The Conservatives conscript the nation’s news cameras

You can change the law, Conservatives, but you know we can see you, right?

Chris Wattie/Reuters

Chris Wattie/Reuters

So this is pretty much all Ottawa’s talking about today:

“The Harper government is preparing to alter copyright law in Canada so politicians can use news footage and other journalistic content for attack ads and campaign spots without asking broadcasters or publishers for permission.”

Surely the best part of the memo to cabinet obtained by CTV — apparently because the Heritage department is knocking on TV networks’ doors to discuss its proposal with them — is the repeated use of scare quotes around the word “news”:

“[B]roadcasters, newspaper and periodical publishers, and ‘news’ photographers will vehemently claim that their work is being unfairly targeted for the benefit of political parties … [the proposed copyright exemption] would allow free use of ‘news’ content in political advertisements intended to promote or oppose a politician or political party, or a position.”

This is what gamblers call a “tell.” Stephen Harper’s government feels entitled to use ” ‘news’ content” in its political ads because it doesn’t believe it’s “news” — or rather, it doesn’t believe the broadcasters treat it as news. The belief that pretty much every journalist is in the tank for Justin Trudeau runs deep in Conservative hearts. So is the belief that Trudeau has benefited from a free-media ad blitz of 18 months’ standing. When the Conservatives buy a little time on radio or TV to badmouth the Liberal leader, in their mind they’re hardly dominating the political discourse. More like jamming a finger in a dike. The flood of Laurentian-elite zeitgeist still runs heavily against their party. In an unfair world they are not interested in playing fair.

This explains why the government seems intent on ignoring sensible suggestions that it simply broaden fair-use protections for all kinds of speech, and why it plans to dump this manifestly non-budgetary measure in a budget implementation bill, another in a long line of Trojan-horse measures cheerfully socked away where there is no threat they might receive scrutiny or thought before passing. When you’re in a fight, you fight, the Prime Minister’s staff will tell themselves.

As transparent as its motives may be, I don’t have a particular problem with the government’s project here. I think political speech, conducted in public by politicians, is fair game for rebroadcast even by enemies bent on distorting the context of the speech. That’s what broad support for free speech looks like. (This paper, written in the context of U.S. politics, makes arguments similar to what I have in mind.) Every word I ever wrote could have been cherry-picked for insertion into a partisan ad, like a movie reviewer’s “a glorious mess!” being truncated to “glorious!” in studio ads. It’s artificial to insist that video must be protected at a higher level than mere words. While the result will certainly be lurid misrepresentation of what some politicians meant to say, (a) that’s hardly new (b) permitting or defending speech based on assumptions of motive is a very tricky business with all kinds of potential for blowback as nasty as the original offence.

So even if it means somebody runs CTV or CBC footage of Justin Trudeau or Tom Mulcair or some future somebody-else looking goofy, I have little problem with the Conservative move on its substance. When it comes to misrepresenting your opponents, my God, there have always been many ways to skin that cat.

I presume the Conservatives haven’t thought through the implications. Every newsroom in Ottawa, Toronto and Montreal will now select footage for broadcast based on the assumption that it could be used in a partisan ad. This will sharply chill the cavalier use of embarrassing images. The net effect will be to reduce the broadcast in most newscasts of the sort of goofy-rookie-leader imagery the Conservatives want Canadians to see more of.

And, of course, there are the optics of the thing. There’s a war on, just barely, and continuing economic malaise and a skills shortage and a global competitive race and a struggle to get resource wealth to market and a bunch of other files to which a government should feel welcome to pay attention. This schoolyard stuff should be beneath the dignity of a government and a party hellbent on convincing Canadians that the other guy isn’t serious.

Something else. The Conservatives haven’t exactly been light on the ads since Trudeau became Liberal leader, or before: they have spent more millions of dollars on between-writ ads than any other party in Canadian history. If they have been behind the Liberals for 17 consecutive months, it’s not for lack of effort. When you’re firing blanks, more ammunition probably won’t help.


The Conservatives conscript the nation’s news cameras

  1. The Conservatives…have spent more millions of dollars on between-writ ads than any other party in Canadian history. If they have been behind the Liberals for 17 consecutive months, it’s not for lack of effort. When you’re firing blanks, more ammunition probably won’t help.

    Sigh. I thought you of all people would be smart enough to have noticed that when the Conservatives run an ad campaign, it’s for the long term. They don’t *expect* it to change opinions in a week or a month.

    They pick a narrative they know a Liberal leader will live up to, and run with it, and watch the Liberal leader do exactly what they predicted he would do. After watching Trudeau this week, I’ll bet if you polled “is Justin Trudeau in over his head?”, you’d see that number be a lot higher this week than it was last week, despite all those funny polls you showed us last year saying the ad campaign isn’t working.

    It’s working just fine. The ads are nothing more than a seed. The Liberals keep finding a way to water it. Some plants take longer to grow than others.

    • You don’t seem to have much knowledge of what Canadians are really thinking, do you? This will drive Trudeaus numbers even higher. Canadians want Trudeau to succeed, and they don’t like Trudeau being attacked the way this government and some media outlets attack him. Trudeau doesn’t need to defend his stance on this war that Harper brought on to us , its up to Harper to make a case for our country to be at war and he has been very thin with information of his reasoning. That’s all we get is FEAR, the Orwellian way.

    • Most folks i know like to grow something more positive than toxic weeds. The point is, since you missed it, is these particular ads have been helping JT define himself as not SH. But, hey say ignorant, no skin off my nose.

    • Yes John. No doubt Wells never noticed the long game plan.

      (Hint: this time the long game is not working, which is his point)

  2. This is as Orwellian as it gets. Doesn’t another guy in Russia do similar things?

    • No, the mainstream media threatening not to air political speech by denying fair use is what is Orwellian, and that is what the Canadian media did.

      Political speech has to have the widest and most extreme level of protection, and the Canadian media stated that they wanted to be censors by asserting copyright.

      This was despicable for the media industry where journalism has its own enhanced speech protections.

      The Canadian media censors brought this on themselves. They threatened censorship of political speech.

      • That you in the Shelly? Couldn’t possibly more than one person that clueless about how the media functions could there?
        Earth to Wheatie boy…the proposed enhanced speech protections will be soley for political parties and no one else, should this happen.

  3. Komarade Wells doesn’t your BFF the Dauphin or the Libranos have enough fodder from news org to make so called Attack Ads against the Cons, surly they can call on their friends in the Dumocrat Party for advice???

    • Yes, and i bet he knows how to use his big words to make his arguments too.

  4. You’re on fire today Wells, this is two posts in a row i’ve agreed with you right down the line[ maybe t should check myself for smoke though] I do have a couple of niggles, but most likely cuz i don’t fully understand how this all works – even under current law. What actual, real world protections are there now for newsies that this law would take away? Would it just give the govt a license to simply pretend there aren’t actually any complaints at all – fits like a glove for this govt?… Don’t just debate the meaning of is, just pretend there never was an is to ignore in the first place. No problemo!
    My 2 cents…ban ads outside the writ, anything at all goes once puck drops – how much more Canadian can you get? Upside for Canada: no more moronic, cheesy, semi homo erotic Trudeau ads that don’t work anyway.
    Downside for Canada: No more laughable yet entertaining, unintentionally self revealing CPC Trudeau ads…
    Down and upside Consequence for CPC: Harper will have to find a way to funnel all that extra money to Ezra to somehow find a way around gag law – maybe riding uni cycle backwards across the country with megaphone, while showering sundry folks, bears, moose, with leaflets of Trudeau offering to whip out his junk for charity – will compensate.
    Downside Consequence for LPC: Harper isn’t helping them define JT as ABSH.
    Conclusion as a good Liberal – let the cons dig their own graves if they want to, it’s a free country.
    Risk if wrong and we get this law: That Harper does produce scummy, yet effective ads, that push yet another liberal leader off the CN tower and we end up with Harper for longer than MK; LPC dies, leaving only all out war between left and right and Canadian turn out drops below those who willingly turn out for elections in North Korea, and or watch leafs games.[better stop while i’m still ahead]

  5. “And, of course, there are the optics of the thing. There’s a war on…”

    Really? You’re going to advance that argument given this week’s magazine cover?


    • Funny, but i thought since Macleans actually isn’t an arm of the CPC [or any other party] and owns its own content so to speak – it can put whatever cover it wants out, that happens to support its content.[read the small print on the actual cover] iows someone is making an argument inside said cover that presumably relates to that cover. You may not like it, but what you got against free speech then?

  6. And .. and it broadens the scope for outrage in things to
    write about. After all, the promotion of Rogers’ 12 year plan
    for hockey will wear a little thin after a while.

  7. I don’t think all conservatives believe the media supports Trudeau. I do believe that most of them want the donor base to believe the media supports Trudeau.

    • Odd as it sounds, i find that worse if at all possible.

  8. Well Paul, I think the “tell” might point to Ezra’s Sun ‘News’ rants (hope I’m wrong, but time will tell).

  9. A glimpse at Harp’s last hoorah attack-ad, epitomizing the Prog Reformists’ own self-destruction, copylefted by sun news:
    The Doors: (This is) The End
    And please don’t let the “door” hit you on the way out.

    I approve of this political message. :)

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