Once upon a time there were only four or five television channels. Hardly anyone had the money to broadcast a television signal, and if anyone did, there were only so many spots available on the dial.
In such a world of “spectrum scarcity,” it was argued, government regulation was essential to ensure a diversity of content—and, in Canada, to ensure that some of that content was Canadian. Or as the cultural nationalists had it, to make it possible for Canadians to “tell ourselves our own stories.” This was the world in which the CRTC was born.
Flash forward 40 or 50 years, to a very different world. Not only are there now hundreds of conventional television channels catering to every conceivable taste, but with the advent of Internet broadcasting the constraints of cost and spectrum have disappeared. There are literally hundreds of thousands of Canadian websites, each of them, post-YouTube, potentially a broadcaster in its own right. It is now possible for any Canadian with a video camera and a laptop to transmit to every other Canadian. And the cultural nationalists’ response? This just makes the case for more regulation.
You get the picture? When we had five channels, we had to have regulation, because there were so few of them. Now that there are potentially millions of channels, we have to have regulation, because there are so many of them. As the comedian Colin Mochrie, who testified at this week’s opening of CRTC hearings on regulating “new media,” observed, now that “the space for content is practically endless . . . content can easily get lost.” State intervention is needed “to make sure Canadians can find their own content.” What does all this lofty talk mean, in concrete terms? It means, if Mochrie and his friends at ACTRA, the film and television actors’ union, have their way, that anyone who streams live video online would have to be “licensed and subject to regulations.” It means that anyone who provides the means for others to do so would have to be likewise licensed and regulated. And of course, there would have to be new taxes to fund this content, on the off chance that Canadians should not prove as eager as all that to be told more Canadian stories online. Ostensibly, the tax would be paid by Internet service providers. But we all know who would pay in the end.
This is what the arts in Canada have come to; these are the sorts of things that concern our artists. Not life and love and the freedom of the human soul, the usual business of art, but licences and regulations and taxes. That was always the conundrum at the heart of CanCon, even in television’s infancy: was it about art, or was it about politics? If about art, it was nonsense: no principle of aesthetics that I am aware of elevates Canadian stories above others. And if about politics, well, what did that have to do with art? Yet that is the essentially political mission in which Canadian artists willingly enlisted: to instill the proper feelings of loyalty to the Canadian nation-state in its citizens. They did so for the most sincere of motives: because that was where the money was.
Even as politics, it was nonsense. If we were so profoundly different from other nations as to warrant protection from their cultural exports, we were also different enough not to need it—always supposing that cultural difference was a worthy end in itself, or that anyone could define what was Canadian culture and what was foreign, or that the consumption of enormous quantities of foreign culture was not itself integral to being Canadian. That is even more true today. If “telling ourselves our own stories” is the goal, regulation is both unnecessary—absolutely nothing prevents Canadians from watching, or indeed finding, Canadian content, if they want to—and, for the most part, impossible.
For the most part, but not entirely. That the CRTC should even be talking about regulating the Internet would be hilarious, if it did not have a particular source of leverage over many of the largest media players in this country: their existing broadcast licences. Most online providers could evade the CRTC’s reach easily enough, for example by hosting their site on a foreign server. But a conventional broadcaster who did so would be vulnerable to retribution at renewal time.
This takes things in a new and altogether ominous direction. For in the age of convergence ushered in by digitization, there is little meaningful distinction to be drawn between print and video: it’s all just ones and zeroes. And in the age of cross-ownership, when the proprietors of most of the major print publications, including this one, also own broadcast outlets, this opens the way for the CRTC to go where it has never before dared: regulating the print media. Probably CanCon quotas for newspapers are not on the table at present. But does anyone want to bet that will not ultimately be the result?
Freedom of the press is under serious enough assault as it is in this country: witness last year’s inquisition before the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal, or the Ontario Human Rights Commission’s recent call for the print media to be conscripted into a national press council. But with the prospect of direct or indirect regulation by the CRTC, the battle is truly joined. Perhaps the media will now realize that the CRTC is no longer a mere nuisance, to be suffered in silence. It is a mortal threat: the most serious to press freedom in generations.
This clarifies matters. Indeed, the issue could hardly be clearer: either they go or we do.