Peter Menzies is a senior fellow with the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, a former publisher of the Calgary Herald and a previous vice-chair of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC).
If you like the idea of Fox News being banned from the Canadian broadcasting system, you can thank Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez.
He’s the one who opened the censorship door that the CRTC had long worked to keep shut. Mr. Rodriguez did that last year when, in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, he ordered the regulator to consider – hint, hint – whether it was appropriate for RT (formerly Russia Today) to remain on its list of foreign broadcasters approved for carriage on cable.
Not surprisingly – and with uncharacteristic efficiency – the CRTC duly “considered” the matter and to no one’s surprise confirmed that the Heritage Minister through whom it reports to Parliament was a man of good instinct and judgment and agreed that RT should no longer be on the approved list.
The move was well-received by Parliament and the public. Indeed, it was so popular that once the CRTC got around to making its decision, the issue was already moot given that Canada’s cable companies, in deference to an understandably outraged Ukrainian diaspora in Canada, had already removed RT as an option for subscribers.
A few voices, however, made the point that in their haste, Mr. Rodriguez and the CRTC dealt with the matter in the wrong way. Not only had the Heritage Minister challenged the regulator’s reputation for independence through his actions, it was argued, he had opened the door for others in the future to ask the CRTC for similar takedowns. It was noted, for instance, that a large number of Twitter users responded to the RT order with the request that Mr. Rodriguez and the CRTC should “now do Fox.”
So it was no surprise when the CRTC announced last week that it would act on a request from Egale, an LGBTQ advocacy organization, to consider “doing” Fox as it had “done” RT.
Outraged by a segment on the Tucker Carlson Tonight show in which the now former host of the popular program criticized some members of the trans movement, Egale argued that, seeing as the CRTC has already shown it will hold foreign broadcasters to the same standards expected of licensed Canadian broadcasters, Fox should no longer be available in Canada.
“Though the CRTC does not issue licenses to non-Canadian broadcasters, it has established that non-Canadian broadcasters must be held to the same standard as Canadian channels,” wrote Helen Kennedy, Egale’s executive director, in an open letter. “Specifically, Canadian broadcasters can be fined or even lose their licenses for broadcasting ‘any abusive comment or abusive pictorial representation that, when taken in context, tends to or is likely to expose an individual or a group or class of individuals to hatred or contempt on the basis of race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, sexual orientation, age or mental or physical disability.’ ”
Members of the public have until June 2 to comment on the issue via the CRTC’s website.
How the CRTC deals with the Egale versus Fox matter will give a clear indication of the extent to which this Commission and its new chair, Vicky Eatrides, intend to meddle with content. The matter is all the more compelling now that Bill C-11 has defined the Internet’s audio/visual content as broadcasting and given the CRTC the power to regulate it, too.
In its RT decision, it noted that it was confident its actions did not threaten free speech because, after all, RT was still accessible on the internet. Now that the CRTC’s authorities and responsibilities extend to the internet, it’s unclear how it could permit a network to exist on one platform while banning it for its bad behaviour on another.
Last year’s decision to sanction Radio-Canada for allowing the use of the N-word in a discussion on a book written by Pierre Vallières in 1968 indicated most commissioners are comfortable with taking on a censorship role. Of the three who dissented in the name of freedom of expression, only one – Joanne Levy – remains, having just been reappointed. One of the others quit for a new job and the other was not reappointed.
Commissioners will have a lot to consider, particularly given their instructions to take special attention in considering how the system cares for the needs of groups such as those within the LGBTQ communities Egale is speaking for.
The smart play in the short term would be to declare that, given Mr. Carlson is no longer with Fox, the CRTC considers the matter closed. But in the long term, thanks to Mr. Rodriguez, these complaints aren’t going to stop.