Dissenting commissioners slam CBC, commission

Ottawa - Calling the decision "an inappropriate exercise in micro-regulation" and "fine-tuned folly," commissioner Stuart Langford disagreed with the majority saying news organizations should cover breaking news as they see fit and that the CRTC should stay out of it.

A total of four commissioners dissented from the majority decision amending CTV Newsnet's and LCN Affairs' conditions of license (see story below), but not in order to try and protect CBC Newsworld. They say that the Commission should not have ruled at all, but let Newsnet go live as the news itself requires.

"Short of actually telling Newsnet what stories to cover, it is difficult to imagine how the majority decision could be more intrusive," Langford added. The other dissenting commissioners were Martha Wilson, David McKendry and Cindy Grauer but it was commissioner Langford who took the strongest stance.

Langford took CBC to task for its sheer volume of complaints over CTV Newsnet's hard news coverage. While Newsnet and TVA-owned LCN were licensed as headline news services with conditions of license that, in effect, confined them to a constant "wheel" of news headlines, being news services, both often interrupted its format to go live on some stories.

However, the main battle was between Newsworld and Newsnet, so the story here will concentrate on that skirmish.

Langford says that immediately after Newsnet's launch, the CBC complaints began rolling in. "More complaints - lengthy letters detailing dates and times of alleged transgressions - have arrived at the Commission's offices on a regular basis ever since. Paragraphs 1 to 8 of the majority decision (see www.crtc.gc.ca) provide an accurate skeletal summary of the background to today's dissent.

"Missing, for legitimate reasons of economy, is a sense of the sheer volume of paper this ongoing matter has generated."

Langford went on to say that the massive number of complaints generated by the CBC said something else besides the public broadcaster's stated desire to protect the public interest, adding "the zeal with which the CBC has worked to expose Newsnet's alleged shortcomings does seem to point to a less than purely public-spirited driving force.

"The investment of time and effort made by the CBC to monitor Newsnet and record each and every alleged transgression made by it over the past four years must have been considerable. When a publicly funded institution, one that constantly reminds Canadians that it is not publicly funded enough, invests so much time and effort in exposing the transgressions of a perceived competitor, it may be time to recommend that the CBC revisit its own sense of mission and purpose rather than concentrating scarce resources on Newsnet's alleged shortcomings."

After four years of complaints by Newsworld, the Commission decided earlier this year that what began as a process of complaint resolution was to be transformed into an assessment of the appropriateness of Newsnet's COLs themselves.

A total of 496 interventions poured through the Commission's mail slot and e-mail portal, all but 12 supporting Newsnet, and by extension, LCN.

The initial Commission suggestion that Newsnet maintain its format unless "exceptional circumstances" force the need to go live, was overwhelmingly ambiguous and completely impractical.

"Unfortunately," continued Langford, "though the amendments to Newsnet's COLS set out in the majority decision are more easily policed than the (earlier) proposal . . . they are not more defensible in a free and democratic society. The vague and unworkable 'exceptional circumstances' test has been dropped. In its place, however, the majority decision has inserted another form of control.

"Newsnet continues to be confined to a headline news, 15-minute wheel format. Every 15 minutes a headline news segment of at least two minutes must be inserted into whatever is being broadcast. As many as 25 times per week, Newsnet may violate the two minute news rule but if it does so, it must overlay whatever it is broadcasting with an "onscreen display of headline news items" - presumably employing a split screen or scrolling ticker-tape-like device to achieve this effect.

"Short of actually telling Newsnet what stories to cover, it is difficult to imagine how the majority decision could be more intrusive. It is equally difficult to comprehend precisely what benefits the edicts in the majority decision are designed to accomplish," he added. "To bring Canadians the latest developments on major stories, Newsnet needs to go live, and to return to breaking news stories several times to ensure that developments are updated and placed in context."

"It is unlikely to be in a position to do that with the CBC and CRTC looking over its shoulders, stopwatches in hand.

"Newsnet is not a threat to CBC Newsworld. Newsworld exists in a rarefied and privileged position as a specialty service. All Class 1 and Class 2 cable systems are obliged to carry it on the basic tier. It is financed by a substantial subscription fee, one that was recently raised by $0.08 to $0.63 cents per month. It is free to carry a broad range of programming categories and it is allowed considerable flexibility when it comes to scheduling commercials. In contrast, Newsnet is forbidden from doing long form programming, its subscription rate is a mere $0.085 per month, it may air programs in only two categories (Category 1, News and Category 3, Reporting and actualities) and no cable system is obligated to carry it on basic," continues Langford.

"If Newsworld feels threatened by Newsnet, its problems are internal and far more fundamental than can be cured by any Commission ruling that limits the flexibility of a perceived competitor."

For the full decision and dissenting opinions, go to www.crtc.gc.ca/archive/ENG/Decisions/2001/db2001-711.htm.

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