Canada has a heavily regulated broadcasting industry that is supposed to serve Canadians' interests, so why are foreign governments allowed to make secret payments to put their state-backed channels on Canadian TV?
In recent weeks we've learned that Russia's RT television channel, a mix of news, tabloid oddities and Kremlin-aligned views, pays Canadian cable companies to be carried in their lineup.
The federal government, which shrugged at first, is not looking at that practice – but it should not hesitate to act. Allowing such payments is bad public policy – and asking for it to get worse.
RT, once known as Russia Today, is a state-backed news service that broadcasts in English – and elsewhere, in Spanish and Arabic. It is part of an effort to spread Russian soft power. The Canadian public isn't clamouring for it, but RT paid cable companies to get on the grid – like a cola company paying for shelf space in a grocery store.
When the existence of those payments were reported recently by The Globe and Mail's Susan Krashinsky Robertson, there was a blank response from the federal government, which sets broadcasting policy, and the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, which regulates broadcasting and cable distribution. Each suggested it was the other's purview, and otherwise kept silent.
But now Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly is looking at options to address the issue, according to a statement sent to The Globe and Mail by her press secretary, Simon Ross. "Our government understands that a reliable news media ecosystem is at the heart of democracy," the statement read. "While respecting the CRTC's independence and jurisdiction in the case of individual channels, we are currently examining this issue."
News media "ecosystems" are definitely in rough shape, with media outlets coping with a sea change in advertising markets and the rise of conspiracy sites, for-profit fake news, and new sites with a variety of agendas. RT's coverage tends to some of that conspiracy stuff, Russian President Vladimir Putin's world view, and coverage that emphasizes chaos and corruption in Western democracies. Conservative MP Peter Van Loan, the party's heritage critic, calls it "propaganda aimed at undermining Western society as we know it and every institution in it."
But obviously, we have to be careful about government efforts to make the news media "reliable."
There should not be a move to censor RT, or ban it. Russia's government considers CNN and the BBC propaganda, too. Canada should not emulate Moscow's efforts to limit what news ordinary Russians in Novosibirsk or Omsk can get from Western outlets. We just don't need to allow foreign-state outlets to pay their way onto Canadian TV.
Mr. Van Loan said that the government should at least require such payments be made public so Canadians know they're watching a "paid advertisement" of the Russian government.
That's a start. Canadians should not only know how much RT is paying, but if another government station, from China, or Iran, or Saudi Arabia, for example, starts paying to get their outlets on Canadian TV. A lot of countries are starting to put effort, and resources, into influencing public opinion in Western nations.
If there was a completely free-market broadcasting and distribution system in Canada, it might seem logical to let any channel buy its way onto channel 509. But there isn't wide-open capitalism in broadcasting – Canada has a regulated system, one that once helped cable distributors to build infrastructure through protected market power, and which is now supposed to be controlled by Canadians and serving the Canadian public interest.
There are apparently other channels that pay for carriage, even when there isn't demand, and that's questionable, too. When new or little-known Canadian outlets temporarily pay for carriage in an attempt to build up an audience, that at least fits with the explicitly stated policy goal of developing Canadian content and control.
But there is no such argument for allowing a foreign channel to pay their way onto the Canadian grid – let alone a channel that is an instrument of another country's foreign policy. If Canadian distributors don't think there's enough of an audience to justify putting the channel on the grid, then it's not in the public interest to let them buy in. Ms. Joly should indeed examine that practice, and then stop it.