The Tories and the TV networks: Who is censoring whom?

The Tories and the TV networks: Who is censoring whom?

A Conservative plan to safeguard attack ads draws an attack of its own, and creates a thorny dilemma for networks


Fair dealing? Networks want the right to ban the use of their footage for attack ads

For at least as long as Stephen Harper has led it, which is nearly as long as it has existed, the Conservative Party of Canada has believed Canada’s big news organizations are out to get it. Now Conservatives believe they have proof.

Our tale begins on Oct. 8, when CTV News reported that the Harper government is preparing changes to the Copyright Act that would allow political parties to use material from news broadcasts in their political ads. Parties wouldn’t need broadcasters’ permission. They wouldn’t have to pay. Any news footage a party liked could be plucked and inserted into a broadcast ad, surrounded by the party’s spin.

The party that’s been doing most of this sort of thing lately is the Conservatives. News clips of a succession of party leaders, including Stéphane Dion, Michael Ignatieff, Thomas Mulcair and now Justin Trudeau, have appeared in Conservative ads that were often effective at wrecking those leaders’ reputation. For this reason—and because CTV reported that the copyright changes will be buried in an omnibus budget-implementation bill that has nothing else to do with election rules—opposition MPs called foul. “Very devious,” said Liberal MP Ralph Goodale. “They just don’t seem to have any ethical boundary at all,” the NDP’s Nathan Cullen said.

Pressed on the issue in different cities on the same day, Harper and his heritage minister, Shelly Glover, offered near-identical defences for the change to copyright laws. Both argued that the change would simply ensure ads of a sort that have been running for years can continue to run—and that broadcast networks must have nefarious motive for blocking them.

“Major television networks should not have the ability to censor what can and cannot be broadcast to Canadians,” Glover told the House of Commons.

In Whitby, Ont., Harper said he’d be “concerned about any proposal that would attempt to censor or block [news footage] from the public.”

It seemed an odd choice of phrase. “Censorship” isn’t the word usually applied to a free press deciding which use it wants to make of information it has gathered. But as details emerged about the context for the copyright change, independent experts started to believe the Conservatives might have a point.

The source for the information was, himself, perhaps not entirely independent. Matt Wolf, an executive at Sun News Network, used his Twitter account to point reporters at other news organizations to a stack of memos he’d gathered from the CBC using Access to Information requests.

One of the first things the new Conservative government did in 2006 was extend the access law so Crown corporations, including the CBC, would be required to release internal information to citizens who request it. From 2006-10, Wolf worked in the government as a staffer for a succession of cabinet ministers, winding up as an “issues adviser” in the Prime Minister’s Office where, according to his LinkedIn account, he “controlled reactive communications and risk mitigation for over a dozen minister’s offices,” before leaving to work at Sun News.

But the correspondence Wolf found between the editor-in-chief of CBC News, Jennifer McGuire, and her colleagues at other news organizations, reveals a high degree of consultation among natural competitors—and a weak legal case.

What got the networks talking was the release of Conservative ads on the day Justin Trudeau became Liberal leader in 2013, showing Trudeau strutting with his shirt open to the waist at a charity auction. The Huffington Post owned those images. Later Conservative ads used images from an interview with the CBC. In April of this year, McGuire wrote to her counterparts at Shaw Media, Bell Media, Rogers Media and Radio-Canada “proposing that . . . we send a note to parties saying, effective immediately, that networks will not air ads with unauthorized use of other broadcasters’ news content. I believe this is the only way to shut it down.” (Rogers owns, among other news organizations, CityTV and Maclean’s.) In her correspondence with her colleagues, the only party ads McGuire mentioned were Conservative. On April 22, the news organizations released just such an open letter. Sun News, notorious for many of its employees’ links to the Harper Conservatives, wasn’t invited to join the common front.

What’s most striking in the correspondence Wolf received was McGuire’s candid admission to her colleagues that individual attempts to block use of their material based on copyright infringement “might not be a successful route,” because courts would probably view such use as so-called “fair dealing.”

That passage is a red flag to Michael Geist, a specialist in Internet law at the University of Ottawa and a frequent Harper critic. In an email to Maclean’s, he wrote: “I don’t see how anyone can read the ATIP docs from the CBC and not come to the conclusion that: 1) The CBC knew it could not use copyright law to stop these ads; 2) it decided it wanted to stop them anyway; 3) it convinced the other broadcasters to adopt a policy to not run the ads notwithstanding the copyright law.”

That’s a highly problematic stance to take. “If what those documents appear to reveal is true, then the [agreement] that those documents reveal might be an illegal one, contrary to section 45 of the Competition Act,” which governs agreements among competitors, wrote University of Toronto law professor Ariel Katz.

It’ll be up to courts to sort the legalities out. For the moment, what’s striking is the contrast of two world views. On one hand, broadcasters who see a Conservative government willing to use their work out of context for political ends. On the other, a governing party that finds at least one possible path to election victory blocked by a common front of the nation’s largest news organizations.

To the networks, a common front might be a logical step after they’ve spent years watching the Conservatives, much more than any other party, use their material without consent or even warning. To the Conservatives, the united networks represent both a serious operational challenge and the confirmation of long-standing suspicion.

The challenge is the possibility that the party might, for the first time, have its ads blocked from public view during a crucial election. Such a turn of events “would not be an existential threat to us, but it would be a serious problem,” a senior government source said. The hunch is that media elites were always against the Conservatives. After the broadcasters sent their open letter in April, the Conservatives’ director of political operations, Fred DeLorey, sent a fundraising letter to party supporters. “Despite all his verbal flubs . . . Justin Trudeau is still awarded a shining halo by liberal-minded journalists and pundits,” he wrote. “Media convergence has greatly complicated our Conservative party efforts to present the unfiltered facts and foundations behind our policies.” Fundraising off the networks’ move, it turns out, was only the first move. Now the Conservatives plan to block it.


The Tories and the TV networks: Who is censoring whom?

  1. The truth has a liberal (classical liberal) bias.

    • If you never learn how to spell comrade, I get to judge you. The entire freaking article is research, Einstein.

      • I’m half German that’s why it’s spelled like that, if you researched Why didn’t YOU find this court case ??????????

        • That’s not how it’s spelled in German either.

          • it is if your “half German”, then it’s spelt half right. ?

  2. Paul – why not tell the complete story….. It was Peter Mansbridge, who made the first request to Jennifer McGuire to stop the “Conservatives” from using CBC footage…. You should go back and take a “Peek” at Peter’s face when he had to announce that Stephen Harper won the last election. He almost had a heart attack and quickly put an end to the coverage. He has worked morning, noon and night since that night to try and get rid of Stephen Harper at any cost even to his credibility. His weekly panel – he has made a complete fool of himself, bashing our PM any way he can, and if he can’t find someone who will bash Stephen to be on the panel, they are not on very long…. This man refuses to tell us Canadians how much we are paying him – but one of his favorite lines is how “secretive” Stephen Harper is…. As a news anchor to our Canadian Broadcasting company, this man should show more respect and report the news, not try and slant everything negative towards the Conservative Government. If he wants to work for the liberals – then go work for them, but likely he won’t earn the million dollars a year the Canadian taxpayer pays him to run around the country bashing the best Government in the world. He should go and live in the third world somewhere, and then maybe he would see if Stephen Harper is really the worst man on the planet… Take Terry Milesky with him….

    • @Mary Hines good for you for calling Wells out…………..

    • It’s Harper who needs to see the third world.
      Harp would luv to do to CBC what he has done to Canada Post, …
      just ask Levant/Adler of the “Sun Noise Network” – they worship the ground that Harp walks on, to beyond ad nauseum.

    • You really should support the Liberals, since they want to legalize the stuff you’re smoking.

      • pretty lame attack-ad, you really should learn how to support the cons.

  3. I respect real journos and reporters, don’t always have to like or agree with everything they say, but they are like artists, they don’t like to see their work being chopped up, defamed and misrepresented. They feel that their integrity is being questioned, and I don’t blame them for reacting the way they do. Its also the way the government has framed all of this, using it to distort the truth because of their fixation and obsession of trying to bring Justin Trudeau down. That’s the only way this government knows how to defeat its enemies, attack and destroy. PS: Mr. Wells is no Liberal shill and I will leave it at that.

    • Mr. Wells is no Liberal Shill ……. that is the JOKE of the week! He parties, loves and breaths, Justin Trudeau!

      • Don’t think so, last I read, he had a man crush on Jim Flaherty, not sure who now though, but I don’t think its red.

      • You’re woefully uninformed and utterly delusional.
        It’s obvious you haven’t been a long term reader of Paul Wells and your simplistic comments reflect a mind that is already made up.

        • You still haven’t convinced me.

          • Nor I. That article of Paul’s glorifying Mrs. L. and Steve almost made me gag. I contemplated giving up my subscription after that one. If anything,, I thought he was a Reformer shill.

  4. The CBC blocked the Conservatives’ Ignatieff attack ads in 2009 because “We’ll only accept political advertising like that when there is an election campaign on…We have generally pretty strict guidelines.” – Source:

    However, CBC aired Justin Trudeau’s “Teacher” ads during Hockey Night in Canada last year.

    How many more examples do we need to see of the CBC having a different standard for the Conservatives than for anything attacking the Conservatives?

    • Hmmm

      They blocked an attack ad and allowed a non-attack ad.

      See the difference John? Come on, I know you do.

      • The CBC’s advertising policies make no such distinction. Nor should they.

        • So you do see the difference then?

          If the CPC put out an ad that is not an attack ad, full of their usual baseless smears, I am 100% confident the CBC will air it.

      • They blocked a Conservative ad, and allowed a Liberal ad. Do you see the difference “Gayle”? What other parties ads has the CBC blocked? None, only Conservative ads. The CBC doesn’t judge the contents of any other ads outside of legal requirements, only the Conservatives. It’s blatantly biased.

        If the CBC actually believed they had any legal standing, they would have taken legal action. Instead, they’re abusing their position as a taxpayer funded news organization to wage their fight in the court of public opinion, while also using their position to misinform and distort the truth to the public.

  5. The Competition Act does not allow collaboration by the TV Networks. What the CBC is trying to do is illegal. Sad indeed.

  6. “Censorship” isn’t the word usually applied to a free press deciding which use it wants to make of information it has gathered.

    Don’t kid yourself. That’s most of what modern journalism is today; deciding what not to report to protect left leaning politicians and narratives. Your Parliamentary reporter has built his entire career on it.

    • Yes, and they often gather in secret and plan their global takeover while they are at it.

      Paranoid conspiracy theories, that have been shot down every single time you have tried to back your so-called “argument’ with facts.

      Ha ha ha ha ha

  7. “The CBC/Radio-Canada does not accept political advertising from groups other than qualified political parties or from individuals” – Excerpted from the CBC’s Political Advertising Policy (1.3.10)

    Despite this policy, somehow CBC saw fit to run this ad from Brigitte Depape’s band of goons A.K.A. “S**t Harper Did”. Last I checked, they are not a “qualified political party”. So how did they get an anti-Harper attack ad on the air on CBC?

  8. It seems fairly obvious that if the CBC believed it had any legal argument to make, they would have at least attempted to make it in a court of law. Instead they’ve chosen to “make” their case in the media, by also distorting the facts and misinforming the public. Pretty bloody shameful for a taxpayer funded “news” organization.

    And on a business note, maybe a media company (that requires a government subsidy of over $3,000,000,000 a year) shouldn’t be turning down any advertising revenue. I can’t imagine them doing so for political reasons makes people much happier.

    • They can’t take it to court until it becomes law, so we’ll see. Also, the CBC gets $1 billion a year, not 3, don’t know where you got that # from.

    • Why do you think the CBC had to go to court to decide what to air?

  9. It’s funny what pieces Wells writes that get the Con base riled up and which ones don’t.

    Any member of the media who critizes the govt is not a shill for the opposition. Haha, you should’ve seen the opposite hysteria against him when Chretien/Martin were in power! Some things never change.

    I’m looking forward to all of this ending up in court once the legislation is passed and seeing where the chips fall.

    • In fairness, a lot of liberal posters complain about Wells being a Harperite.

      That just tells me he is doing his job.

  10. Modern copyright law is about protecting intellectual property. If a cameraman films a speech by Thomas Mulcair, who is the main provider of intellectual property?


    The situation is that reporters, “much more than any other party, use their material without consent or even warning.” This is considered acceptable because the public right to know about politicians’ plans and ideas outweighs the politicians’ rights to their own intellectual property.

    How is it, then, that a reporter’s right to intellectual property he appropriated from someone else outweighs the public’s right to know?

    • In the situation you describe, Mulcair owns copyright to his speech, and the reporter’s employer would own copyright to the footage of the speech. Mulcair would have granted an implied license to the reporter’s employer to broadcast the speech.

      In this story, there is no real intellectual property issue. Using clips and soundbites from news media in political ads falls quite clearly under fair use, as even CBC admits, and as a 1988 court decision found (with respect to Liberal party ads).

      The issues here are of potential breach of the Competition Act by the media consortium, and bias against conservatives by the news media to protect Justin Trudeau.

      Also, isn’t funny that its the party in power who uses news clips against the opposition? Shouldn’t be the opposition that has more material to use against the governing party?

      • Sigh

        Fabricating bias allegations does not create an “issue”.

        • The networks are on record colluding to block conservative party advertising for no valid reason whatsoever, and are probably violating the Competition Act to do so, and you think Im fabricating a bias allegation? The bias is glaringly obvious, but of course none is so blind as those who will not see.

  11. Imagine if you were at a wedding and none other than Stephen Harper himself showed up uninvited and unannounced to pose for photos with the surprised couple and guests. Imagine you, a loyal Conservative supporter, caught the whole delightful event on video and posted it to YouTube under the title A Man for the People or some such. Then imagine how it would look to you if the Liberals or NDP grabbed the YouTube video and spun it into a nasty, insulting TV ad with a theme like: Stephen Harper- He Thinks He’s a Rock Star. I think you’d be ticked, am I right? Well to myself, a non Conservative, that’s exactly how those ads look.

    PS. Stephen Harper actually did crash a wedding like that.

    • Using a portion of the YouTube video like you described would be perfectly legal.

      How does it look when media companies consort to prevent a political party to use footage legally in their political advertising? Illegal, corrupt and biased.