CANADA

An all-news showdown

MARY JANIGAN January 25 1988
CANADA

An all-news showdown

MARY JANIGAN January 25 1988

An all-news showdown

CANADA

It is a cause that has gathered the support of Albertans like a snowball rolling down a Rocky Mountain slope. First, 17 of Alberta’s 21 MPs attacked the decision of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) to award a licence for an all-news network to the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. Then, as the new year began, the Edmonton Chamber of Commerce threw its support behind the legal appeal of the losing bidder,

Edmonton-based Allarcom Ltd. And last week, as anti-CBC sentiment surged across the province,

Edmonton city council passed a motion in support of the Allarcom bid. Mayor Laurence Decore pointed out that most major communications organizations have their headquarters in Toronto and added, “Diversification is a good thing for Canada.”

Those vehement views have transformed an issue of who is the most competent to run the news service into a partisan fight with bitter regional overtones. They have also created a serious political dilemma for the federal government. Most Conservative MPs have backed their Alberta colleagues’ demand that the cabinet set aside the CRTC decision when the deadline for appeals expires on Jan. 29. Those MPs view the Crown corporation as a Toronto-based empire that wants to expand at the expense of private industry in Western Canada. As Alberta Tory caucus chairman Arnold Malone told Maclean’s, “I am looking for déconcentration from Toronto, for private sector involvement and for an avoidance of the near-monopoly situation for the CBC.”

But if the government heeds their demands, it faces an explosive political risk. Since Parliament passed the Broadcasting Act in 1968 the cabinet has overturned only three CRTC rulings. In 1976 the Liberal government set aside three licences to Manitoba cable companies because they con-

flicted with a federal-provincial agreement confirming the province’s right to own cable distribution equipment. In 1982 the cabinet changed the CRTC’s Canadian-content requirements for pay TV. And the next year it trimmed cable rate increases to conform with anti-inflation policy.

Now, if cabinet sets aside the allnews station, it will be violating a long-standing tradition that politicians do not meddle substantively in licensing decisions. Gerald Caplan, co-chairman of the 1986 federal task force study on broadcasting, pointed out that his report recommended that the cabinet should lose even its legal right to tamper with licensing selections. Declared Caplan: “It is essential that politicians do

not run roughshod over CRTC decisions.” Despite that danger, key Conservatives told Maclean’s last week that the government is virtually certain to set aside the CRTC’s choice. Cabinet has three options: it could confirm the licence, reject it—or send it back to the CRTC for reconsideration. Con-

firmation is unlikely: most senior ministers, including deputy prime minister Don Mazankowski and External Affairs Minister Joe Clark, both from Alberta, oppose the CRTC’s choice.

Ministers are also reluctant to send the decision back to the CRTC because the commission usually reconfirms its original choice. In contrast, if the cabinet sets aside the decision, the CRTC would probably call new hearings, opening the door to such possible contenders for the licence as Toronto’s Baton Broadcasting Inc., owned by the powerful Bassett family. Said a Conservative adviser: “The CBC has had it.”

To sweeten that bitter pill, officials in the Prime Minister’s Of-

fice and the department of communications were considering a proposal for cabinet last week. Under that proposal, the cabinet would set aside the CBC’s all-news licence. But it would also issue a strong statement of support for the CBC as a vital cultural institution.

In addition, to relieve the CBC’s funding woes, the cabinet would announce a new funding formula: at the beginning of each five-year licence term, Ottawa would outline the CBC’s parliamentary funding plans for the entire period. At present, the CBC’s subsidy is set on an annual basis, making it difficult for the corporation to develop long-term plans. Finally, Ottawa would introduce a bill that would split the position of CBC president Pierre Juneau into the separate posts of chairman and president.

Maclean’s also has learned that the communications department is devising an additional option for the cabinet. Under that proposal, the cabinet would set aside two of the CRTC’s Nov. 30 licensing decisions: the CBC’s allnews channel and the privately funded YTV Canada Inc. channel, which would provide English-language programs for young people. In their place, the cabinet would propose the creation of a new nonprofit channel to supply Canadian family and regional programming on the basic cable service.

The cabinet’s predicament began in August, 1986, when the CRTC decided to allow the so-called specialty channels on the basic cable service.

Prior to that decision, specialty channels such as The Sports Network and MuchMusic were relegated to pay TV.

The Commons communications committee noted that a new broadcasting act is not expected until this spring. So it asked Communications Minister Flora MacDonald to issue a major policy statement on specialty channels to guide the CRTC. MacDonald did not respond—although she indicated her support for a nonprofit regional and children’s programming service.

On Nov. 30 the CRTC issued nine specialty licences. The Allarcom appeal concentrates on the fact that the CRTC awarded those licences before Parliament could define the CBC’s role in a new broadcasting act. Said Allarcom’s corporate secretary, Yves Mayrand: “They should set aside that decision until there is some basic policy direction.” Meanwhile, both the CBC and Allarcom, owned by Edmonton multimillionaire Dr. Charles Allard, are waging a public debate about the merits of their respective proposals. Allarcom, which owns CITV-TV in Edmonton and the pay television network Superchannel, noted that it has promised to spend $20.6 million on programming and to employ 281 people.

Edmonton Conservative MP James Edwards, who resigned last month as chairman of the Commons communications committee to campaign against the CBC licence, argued that the CRTC should not scoff at those proposals. “An operation could raise itself up by its bootstraps,” he said. “Good public policy is not based on the assumption: them that has, gets.”

CBC officials counter that it is virtually impossible to run a profitable news service without access to the CBC’s 4,000 hours of annual news production, its cross-Canada facilities and its public affairs programs. The service, which would begin on Sept. 1, would offer six hours of programming from Atlantic Canada and six from Western Canada, with Calgary as the principal base. Denis Harvey, the CBC’s vice-president of English television, told Maclean’s: “The private sector is always talking about free enterprise. Well, they competed against us and they damn well lost.”

Whatever the merits of the respective proposals, federal ministers face a rough ride over the next few weeks. No matter what they do, they are certain to encounter a storm of criticism. As a communications adviser noted, “They are in an awful bind.” In a probable election year, it is a position that many Conservatives would happily have avoided.

MARY NEMETH

— MARY JANIGAN in Toronto with MARY NEMETH in Calgary