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How Canada’s cultural lobby only serves corporate greed

New book amply demonstrates the cultural lobby’s propaganda prowess in Canada

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Photo by Dominic Smith/Flickr

It has long been said that history is written by the victors, and this is a classic example. Canada vs California is a lengthy justification of the Online Streaming Act, which updated the Broadcasting Act to include digital delivery, and it is authored by one of the legislation’s staunchest proponents. Howard Law admits on the very first page that he met with MPs to advocate for Bill C-11 while working as media director for Unifor before his retirement in 2021. Since then, he has been an enthusiastic supporter of Internet regulation on his blog MediaPolicy.ca and on social media. Law admits that his advocacy for Bill C-11 required a crash course in broadcasting regulation, for which he acknowledges tutelage from Ian Morrison, the former long-time director of lobby group Friends of Canadian Broadcasting, and media consultant Ken Goldstein of Winnipeg. His blinkered cultural protectionist perspective thus becomes more understandable.

The cultural lobby’s propaganda prowess in Canada is amply demonstrated by the story Law tells of how we went from all three major political parties promising “No Netflix Tax” during the 2015 federal election campaign to the passage of Bill C-11. In a slightly broader sweep of history, the story is about how Ottawa went from foregoing Internet regulation in 1999 to becoming one of the world leaders in it, with last year’s Bills C-11 and C-18, the Online News Act now being followed by the contentious Bill C-63, the Online Harms Act. “The Internet grew up and lost the shine on its penny,” writes Law. Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Google (for which he uses the ominous acronym FAANGs) “no longer presented as unalloyed gifts to modern living” since they had become dominated by Silicon Valley and Hollywood. “On the ground in Canada’s broadcasting system, the FAANG Internet platforms were changing everything about media consumption.”

In a ten-year period, Law notes, online streamers increased their share of broadcasting revenues here from three percent to 25 percent. This, of course, is what required them to be regulated and taxed in order to claw back some of that money and to also force them to fund the production of Canadian content. The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission announced earlier this month that under the Online Streaming Act, foreign streamers with revenues of more than $25 million will have to contribute five percent of them to various Canadian media funds. Critics of the legislation have pointed out that this cost will likely be passed on to consumers through rate hikes and could even result in streamers like Netflix quitting Canada.

There are a couple of elephants in the room which get short shrift in Law’s book. The first is that the Broadcasting Act was originally enacted to regulate scarce bandwidth on both the radio and television dials. Now that bandwidth is far from scarce on the Internet, such regulation would seem unnecessary, but instead Ottawa has now doubled down on the ‘walled garden’ it first erected around cable television content. The other elephant is that film and television production in Canada hardly needs a bailout, as its expenditures increased by 4.4 percent to $12.2 billion last year and have more than doubled in the past decade. Much of the production is intended for American audiences, however, and does not qualify as Canadian content under the CRTC’s baffling points system. The decline of conventional television everywhere with the rise of cable and now streaming is also undeniable, as Law points out that local TV stations in Canada have been unprofitable since 2012. The Online Streaming Act, however, seems somewhat like King Canute trying to hold back the rising tide of technology.

Canada vs California is not easy reading, as even policy wonks might have trouble getting through its dense prose. Law starts with block quotes that take up more than half of his first two pages, and he repeats the crime throughout the book by quoting extensively from speeches and policy decisions until your eyes glaze over. Trained as an historian and lawyer, he shows little talent as a writer, failing to breathe much life into his prose. Perhaps his juiciest anecdote involves not Bill C-11 but instead Bill C-18 when he describes the “well-choreographed news scrum on a Montreal street corner” by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and then-Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly timed in response to release of the ministry’s own 2017 report on Media and Local Communities. It recommended funding news across Canada with a five-percent levy on our highly-profitable Internet service providers similar to the levy paid by cablecos and now streamers to fund Cancon. Trudeau mischaracterized the proposal as “raising taxes on the middle class” and made it clear that the idea would be a non-starter on his watch. A five percent levy on ISP revenues, which recently topped $15 billion a year and throw off almost 50 percent profit margins, would bring in more than $750 million annually and would only slightly dent the massive profits of giant telcos like Bell and Rogers, but taxing foreign streamers was obviously more palatable to Trudeau. Law and Unifor, not to mention Trudeau, must feel somewhat betrayed that their support for Bill C-11 was followed by the layoff of more than 6,000 workers by Bell in 2023-24, many of whom were Unifor members, which the company’s CEO blamed in part on Ottawa’s failure to “level the playing field with global tech giants.” Bell’s profits rose by $218 million last year to $10.4 billion, which is more than the GDP of dozens of countries, suggesting that cultural policy is much more about dollars than about Canadians. Unifor, which was created in 2013 by a merger of the Canadian Auto Workers and the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers union, has a membership of more than 300,000 and has been controversial for campaigning against the Conservatives and campaigning for media bailouts, which has made many of its journalist members uneasy. Its advocacy efforts, and Law’s, seem to have now shown them to be little more than useful idiots for corporate greed.

Much the same could be said of the book’s publisher. Canada vs California is Lorimer’s second major contribution to the effort to relieve the digital giants of their riches and redistribute them to Big Media in Canada. It also published former CBC executive Richard Stursberg’s 2019 book The Tangled Garden, which provided nothing less than a playbook for Ottawa’s ongoing Internet regulation. With book publishing being among Canada’s most highly-subsidized cultural industries, such advocacy for cultural protectionism should perhaps not be surprising. Founded in 1970 and thus one of Canada’s oldest independent publishers, Lorimer describes itself as “a progressive, issues-based publishing house … interested in publishing stories that highlight our world’s most pressing issues.” Unfortunately, it only seems to be interested in telling one side of this story.

Marc Edge is a journalism researcher and author who lives in Ladysmith, BC. His books and articles can be found online at www.marcedge.com.

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