By Gregory Taylor
An increasing number of voices from across the political spectrum are calling for a major overhaul of the media regulator in Canada, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), arguing that it is ill-suited to the demands of the current environment (see The Globe and Mail, June 17, 2005; The National Post, Oct 1, 2005). My doctoral research is investigating the emerging model of co-regulation and its implications for the Canadian media system, and for democratic accountability in media policy and governance.
Co-regulation has emerged as an increasingly common approach to media governance in several jurisdictions around the world. While there is some scholarly research and analysis on co-regulation in advertising and broadcast standards, little work has been done on the broader implications of a more comprehensive application of co-regulation to the Canadian media system. My project will address the following central question: can media co-regulation be implemented without significant democratic compromise? Distinct from self-regulation, which is industry initiated and administered, co-regulation is typically a government initiative that allows for considerable industry autonomy under clearly defined parameters set out in a statutory framework, such as the Broadcasting Act. The current self-regulatory regime in Canadian broadcasting is the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council which has a very specific self-imposed mandate to address content issues of violence, sexuality and children’s programming. While these matters of content are undeniably significant, my focus is on the co-regulatory implications for policy such as public accessibility and accountability, ownership issues, and Canadian content quotas.
The rationale for co-regulation is deceptively simple: according to its proponents, co-regulation allows for greater flexibility and efficiency within the system while offering the same levels of protection afforded by more traditional means of regulation. However, detractors view the situation differently, characterizing co-regulation as allowing the fox to guard the henhouse. Whatever the case, such a dramatic change in the approach to media regulation will have profound implications for the Canadian public sphere. The 2003 Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage study of Canadian broadcasting, Our Cultural Sovereignty, states that “the time has come to overhaul the CRTC” (592) but does not mention co-regulation. Such an omission seems strange given how other nations are exploring the concept. Ofcom, the new broadcast regulator for the UK has a mandate to increase the level of co-regulation in the British broadcasting system. Similarly, the European Commission’s White Paper “Governance in the European Union” expresses a firm intention to develop co-regulatory policies. Australia has taken a lead role implementing this style of governance and has provided the example for others in the Pacific region, such as Malaysia, to follow.
As part of my dissertation research, I intend to carry out a detailed comparative analysis of co-regulation and self-regulation in Canada vis-à-vis a selection of other jurisdictions. For this project, I will look particularly at the U.K. and European Union. What are the circumstances which have led to the expanded role of co-regulation in the media systems of these countries? With its dual private/public system, pluralistic society, emphasis upon content quotas and lengthy historic ties, Canada perhaps has more in common with Europe than with the U.S. It is my plan to use my findings for an academic paper for a journal, analyzing democratic accountability mechanisms under various co-regulatory regimes, as well as for my dissertation.