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CRTC chairman Konrad von Finckenstein is seen through a camera monitor during a hearing in Gatineau, Que. on April 8, 2008. (Sean Kilpatrick for The Globe and Mail/Sean Kilpatrick for The Globe and Mail)
CRTC chairman Konrad von Finckenstein is seen through a camera monitor during a hearing in Gatineau, Que. on April 8, 2008. (Sean Kilpatrick for The Globe and Mail/Sean Kilpatrick for The Globe and Mail)

CRTC plan to lift ban on false news prompts political investigation Add to ...

A CRTC proposal that could make it easier to broadcast false or misleading news has prompted confusion and criticism among opposition MPs and consternation in at least one of the unions that represents Canadian journalists.

It has also led to allegations of interference by the Prime Minister's Office and a hastily called investigation by federal politicians, who were caught off guard by the move.

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A little-watched committee of Parliament has been pressing the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission for many years to do something about a regulation that bans the broadcast of false or misleading news because the wording appears to contravene the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Andrew Kania, the rookie MP who is the chairman of the joint committee for the scrutiny of regulations, said on Monday the committee has been asking the CRTC about the regulation for a decade.

Government officials said the problems with the ban were noted as early as 1996 - four years after the Supreme Court ruled in the case of Holocaust denier Ernst Zundel that the right to freedom of expression meant a person could not be charged for disseminating false information.

The regulations committee pointed out to the CRTC in 2000 that its regulation seemed to be out of step with that ruling and asked the commission what it planned to do about it. Letters were intermittently exchanged, but the CRTC indicated no interest in responding to the committee's concerns.

Then, on Jan. 10, the commission announced it was seeking comments on a proposal to change the wording of the regulation to say that it applied only in cases in which broadcasters knew the information was false or misleading and that reporting it was likely to endanger the lives, health or safety of the public. The cut-off date for public input was set at Feb. 9.

The decision caught many people by surprise.

"We've looked everywhere to try to find out who's pushing this, and we can't find anybody," said Peter Murdoch, the vice-president of media for the Communication, Energy and Paperworkers Union, which represents more than 20,000 journalists, including those at The Globe and Mail.

"It's totally bizarre. Nobody in the industry has called for it," Mr. Murdoch said. "Where is the motivation for change that would lower the standards of truth and fairness in broadcast journalism?"

NDP MP Charlie Angus noted that the proposed change precedes the start of Sun TV, a network that has been shepherded in large part by Kory Teneycke, the former director of communication to Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

"We all know our Prime Minister well enough to say we don't have to be in the realm of conspiracy theory here," Mr. Angus said at a news conference on Monday. "We can draw our conclusions and they are pretty clear."

Behind the scenes, officials say the timing is purely coincidental, the PMO had nothing to do with it, and that the CRTC simply realized it eventually had to answer the concerns of the regulatory committee.

But Mr. Angus persuaded the Commons committee on Canadian heritage to initiate a study of the CRTC proposal. And he urged Canadians to let the commission know how they feel about it before the Wednesday deadline.

"What's disturbed us with this [proposed]regulation change is that it's happening very quickly and there's very little awareness of it," Mr. Angus said.

"It seems astounding that the CRTC would consider such a move at a time when we see the growing backlash in the United States to the poisoned levels of political discourse in the American media."

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