It was a great week in the history of the CRTC, the greatest week in ages.
Technology may soon make the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission irrelevant, but not yet. On Thursday, the commissioners re-affirmed their status as the Big Brother of Canadian culture by handing down two astonishingly detailed directives telling the CTV and Global networks precisely what they must do if they wish to stay in business for the next seven years -- how they must manage their news operations, for instance, and how they must treat ethnic minorities.
The directives, each some 30 pages long, smell a lot like state censorship but are probably best understood as a regulatory power grab, the CRTC's attempt to stay alive by expanding on to fresh turf. Whatever the cause, they established a new benchmark for government intrusion. Never before has a state agency tried to penetrate so deeply into the activities of private media companies. Never before has an Ottawa commission issued a directive to Canadian newspapers -- except for the CRTC's similar decision on July 5 in the case of Quebecor Inc. and TVA.
The CRTC's original power came from what used to be the most striking quality of broadcasting licences: their scarcity. Because there was room for only a few radio and TV stations, they had to be doled out by a responsible public body.
But digital technology has changed all that. Now we can have 10 times as many TV stations as we had a few years ago, and even more radio stations. With enough licences for everyone, the job of issuing them can be placed in the hands of a few technical traffic cops whose job will be to keep the broadcasters from bumping into each other. Soon, freedom of the press will be joined by freedom of the air.
But just when technology was on the point of destroying the meaning of the CRTC, convergence came along and saved it.
Convergence has restructured media ownership, so that Bell Globemedia now owns CTV and The Globe and Mail while CanWest Global Communications owns former Southam papers across the country and half of the National Post as well as the Global TV network.
This raises the possibility that a few people will dominate information and opinion, and that means the CRTC has a timely problem it can pretend to solve. On Thursday the commissioners unveiled the first stage in their solution: a series of extremely meddlesome regulations that involve newspapers as well as TV people. Here the CRTC takes its mandate from the demand in the Broadcasting Act that TV and radio "safeguard, enrich and strengthen the cultural, political, social and economic fabric of Canada." On a platform that broad you can build some pretty outlandish regulatory structures, which the CRTC has done.
It has decided that CTV and Global can share information with their newspapers, provided that newspaper and TV newsrooms run separately. That may be sound journalistic practice, but should it also be a rule handed down from Ottawa? It's at best arbitrary and unimaginative. Anyone who figures out a new way to share resources (perhaps even an improvement -- anything is possible) will have to apply to Ottawa for an exemption. Is this the position in which we want to place editors and news producers? The CRTC, missing nothing, gets right down to everyday operations by creating another arbitrary rule, itself a fresh intrusion into the newspaper business: news managers from CTV and Global cannot sit on the editorial boards of their affiliated newspapers.
CTV and Global will have Monitoring Committees to ensure compliance. Each will cost $1-million a year, part of it to advertise the committee's work to the public. Three outsiders ("individuals of unquestioned impartiality and credibility") will sit on each committee.
At times the CRTC decision, fidgeting over tiny details, sounds like a parody written by a vicious enemy of cultural bureaucrats. The commissioners leave nothing to chance: "The Committee members shall be paid. ... All costs, transportation expenses, communication expenses and research costs incurred in connection with their participation or attendance at Committee meetings shall be reimbursed ... upon submission of supporting documents." Within one decision, the CRTC plays out the history of bureaucracy. It begins as a protector of free speech and ends with a directive on taxi chits.
The CRTC also tells CTV and Global how to manage race relations. In the past the commissioners have responded to complaints from citizens or groups who felt themselves badly treated by broadcasters, but lately they have changed from passive to active. They now see themselves as serious players in the field of regulated decorum, or, as it's often called, political correctness.
They have decided that blacks, Asians and aboriginals don't appear often enough on TV, or, when they do appear, aren't treated with enough respect. So they demand that news producers make sure that members of minorities are used as sources on stories that don't concern their communities (as well as stories that do), that minority journalists report on many different kinds of stories (not just those dealing with minority communities), and that on-air broadcasters are chosen to reflect diversity. "Diversity" is the CRTC's favourite word by far: it appears 62 times in Thursday's decisions, like a mantra that demonstrates the holiness of those who chant it.
The decisions plunge into the murky depths of identity politics and racial imagery. Casting directors must "make a concerted effort" to hire visible minority actors in leading and recurring roles. Script editors must ensure that minorities aren't portrayed in a stereotypical manner -- a tricky notion, since most characters in TV shows are based on stereotypes, whatever their race.
To anyone with even a slight understanding of storytelling, these CRTC decisions read like instructions for creating a nightmare. They conjure up visions of script conferences at which copies of Decision CRTC 2001-457 or Decision CRTC 2001-458 rest on the board room table for easy reference. These rules mean almost certainly that writers will be instructed to use more (or fewer) members of a designated race in their scripts.
They also make it likely that TV news producers will be desperately searching for members of visible minorities to comment on the news of the day. They imply a system of rewards for journalists who can drag minority groups into as many stories (but never negative ones!) as possible. And they suggest another system -- of punishments, for TV journalists too intelligent or independent to put up with such nonsense.
It was a good week for the CRTC, no doubt about it, but a bad week for broadcasting, journalism and the publics they serve.