CRTC dumps proposal to ease rules on false news
Chairman of the CRTC Konrad W. von Finckenstein waits prior to his appearance before a House of Commons science and technology committee on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, Feb. 3, 2011. (Pawel Dwulit / THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Published Friday, February 25, 2011 10:50PM EST
OTTAWA - The CRTC has withdrawn a controversial proposal that would have given TV and radio stations more leeway to broadcast false or misleading news.
Indeed, the broadcast regulator now says it never wanted the regulatory change in the first place and was only responding to orders from a parliamentary committee.
The committee last week quietly withdrew its request for regulatory amendments in the face of a public backlash.
With that, the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission was only too happy to drop the idea altogether.
The proposed change would have considerably narrowed the scope of the current ban to cover only false or misleading news that could endanger the lives, health or safety of the public.
"All I can say is, 'Thank you, committee,"' CRTC chairman Konrad von Finckenstein told the specialty publication The Wire Report last week.
"I will withdraw this proposal tomorrow. This is the end of this issue."
The proposed change sparked concerns that the CRTC was about to allow into Canada the more toxic -- often grossly distorted -- political discourse that pervades the American airwaves. Those suspicions were fuelled by the timing of the proposal, only weeks before next month's launch of a new, right-leaning all-news network, Sun TV.
However, Von Finckenstein said the CRTC "never wanted to touch this thing" and had, in fact, dragged its feet for 10 years until "we ran out of stalling devices." He said the CRTC finally proposed the change this year "because we were ordered to do it."
He added that he was always "perfectly happy" with the current ban on false news -- which has never been invoked against any broadcaster in any event.
Liberal MP Andrew Kania, co-chairman of the joint parliamentary committee on scrutiny of regulations, challenged von Finckenstein's interpretation of what happened.
He said the committee never ordered the CRTC to do anything. It only asked, 10 years ago, that the CRTC consider whether the blanket ban on false news might violate freedom of speech guarantees in the Charter of Rights. The request was prompted by a Supreme Court ruling in the case of Holocaust-denier Ernst Zundel.
Over the past two years, the committee reminded the CRTC that it still hadn't responded on the matter but did not push for any particular regulatory change, Kania said.
Only last week, in the wake of the public outcry over the CRTC's proposed change, did the committee consider the substance of the issue. And Kania said committee members concluded that free speech guarantees don't apply to broadcast licence holders in the same way as they do to individuals.
"There's a distinction to be made here. Under the law there's this concept that a licence is a privilege, it's not a right," Kania said, noting that there are a host of conditions broadcasters are required to meet in order to get and maintain a broadcast licence.
"If (someone) walks outside right now and says, 'The Holocaust didn't happen,' you're exercising, in theory, your freedom of speech under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
"But, if a licencee, a broadcaster who needs permission and is governed (by regulations) ... publishes the Holocaust doesn't exist, that's a different standard. It's not the same thing."
He said the committee informed the CRTC of its view but did not order any specific course of action.
Kania expressed consternation over von Finckenstein's admission that the CRTC deliberately stalled on the matter.
"If what he's saying is that they purposely avoided responding to a parliamentary committee for 10 years, I think that's wrong."
Kania said the committee will no doubt consider at its next meting whether to complain about the CRTC apparently thumbing its nose at Parliament.