3 min

A culture of misinformation?

Critics say new CRTC regs could lead to Fox North

Media lawyer David Sutherland worries that a proposed change to broadcast regulations could lead to "Fox News North." Broadcast lawyer Dan Burnett says other regulations exist that prevent Canadian broadcasters from airing misleading information.

A radio and television watchdog’s plan to water down broadcast regulations is coming under fire from Canadians who say the changes pave the way for “Fox News north.”

Right now, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) prohibits the broadcast of false or misleading news. But if the changes go through it will only prohibit the intentional broadcast of false or misleading news that also “endangers or is likely to endanger the lives, health or safety of the public.”

The proposed change, which would come into effect on Sept 1, has media lawyer David Sutherland “very, very worried” about the future of Canada’s broadcast landscape.

“I think there’s a significant risk we’re going to get Rupert Murdoch’s style of broadcasting as a result of the condition that the CRTC will not regulate content unless it is both known to be false and misleading or/and it is posing an immediate risk to human health,” Sutherland says.

Murdoch owns Fox Broadcasting Company, the right-leaning American network that features the belligerent commentary of Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck.

Broadcast media lawyer Dan Burnett doesn’t share Sutherland’s fear that the proposed change will lead to “Glenn Beck-style broadcasting, where they know it’s false, but they say provocative things.”

Burnett notes the CRTC regulation is not the only legal instrument standing in the way of Canadian broadcasters putting information on the air. Libel law is “undoubtedly” the main thing, he posits.

“The thing that allows Fox News and other American organizations to publish quite outrageous statements about public figures is their libel law, which only makes people liable if they are malicious and cause damage,” Burnett explains. “The libel laws in Canada are far more conservative. In fact, many would argue even too conservative,” he adds. “That’s the thing I see as preventing a Fox North happening.”

Regardless, says Burnett, who’s represented broadcasters for the last 20 years, he has never heard of anyone being prosecuted under the provision as it now stands in the broadcasting legislation.

“The change, while I might prefer the language to be a little bit different, is in general aimed at correcting something that needed to be corrected,” Burnett offers.

“There are many times when a reporter is given and reports information that turns out to be false and misleading – in fact, it might be from a very authoritative source – where no one will really fault the reporter,” Burnett elaborates. “Yet an absolute prohibition that makes it an offence under the act to report something false or misleading wouldn’t give you any sort of defence, if that’s the case.”

But Sutherland is not alone in his concern about the potential regulatory relaxation.

The CRTC is getting an earful from the public, who’ve been invited to comment on the new proposal until Feb 9. Close to 1,800 people and counting have weighed in so far on the CRTC’s website, many critical of the changes to come.

“I strongly oppose the amendment on the grounds that this will allow for a culture of misleading news in Canada, similar to the one that exists in the USA,” one person writes. “This amendment will make our news broadcasting a farce, since newsmakers will more easily be able to broadcast with the intent of misleading the public for political or other gains.”

Another comment suggests the level of broadcast news has “fallen far enough already without allowing broadcasters to knowingly transmit falsehoods.”

“If we wish to watch fiction, there are already plenty of dramas and comedies available,” it adds. “We don’t need to get it from our news as well.”

Yet another questions the CRTC’s “pressing need to relax standards” and wants to know if the regulatory body finds current news broadcasts “too honest.”

When asked to explain the proposed amendments and their timing, a CRTC spokesperson refuses to comment beyond suggesting the federal Standing Joint Committee for the Scrutiny of Regulations initiated the review.

That’s accurate, says Jacques Rousseau, legal counsel to the joint committee.

In 2001, the committee drew the CRTC’s attention to the Supreme Court of Canada’s 1992 ruling in the case of Holocaust denier Ernst Zundel that section 181 of the Criminal Code, prohibiting the publication of false news, was unconstitutional.

“We asked the CRTC why the same type of provision inserted in the regulations that deals with broadcasting would be valid,” Rousseau says.

But Rousseau says there’s been no correspondence since 2002 on the substance of the broadcast provisions.

What the CRTC did was “find ways not to answer,” Rousseau adds.

“I can assure you the committee has never requested the CRTC to make the amendments it is proposing today,” Rousseau says. “We never suggested that such language be inserted in the regulations, that’s for sure.

“If you look at what the CRTC is proposing to insert, this is almost word for word the provision that the Supreme Court said was unconstitutional in 1992 in Zundel,” Rousseau points out.

At some point, the CRTC announced there’d be changes to the regulations, but Rousseau says the committee never saw the changes before they were published for consultation.

Asked if the commitee is happy with the proposed changes, Rousseau will say only that the committee is scheduled to meet on Feb 17 when the regulations will be back on the agenda.