The story was perplexing. Here was a little-known committee of Parliament, the Standing Joint Committee for the Scrutiny of Regulations, poking around with the delicate wording of a regulation upheld by the CRTC. According to the Standing Joint Committee, the wording of the regulation that prohibits the broadcasting of “false or misleading news” in Canada “contravenes the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.”
The Standing Joint Committee had actually been pressing the CRTC for about a decade and brought the issue up again with the help of Andrew Kania, a rookie MP heading the department. According to government officials, problems with the ban – or the wording of the ban – came up in 1996 in a case involving a Holocaust denier named Ernst Zündel. Without getting too much into that case, the Supreme Court decided that the right to freedom of expression in Canada meant that a person “could not be charged for disseminating false information.”
Of course, the Committee sprang into action with all of the speed of an elderly gentleman sinking into a nice warm bath and said that the CRTC’s regulation didn’t jive with the Supreme Court decision. Letters were passed around and teeth were gnashed, but nothing came out of it and both sides went along their merry way.
Suddenly on January 10 of 2011, the issue reared its ugly head again and the CRTC was “seeking comments on a proposal to change the wording of the regulation to say that it applied only in cases in which broadcasters knew the information was false or misleading and that reporting it was likely to endanger the lives, health or safety of the public.”
The comment-seeking was to end by February 9 and, as you might expect, the CRTC was inundated with public uproar. While many people paid attention to usage-based billing, this issue, too, was raising the blood pressure of Canadians. What was it all about? Where did it come from? And how can one determine if the reporting was “likely to endanger” anything?
With the issue bubbling and sizzling away, CRTC chair Konrad von Finckenstein announced in Ottawa on Friday in a brief interview that the amendment is being “withdrawn.”
“We never wanted to touch this thing. We put it forward because we were ordered to do it. We did what we thought would be a workable compromise,” he said. “I was perfectly happy with what it was before, and I’m sure at the next commission meeting, we will withdraw this attempt at rewriting.”
On Thursday of last week, the Standing Joint Committee even agreed to withdraw its advice to the CRTC to dilute the wording of the ban on false and misleading news.
So with the amendment tossed out by both the CRTC and the Standing Joint Committee, the issue has safely gone to bed. From the looks of things, it’s gone to bed rather quietly too.