If the Canadian Radio-television Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) has its way, the trademark modesty and civility for which Canadians are so well known could be in jeopardy. The regulatory body is proposing changes that may dramatically affect the nature of news and political discussion in Canada. After years of declining transparency within the federal government and the high-profile attack on Statistics Canada’s ability to collect credible information through the long-form census, the war on knowledge seems to be entering a new chapter.
The proposed changes would narrow the scope of the regulations that are supposed to prevent television and radio stations from airing phoney news. The current law states that broadcasters “shall not broadcast any false or misleading news.” The CRTC wants to tweak the wording so that broadcasters will only be breaking the law if their news is false or misleading and “endangers or is likely to endanger the lives, health or safety of the public.” In effect, this means that pundits can say whatever they want as long as no one gets hurt.
Ostensibly, these changes are being pursued in response to a parliamentary committee that claimed that the existing law was too vague and could be easily overruled if it was challenged under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. This provides some interesting insight into what drives the peculiar Canadian brand of censorship. Coexisting with Stephen Harper’s relentless attacks on the intelligentsia, there are swarms of lawyers and interest groups fighting to have certain topics deemed unsuitable for public discussion, in the name of human rights. In concert, these two trends create a veritable shitstorm for anyone wishing to practise free speech in a public forum. One has to question the merit of a system that wishes to accommodate the broadcasting of false news, while simultaneously cracking down on the mind-corrupting filth that is the music of Dire Straits.
Indeed, the mania over human rights has been turning public forums and Canadian airwaves into treacherous zones for those who have not kept up-to-date on what is considered politically-correct terminology. However, there may be more to the story than that. The proposal to ease the ban on false news just happens to coincide with the launch of Sun TV News, commonly dubbed “Fox News North.” The fear among many commentators is that this new station, accompanied by these new regulations regarding what does or does not count as “news,” will infuse overt partisanship and cause polarization in the Canadian media’s political coverage.
In fact, the CRTC’s new regulations would closely mirror those in the United States, and there are legitimate concerns that this will cause a proliferation of biased “news” shows similar to those in the U.S.. Partisan whack jobs like Glenn Beck and Bill O’Reilly could soon have Canadian equivalents. These dogmatic talking heads masquerade as journalists, but in reality they tend to capitalize on their viewers’ increasing ignorance or rejection of neutral, objective facts and realities in favour of opinion or pure ideology.
No doubt, Sun TV News will follow in the footsteps of its print counterparts —newspapers like the Winnipeg Sun, which are hardly bastions of journalistic integrity — in using sensationalist headlines to snag viewers, even at the expense of actual credibility. We can count on Sun Media (and their loyal followers) to treat any episode of violence as part of a widespread epidemic, even as actual crime rates decline. They will likely tell us that we have a “revolving door” justice system that is “soft on crime,” even as our ever-expanding prison system overflows with inmates; tell us the president of the United States is a socialist, even after he gives Wall Street everything it wants; insist that the ideological assumptions they have made about the world we live in cannot be false, even when hard evidence says otherwise. Has our culture of entitlement become so entrenched that we will actually refuse to be wrong?
In the worst-case scenario, this die-hard partisanship, this refusal to cooperate or compromise could manifest itself in our political culture as it has in the U.S.. Our neighbours to the south are struggling to prevent filibusters and gridlock in Congress. And, whereas unpopular Canadian politicians have traditionally been struck by harmless flying pies, the recent shooting of U.S. congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords is a tragic reminder that fundamentalist commitment to political ideals can have violent consequences. Unfortunately, the Canadian situation may be deteriorating. Take, for example, Stephen Harper’s brazen disregard for the opinion of, well, everyone and Michael Ignatieff’s perpetual commitment to “campaign-style” tours, even when there is no election in sight. These seem to indicate a shift toward rigid partisanship here in the North, and we should be worried.
Shawn Defoort is a fourth-year global political economy student.