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Slim and skewed: C.D. Howe report on media ownership misses big picture Add to ...

The report advocates this regulatory shock and awe to be developed in one swell swoop, with no distinctions kept between telecoms and broadcasting, between networks and content, between incumbents and newcomers. The telecom-media-Internet sectors are now so entangled on account of digitization and how people use media that they must be treated together as a whole. Partial agreement on this point from me about needing to treat things holistically.

More targeted measures are suggested as an alternative to foreign ownership for whatever "cultural policies" might be left over. Some of these targeted measures I believe in - securing financing for content production, shelf space, strong CBC - and they have been promoted by at least two of the same writers involved in the three-page missive (e.g. see Hunter Iacobucci).

There are several problems with this report, however, that make it's contribution to public discussion dubious, despite the fact that it will gain much attention.

1. Three pages is not a report and should not be pitched as one.

2. The Council of the Wise is skewed along lines suggested above, ie: by Bell and by gender. Bell has always had a visible hand in the telecom, broadcasting and media industries. Indeed, this has been the case since it began broadcasting speeches, songs and sermons in the 1880s and took over the Chairmanship of the 1905 Mulock Commission which had originally been convened to look into Bell's predatory behaviour and the underdevelopment of the telephone system in Canada in the early days of the 20th century.

So, that Bell continues to be front and centre 100 years later, at the dawn of the 21st century, is both a marker of continuity and somewhat unsurprising, but equally suspect in each of these occasions. The presence of Bell's hired gun (Church), a Bell-sponsored academic chair (Boyer), and BCE CEO George Cope's speech at C.D. Howe two months ago all so bunched up in time and the common stance struck on each occasion has a whiff of something not quite right about it.

3. While I don't have many problems with increasing competition and dissolving lines between the medium and the message, or the network infrastructure and content, we also need to be up front about the fact that the former (media infrastructure) are generally scarce and the latter (messages) abundant. In the recent OECD Communication Outlook 2011, it is clear that, generally speaking, the top two NetCos in each of the OECD countries account for between two-thirds and three-quarters of fixed and mobile telecom network markets in each of the OECD countries (pp. 56-59). The only exception is the U.K., where structural separation has fostered a more vibrant, open and competitive market.

This means:

  • that Netcos generally should be regulated for market power, 'messagcos' generally not.
  • ties between Netcos and Messagcos are congenitally fraught with problems and propensity for anti-competitive behaviour.
  • Free speech standards and the values of a networked free press[[LINKTEXT]]etworked free press[[/LINKTEXT]][URL]]ttp://benkler.org/Benkler%20Wikileaks%20CRCL%20Working%20Paper%20Feb_8.pdf.[[/URL]][TARGET]]blank[[/TARGET]] are also at play. As the United Nation's Human Rights Council recently stated, those standards apply to the Internet and people should have, as Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of the Rights stated before it in 1948, the freedom to receive and impart any information, through any media regardless of frontiers. At the CRTC Hearings on vertical integration the other day, Bell's Mirko Bibic and Shaw's brass called the idea that people should have access to any content on any device "preposterous". The C.D. Howe report is oblivious to these considerations.

4. The C.D. Howe report misses the big picture. Perhaps this is because there is not a whiff of heterodox thinking among the law and economics experts who wrote it. Not one eclectic economist, not one wild-eyed crazy lawyer, not a single communication or media scholar or a historian in sight.

This is too bad because as long as this continues to be the case, people will continue to talk past one another. And it also means that "reports" like this one, and the policies and approaches that actually do follow close in tow in the real world, will lack legitimacy.

5. Without being able to expand their horizon, the authors of the C.D. Howe report blithely countenance "North American integration." Economically, as I said above, I don't have a particular problem with that, although I doubt that things will pan out as they expect, and even that what the Howe folks do expect ain't much ("better performance" from same number of players).

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