Chances are that RT, formerly known as Russia Today, remains a stranger to most Canadians – certainly far less familiar than CNN, which as a foreign news provider captures millions of ears and eyeballs that cultural nationalists might prefer were fixed upon domestic news channels.
The structural difference between the two – RT is state-funded and there appears very little chance of that ever being the case for CNN at least under the current U.S. presidency – is important but unlikely to be obvious to the average viewer. So if state funding were in and of itself a source of concern, some of the issues raised by The Globe's report regarding payments by RT for carriage on Canadian cable networks would also have to apply to other foreign state-funded broadcasters such as BBC, Al-Jazeera and, yes, even PBS. This narrows the issue to the nature of the state involved and its relationship to the broadcaster.
Before delving into that political morass, however, it is important to clarify some points. The first is that there is nothing new nor inherently devious about broadcasters making commercial arrangements regarding the nature of their carriage – channel designation, availability within packages, etc. – with cable providers. Once a broadcaster such as RT or any other is approved for carriage – something that is occasionally but rarely contentious – by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), the regulator's most active role is to ensure that cable companies don't unjustly discriminate in favour of their own products.
The next point is that paying for carriage as RT is reported to be doing is exactly how Fox News got started and how entrepreneurship should work. Whereas in Canada, Sun News Network pleaded unsuccessfully with the CRTC for the mandatory carriage and fees availed to CTV and CBC news channels, the opportunity was always open to it – as Fox did in the U.S. – to pay the cable companies to carry it and make it available in a manner that would expose it to audiences. In Fox's case, it turned out American audiences were so pleased with their product that it is now the cable companies that are paying Fox – and handsomely – for the rights to carry it on their networks. It is doubtful that RT, which similar to CNN is distributed globally, will ever manage that sort of success in North America but, consistent with liberal democratic values, it is free to try. Keep in mind that it is doubtful that Canadian cable companies, sensitive to their audiences, would ever present potentially contentious products in positions so invasive that its customers would rebel. Still, it is not absurd to consider that if Canada and the world is open to being exposed to the American worldview via CNN, MSNBC, Fox, etc., it is not wrong to permit it to be exposed to the Russian perspective – state-sponsored or otherwise. This is particularly so in the age of the internet.
The matter of what might constitute propaganda – which has a long and famous broadcasting history popularized by Lord Haw-Haw, Axis Sally and the Voice of America – is more complex and is something of which political activists regularly accuse news organizations that fall short of their expectations. Print, too, has a propaganda history but broadcasting's ability to eliminate literacy as a barrier and evoke emotion has always made it the more powerful weapon. Without radio, Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels famously said "it would not have been possible for us to take power or use it in the ways we have."
Yet without broadcasting it is also unlikely Edward R. Murrow would have succeeded in his determination to have Americans understand that Britain's stand against the Nazis was just and needed their support. Had he failed in promoting his perspective and had Winston Churchill not used radio to such great effect, where would we be today?
These are ticklish matters that tempt reactionary solutions, which is why the CRTC decided in 2011 to retain its regulation forbidding the spread of false and misleading news. Should RT cross that line, it is extremely doubtful Canadians will fail to file the necessary complaints.