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COMMENTARY: Getting tired of defending it
by Greg O'Brien

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CBSC Decisions
CRTC/Regulatory - Radio
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I WATCHED AMERICAN COMEDIAN Chris Rock's latest HBO special on The Movie Network Wednesday night. He's one of the funniest people alive, and depending on your point of view, one of the most offensive.

One of his bits centred on his love of rap music. "I love rap music. But I'm tired of defending it," he said. His hilarious point, driven home with dance steps and words I'm not going to repeat here - was that some rap lyrics are frighteningly inane and hateful and make him shake his head. But, he still loves the music.

I thought of his line when the CRTC came out with its most recent decision yesterday, banning RAI International and approving, but banning Al-Jazeera: I like the Canadian broadcast system, but I am tired of defending it. Some of the decisions rendered and the reactions to them make me shake my head. But I still like the system.

The RAI decision was only the second-most controversial decision the Commission issued this week. The first was denying the license renewal of radio station CHOI-FM in Quebec City for repeated violations of its terms of license, mostly to do with offensive content.

Media outlets from around the country. Newspapers in Winnipeg, talk radio stations everywhere, seemingly, decried this decision. I listened to John Oakley on MOJO FM in Toronto and his listeners banter back and forth the next morning. Oakley's a provocateur, but it was one of the smarter pieces of talk radio I've heard in a while.

But, not once have I seen or heard it mentioned that the Commission did not, in fact, censor the station. CHOI-FM brought this upon itself.

Broadcasters in Canada govern themselves with a Code of Ethics that they created. No matter what you think of this code (and CHOI apparently through little) abiding by this code is a condition of license which every single broadcaster in Canada agrees to do when they receive a license to transmit signals over the public airwaves.

Besides complaints to the CRTC, the Quebec regional panel of the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council has ruled against CHOI-FM and its morning host Jeff Fillion and part-timer Andr� Arthur (who is primarily on CHOI's sister station CKNU) on more than one occasion. Those CBSC decisions are not the Commission slapping Fillion on the wrist, but a panel of his fellow Quebec broadcasters telling him: "hey, what you said just isn't right."

And, the sex talk and four-letter words which got Fillion in trouble had a lot to do with the time of day they aired. Both TV and radio broadcasters agree, through their own code of ethics, not one constructed by the Commission or the government, that explicit sex talk or sex scenes, or four-letter words should take place later on, after 9 p.m. - after young Johnny or Janey is off to bed.

To me, this seems like a reasonable limit on freedom of expression. The Chris Rock special I watched started at 10:30 p.m. The f----, m-----f------, n------, and other such words he dropped during his performance would have been spectacularly offensive if aired by a radio station in drive time. As I've said before, it's often about context.

CHOI-FM repeatedly violated the broadcasters' own code of ethics - their code of ethics. Fillion and Arthur know there's a line that shouldn't be crossed (or at least not crossed very often) and they obliterated the line � again and again. This code is something the station's owners signed up for when it bought the station in 1997. They agreed to abide by those ethics when granted the license. They have been warned and warned and sanctioned and since we have no system in Canada - like the U.S. - where fines can be imposed, the final step against CHOI had to be taken by the Commission. The license was not renewed.

For the station owners to now act surprised at the decision is a bit much.

As for the decision to deny RAI International and Al-Jazeera - because what the Commission did was to, in fact, deny Al-Jazeera a place in the cable and satellite lineups while saying it approved it - is another head-shaking moment.

RAI and TVE, the Spanish public broadcaster, and others, were denied because Commission policy, which is driven by the Broadcast Act (i.e.: Parliament) said they must be. The CRTC could not have approved RAI because then it would have had to approve other foreign channels like HBO and ESPN and The Cartoon Network. If the Commission protects those genres and Canadian specialty services like The Movie Network, TSN and Teletoon, it must also protect the Italian-Spanish channel Telelatino in the same way, even if it does feel wrong.

But, Canada has been a multicultural nation for a long, long time. The Commission should have launched a formal review of third language services ages ago - or at least when it received the RAI application in 2003. The prime time schedules of RAI and Telelatino were similar 85% of the time in RAI's application. It was easy to see that this would not stand and a review of the policy should have begun 12 months ago.

However, the primary reason yesterday's decision is contentious among Italian-Canadians is that RAI created a vacuum in the market by pulling most of its content from Telelatino, then launching ads and a public relations campaign to generally provoke the ire of many in that market.

That said, there are simply not enough third language or ethnic services available in Canada. There must be more added to the eligible list and distributors should be carrying more of the ones we already have. RAI International should have been added, same with the others who were turned down. Telelatino would remain strong. Adding GOL TV wouldn't be the end of the world. The nine approved today must only be the tip of the iceberg.

But the silliest portion of yesterday's decision is that of Al-Jazeera. It was approved for carriage, but the Commission actually wants Rogers Cable, or Bell ExpressVu or Access Communications, or any other BDU to act as censors, if they decide to carry it.

This is more than placing a seven-second delay on Don Cherry. This is asking that BDUs hire a team of Arab-language interpreters who not only would have to monitor the channel but make split-second judgments of what makes it to air.

So, what happens if some "abusive content", as the Commission termed it, makes it to air? Will the BDU face legal action under Canadian hate speech laws? Other forms of censure? The loss of their licenses? Lawsuits?

The Commission should have made a decision. It's either all the way in or it's all the way out. This half-measure is half-baked and I doubt any carrier will take it on, meaning Al-Jazeera won't likely see the light of day in Canada.

(It will also be interesting to see how these decisions affect Commission vice-chair, broadcasting, Andr�e Wylie, who's term is up on August 31st. No decision as yet has been made about her renewal something she dearly wants, say sources in Ottawa, and these decisions fall under her watch.)

Overall, I like our system. It's unique and creates jobs and promotes the telling of Canadian stories and the growth of Canadian music. With the 800 pound cultural gorilla next door, we do need our own system with some built-in protections. Our system allows the best of all the world's programming in (like the Chris Rock HBO special) side by side with great Canadian programming.

But I am getting tired of defending it all the time. Changes must happen to make the system better.
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