At first, Jean-Pierre Blais did not want the job.
When headhunters approached him late last winter, they sought his advice on who would be a suitable candidate to lead Ottawa’s watchdog on the telecommunications and broadcasting industries. Mr. Blais supplied them with some names. Then the headhunters came back.
“At one point they said: ‘Well, would you be interested?’ And that’s when I laughed them off because I knew how daunting a job this is,” said Mr. Blais. “Even back then, I knew that the public trust had disappeared, that technology was creating a stress on the system, that there was a lot of tension in the system because of the vigour of competition.”
But then came a change of heart. After weeks of reflection, he agreed to apply for the job – a decision that is now altering the course of the Canadian communications business.
Less than five months into his five-year term as chair, Mr. Blais, a veteran public servant, is on a mission shake up the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission by sharpening its focus on consumers and the people who make Canadian content. He has vowed to win back the trust of a cynical public, which has come to regard the CRTC as a champion of big business – or, worse, an archaic institution that had outlived its usefulness.
Mr. Blais believes the CRTC has gone astray – an admission that has delighted consumer advocates but stunned the industry.
Any doubts that he would change how the CRTC does business were put to rest in October, when the commission issued a unanimous rejection of BCE Inc.’s proposed $3-billion takeover of Astral Media Inc., on the grounds that it was not in the public interest.
That surprise decision, the biggest bellwether of change since Mr. Blais took the helm in June, has left all communications companies, even opponents of the deal, scrambling to reconsider their regulatory strategies. Many industry executives, who declined to speak on the record, have privately admitted they misjudged the sea change at the CRTC, while underestimating Mr. Blais’ commitment to empowering consumers.
BCE has publicly admonished the CRTC, alleging it has rewritten the rules on the fly and has created a sense of market uncertainty through its outright rejection of the deal. Mr. Blais, however, denies he has changed the rules. He also dismisses suggestions that he is an activist regulator, stressing that regulation will remain the exception rather than the rule. Even so, he notes, the CRTC “won’t hesitate” to intervene to protect Canadians.
“We haven’t changed our minds that large companies are part of a healthy ecosystem. And small ones and medium ones, too,” Mr. Blais said. “So, there is a point that you say, ‘Yeah, large is good but there is a limit.’ Okay, so we will judge that on cases, in every instance.”
Still, when Mr. Blais began his term June 18, there was a perception that he would be a friend to big business because of his previous support of media mergers. In fact, BCE was among those singing his praises this past June. Mirko Bibic, BCE’s chief legal and regulatory officer, called Mr. Blais “well suited to lead an institution that has to grapple daily with a rapidly evolving technological and competitive environment.”
Companies now consider him an enigma and are flummoxed by his decision to break with past CRTC practices. For instance, most previous chairmen have allowed companies to use public hearings to “bargain” with the CRTC over the terms of takeover deals – often by adding more money to the “tangible benefits” package acquirers must pay into the broadcasting system. Mr. Blais has now set the expectation that companies present their best deal from the get-go.
“He had to make a decision at the front where his power was going to come from. And if he is going to say ‘power to the people’ then you have to use the opportunities to make that clear. And one of those was a complete denial of Bell-Astral,” said John Lawford, executive director of the Public Interest Advocacy Centre.
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