Media @ McGill

The ‘Other’ CRTC Announcement: Journalistic Independence Code

Submitted by Montréal Media ... on

By: Gregory Taylor

Of the two major decisions announced by the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) on January 15, there is little doubt which one was the lead story. The majority of news focused on limitations placed upon future corporate media expansion so that no single company can own television, radio and newspapers in a given market, and no company can own more than 45% of the total television audience in Canada. This was headline news for both the CBC (who had championed cross-media ownership restrictions at the September public hearings) and the Globe and Mail, who ran a scathing Jan. 16 editorial on the decision (the Globe’s parent company, CTVGlobeMedia, as Canada’s largest media corporation, arguably has the most to lose under the new rules).

However, the ‘second’ announcement of the day also has major implications for the way in which Canadians receive information in an age where communication is increasingly viewed as a commodity, and not a public good. The Diversity of Voices decision may have placed limitations upon the continued expansion of big media; however, the Journalistic Independence Code (the Code) granted private broadcasters increased autonomy to regulate their news departments.

The Journalistic Independence Code was not an initiative of the CRTC. The Code was originally proposed by the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council (CBSC) in 2002, with a final version submitted in January of 2007. The CBSC is a private, self-regulatory organization, launched in 1989, which oversees the administration of four codes (Canadian Association of Broadcasters Code of Ethics, the Sex Role Portrayal Code, the Violence Code and the Radio Television News Directors Association of Canada Code of Ethics) created by members of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters (CAB), an organization representing Canada’s private broadcasters. Allowing private broadcasters to police themselves is part of what the CRTC sees as a move toward “light touch” regulation. The CBSC is a clear example of the media industry trying to establish itself as a “mature” industry, no longer in need of government regulatory oversight. In the Jan 15 decision, the CRTC commends “the quality of the work accomplished by the CBSC”.

In the public hearings prior to the CRTC decision, support for expanding the role of the CBSC via the proposed Code was by no means unanimous. While Rogers, CanWest and CTV sang the praises of the Code, the strongest opposition came from journalists themselves.

At the hearings, Peter Murdoch, Vice President of Media for the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada, emphatically stated “In terms of the proposed code under the CBSC, the answer from the journalistic community is a resounding "no".” He went on to add “Journalists want a code, and they must get busy developing their own, with input from a variety of stakeholders, but certainly they do not want one run, even at a distance, by their employers”.

Murdoch’s concerns were echoed by Mary Agnes Welch, president of the Canadian Association of Journalists: “We are worried it does little to limit content sharing among newspapers and television stations owned by the same company, and we have reservations about the ability of broadcasters to self police.”

In the end, the CRTC did not share Murdoch’s reservations. The now CRTC-approved Code offers media corporations the valuable financial prize of requiring no structural separation of news gathering activities. This is something journalists had fought against, fearing further layoffs as corporations consolidate previously separate news departments.

The CRTC sided with the journalists in their critique of the proposed adjudication panels, which offered only a token voice to journalists in the very decisions which would shape their industry. As a condition of acceptance of the Code, the CRTC instructed the CBSC to have a minimum requirement of professional journalists on all adjudication panels.

The now-accepted Code requires all members to maintain “separate and distinct” management structures and editorial boards (not news-gathering resources) and establishes the Journalistic Independence Panel to address complaints.

Click here to view the CRTC decision and the Journalistic Independence Code.