I see, in the Globe and Mail, that Justin Trudeau and Steven Guilbeault want to further regulate the broadcasting services in Canada. Their goals seem to be, in part, a cash grab ~ online streaming services, like Netflix, are offering Canadians, for a price, what they want, while the CBC offers Canadians, thanks to a $1+ Billion annual subsidy from taxpayers like you and me, what we, pretty clearly, do not want to watch and the Liberals want a share of that money ~ and also an appeal to those who play identity politics.
I think we need to look at the “products” of broadcasting ~ information (news and ‘public affairs’ and documentary programmes) and entertainment, including sports, as “consumable products,” rather like food and, say, soft drinks.
We do allow, even demand that governments exercise some important regulatory functions in regard to food and soft drinks: we want to make sure that they are safe to consume and Canadians want to know what is in the food we consume.
The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) was, originally, conceived to solve a fairly simple problem: allocating broadcast licences. Government engineers calculated how many radio channels could be used in any given place but they didn’t want to have to decide who should get to use them. Politicians didn’t want to do it, either, because while the successful applicant was (usually) happy the more numerous unsuccessful ones were disappointed and politicians hate to disappoint people. Thus they created an arms length agency to make the tough decisions for them. Licence allocation is still an important job for the CRTC. But the CRTC’s mandate was expanded with the birth of cable TV. Companies, like Rogers, built cable systems ~ and they received both direct and indirect government support to reach more and more Canadians ~ and then “sold” access to consumers. In the normal course of events one might have thought that the government would attach some business conditions to its loans, grants and tax deductions, but there was an ever-growing demand, from the Canadian cultural community ~ based almost entirely in Montreal and Toronto ~ to regulate the fledgling cable and “pay TV” market to ensure that Canadian programmes were not shut out but, in fact, could have privileged positions in the cable lineup, which led to the government, in the 1960s, telling the CRTC to regulate how companies like Famous Players, Maclean Hunter and Rogers configured the private product they sold to individual consumers.
The initial government argument was “we regulate all kinds of things for the common good: that’s why we all drive on the right, for example, and the delivery of broadcasting by cable is like that.” “No it’s not,” the cable operators replied, “you build and maintain the roads, using taxpayers’ dollars, so you’re allowed to regulate how they’re used, plus it’s a safety issue. Cable service and “pay TV” are private, commercial transactions between us, the companies who built and operate the systems, and the individual consumer who wants to subscribe to what we offer. You don’t presume to regulate, beyond the laws against libel and pornography, what people can read in MacLean’s magazine or the Globe and Mail, why is “pay TV” and cable different?” It’s still a good question. But the cable operators surrendered gracefully and the CRTC has been, broadly, for the last half-century, protective of the rights of incumbents in the infotainment markets. In return the cable and internet operators have agreed to “tiers” of programming which means that if you want to watch, say, BBC World Service or Deutsche Welle or Fox News, you must also pay for CBC News Network and CTV News Channel and, no matter who you are and what your individual preferences might be, when you subscribe to a cable/internet service you must also support a number of French stations/channels; it’s the law. And now Minister Guilbault wants to ensure that you pay for the output of indigenous producers, writers, actors and so on, on both indigenous networks ~ to which you must already subscribe if you have a “basic” Canadian cable or satellite TV package ~ and, it appears to me, in programmes produced by Canadians and even by Netflix.
What the Liberals are proposing for Canadian broadcasting ~ over-the-air and by subscription ~ is more akin to what Stalin tried in the USSR in the 1920s and ’30s and what Mao tried in China in the 1950s: government regulated collective farming. And we all remember how well that turned out, don’t we?
What Prime Minister Trudeau and Heritage Minister Guilbault propose is truly a Stalinesque, even Maoist intrusion into Canadians’ homes and daily lives. It is the Laurentian Elites telling us what we allowed to see and hear on our radios and on our TV and computer screens. It is Justin Trudeau and Steven Guilbeault and Catherine Tait telling us what is “right” for us, telling us what need to know and how we need to think.
This is cultural madness. It is a policy that I believe that the Conservative Party must oppose. Erin O’Toole makes much of his stand for freedom of expression, as well he should. But freedom of expression needs to have a negative component, too. We must be free, within some well defined limits, it’s that safety thing, again ~ one cannot be free to incite violence against others, for example, to express ourselves, but we must also be free from government interference in what we choose to listen to or watch as we gather information and seek to entertain ourselves. I would argue that a good Conservative policy proposal would be to tell the CRTC to institute a “pick and pay” system for all Canadian content providers. Right now the CRTC rules that “pick and pay” is available only as an addition to the “basic” cable or satellite package. There is no technical reason for that. It is there, purely, to ensure that you must pay for e.g. APTN, the CBC, CPAC, CTV, Global, two or three French channels, OMNI and TVO if you live in most Ontario areas. Your cable, internet or satellite provider only needs to send you one channel ~ its own “grid,” for example, which tells you what channels are available to you ~ for synchronization purposes. It would be simple to either:
- Allow you to build your own package, channel-by-channel, paying only for what YOU want to listen to or watch on a regular basis with an option for paid access other pay-per-view channels when desired; or
- Allow you to watch whatever you want, paying (after, say, a one minute preview) on a timed basis ~ say in 10 0r 15 minute increments. Channels could be cheap or expensive as supply and demand dictate to you and the cable/satellite operator. This option could be automatic, but it would make ‘channel surfing’ bloody expensive!
That’s how real free markets work. When I go to the grocery store I decide what I need and want. The grocer decides how much (s)he needs to charge to stay in business and I decide how much I can afford. While I don’t actually haggle, as I used to do in Middle Eastern souk, it is the same principle at work. It’s a good, solid Conservative principle: free markets for a free people. Information and entertainment are consumable products, the government has some, limited responsibility to regulate them but, since the 1960s, successive Canadian governments, Conservative and Liberal have all gone too far. This latest proposal should be then end and it should be a catalyst for rethinking the roles of the CRTC.