I recently found my way into a media and technology industry conference where I ‘accidentally’ bumped into the chair of the CRTC, Konrad von Finckenstein, who was surprisingly charming. Our conversation couldn’t have been more different from my previous experiences at CRTC hearings where commissioners bore down with condescending glares like feudal lords. What’s more, Konrad also seemed pleasantly surprised to see me. Our interaction conveyed to me that this man knows what the CRTC is: a politically contested space.
Many media commentators, myself included, have been critical of the CRTC over the years. At times, it has seemed to see itself as a mediator between industries, rather than as a public watchdog. When it has made a decision that incorporated the public interest, it has often done so with a conflicted and weak-willed approach. Case in point: the “Traffic Management” ruling, while a huge step forward, puts the onus of enforcement of the open Internet on consumers.
Mobile internet openness = big win
If the CRTC’s weak nod to the public interest in the above decision doesn’t inspire confidence in the institution, two very recent rulings should. On June 30, the CRTC extended its Traffic Management (Net Neutrality) rules to mobile wireless data services. This ruling was made in response to requests by OpenMedia.ca, through its partner the Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic (CIPPIC), two public interest organizations. This is a huge win. As Canadians increasingly connect to the internet using mobile devices, it’s impossible to overstate the importance of this ruling in terms of ensuring we have access to the open internet.
The case of Fox News North
On June 15, media giant Quebecor announced the launch of a 24-hour, right-wing news channel modelled after the Fox News network in the US. It appears the plan for the station was hashed out last year when Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his then communications director Kory Teneycke sat down for a secretive meeting with Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes, president of Fox News Channel. Teneycke is now leading this Canadian right-wing news network, which will be named Sun TV.
Rather than accept the need to compete on a level playing field as Al Jazeera English and other broadcasters do, Quebecor applied to the CRTC for a coveted Category 1 Licence, meaning cable operators across Canada would be forced to carry this Fox-style channel, which would amount to a subsidy of millions of dollars, maybe even tens of millions.
Despite the involvement of a key Conservative operative, and the political pressure that inevitably comes with that, it appears the CRTC is listening to the public interest community. In July, the CRTC sent a letter to Quebecor denying them Category 1 carriage until at least October of 2011.
Public engagement is key
When I bumped into another not so friendly CRTC commissioner recently, he quipped that the CRTC makes its rulings and the government overrules them if they don’t like them. “That’s how it works,” he said. This was an interesting and unsolicited admission – that he accepts the government’s ability to undercut the authority of the expert body that is intended to regulate our media – from someone who is supposed to be an independent regulatory commissioner.
The CRTC recognizes its own limitations within a highly contested space and feels political pressure from the Conservative government, which is very cozy with big media and big telecom companies. These companies also bombard the CRTC with their own arguments and narratives. Commissioners attend their conferences, the firms have a small army of lobbyists and, indeed, there is a revolving door between the CRTC and industry that means many decision makers come from the industry they are supposed to regulate.
But recent rulings suggest the CRTC can do the right thing when faced with public pressure. If the public is engaged en masse, the CRTC can be transformed into the public institution it is mandated to be.
Steve Anderson is the national coordinator for the Campaign for Democratic Media. He has written for The Tyee, Toronto Star, Epoch Times and Adbusters.