The Conservative Party's foreign affairs critic is calling for greater transparency around the deals struck by RT – a Kremlin-controlled news channel that has been identified by U.S. intelligence authorities as part of Russia's "propaganda machine" – to pay Canadian TV providers for guaranteed distribution to viewers here.
Conservative MP Erin O'Toole told The Globe and Mail in an interview that he plans to recommend to colleagues on the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians to "devote some time" to the matter. He also plans to discuss the issue with heritage critic Peter Van Loan – who previously told The Globe that Canadians "have a right to know" which Canadian companies are accepting money from RT – to consider raising the issue with the standing committee on Canadian heritage.
"It's something we need to look at. What mandate should it be? Should it be under the regulator for content, or should it be something that's more oversight on a security basis?" Mr. O'Toole said. "Now that we know that this is taking place … how can we have a degree of transparency that I think Canadians would expect?"
Last month, The Globe reported that RT, formerly known as Russia Today, pays to be included in some cable and satellite packages, guaranteeing wider potential viewership for its often anti-Western news programs and shows, according to sources familiar with the agreements. In some cases, RT is included automatically in TV packages that contain few other international news channels.
While channels do occasionally pay for carriage – for example, when they are attempting to build an audience and cable and satellite companies are initially reticent to hand over subscriber fees for those channels – it is a reversal of the usual business arrangements in specialty television.
And neither RT nor its Canadian distribution partners are required to disclose details about their broadcast agreements. While Canadian channels must report financial information to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, payment for carriage is not a detail that channels are asked to report separately from other expenses: The CRTC does not know how often channels pay for distribution, or what they pay. And non-Canadian channels such as RT do not have to make financial disclosures the way Canadian ones do.
"We have Cancon requirements in some industries, we have a range of things. We should be able to see particularly what Canadians are consuming, and has this been influenced in any way," Mr. O'Toole said, adding that while he does not favour onerous regulation for businesses, some kind of reporting should be required. "I do think it's important enough for us to say, how can we do this in a way that's not onerous for business but promotes transparency."
Rogers Communications Inc., BCE Inc. and Telus Corp. would not comment on whether they have such deals in place, or about whether companies should be required to report them.
"The CRTC does not typically intervene in these types of negotiations between programming services and [TV providers] unless they ask for our assistance," CRTC spokeswoman Patricia Valladao said in an e-mailed statement.
Representatives for the Minister of Canadian Heritage and the Minister of Foreign Affairs declined interview requests.
Bell Fibe's website shows that RT is automatically included with all advertised TV packages except for its cheapest, most basic option. Some of these same packages leave out CNN, BBC, Fox News and other news channels unless viewers order them individually, or buy a theme pack that includes them. Rogers' cable packages do not all carry RT automatically, although its most expensive option, the "Premier" package, lists RT as part of the channels automatically included, while Al Jazeera English, BBC World News, MSNBC and Fox News are not included unless viewers decide to add them to the package.
Telus does not list RT as part of the channels included automatically in any of its major packages. Shaw Communications Inc. said that the company recently stopped including the channel in bundles at no cost, although it is still available à la carte.
Videotron and Cogeco Inc. said they do not carry RT.
RT is distributed in six million to seven million Canadian homes; more than half of all homes in the country with a TV subscription, according to sources.
In response to The Globe's reporting, former CRTC commissioner Peter Menzies wrote an op-ed noting that the regulator has a provision against false and misleading news and posited that if RT crosses a line, Canadians will step up and file the necessary complaints. Mr. O'Toole disagreed, suggesting the majority of average viewers do not file such complaints, and that "to put this as an obligation on viewers" is an insufficient policy.
RT has referred to reports of Russian interference in the U.S. presidential election as "conspiracy theories," and has responded to criticism of Russia's annexation of Crimea by characterizing the country's pro-Western revolution as a movement controlled by Nazis.
In November, RT announced that, following an order from the U.S. Department of Justice, it had registered under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, a 1938 law initially designed to constrain propaganda but in recent decades has focused more on "agents seeking economic or political advantage for their clients."
Canada does not have an equivalent act overseeing foreign agents. Mr. O'Toole said that while Canada should perhaps consider instituting a similar law, it may not cover services such as RT that have no news bureau or meaningful physical presence in the country.
"I've seen in my years as a member of Parliament, the increasing reach of the Russian state when it comes to expanding their news promotion, propaganda. RT is an example of that," he said. "… This is something we should watch carefully."