CRTC Chair Jean-Pierre Blais traveled to Toronto yesterday to deliver a speech to the Canadian Club on television news in an era of change. The talk laid out his vision for the future of communications policy in Canada and feistily defended recent CRTC decisions for broadcast and the Internet. While there is much to like about Blais’ vision – CRTC skeptics will be surprised by the forward-looking approach – it will be lost in the chair’s unnecessary attacks on the industry’s efforts to slow the pace of regulatory change and use of the appellate process.
Blais’ speech tackles many of the big communications of the moment. He notes the need for more aggressive broadband targets and the real-world impact of leaving even a few percent of Canadians without Internet access. He rightly identifies the benefits of the forthcoming broadcast changes, including pick-and-pay and small cheaper basic packages. He argues that the days of simultaneous substitution are coming to an end (and not just for the Super Bowl), noting “squeezing every last drop of profit out of simultaneous substitution and rented, made-in-America content is no longer sustainable.” He is sensitive to the concerns on local television news, but warns of the dangers of government interference in the industry if independence is lost through direct funding mechanisms.
Blais has a vision for where communications is headed and he seems determined to drag the Canadian industry along with him. However, much of that message is lost in the bizarre attacks on the industry. I’ve been critical of some of those company policy positions, but talking about hearings where “corporate executives who own luxury yachts and private helicopters came looking for subsidies” comes across as thin-skinned and unnecessary. All sides engage in this kind of talk, but a regulator must surely rise above it.
Worse is the attack on the use of the appellate process, where Blais expresses his anger with companies that “run off to court, they run off to Cabinet to seek relief. It’s their right to do so, but it doesn’t make them right.” I’m no fan of the recent Bell appeal nor its behind-the-scenes effort to gain support from city mayors without debate from city councils. I trust the federal cabinet will see through the effort and reject the appeal. But regardless of the outcome, I don’t understand a regulator who argues that the companies have effectively had their day in court by appearing before the Commission.
The CRTC may be getting some things right, but there will be times when it won’t. Stakeholders from all sides should have the right to use the legal process to ensure that its decisions are fully consistent with the law. There are legitimate concerns with the current process – there needs to be a mechanism to ensure that individuals who merely provide their views as part of hearing are not dragged into court as recently occurred in a Bell case – but the right to appeal is something that everyone depends upon. When Blais criticizes the use of appeals and engages in character assassination of the people who appear before the Commission, he undermines the perception of neutrality at the CRTC and ultimately harms the very goals he is trying to achieve.