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Lying on TV and Radio newscasts will soon be totally OK, says CRTC

dylan c. robertson

Television Lies: Creative Commons photo by Flickr user Daniel Villar Onrubia.

Creative Commons photo by Flickr user Daniel Villar Onrubia.

The CRTC’s in the news again, this time for proposing that journalists can lie, as long as no one gets hurt.

Last week the CRTC asked the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council to review its ban of unedited version of the Dire Straits’ 1985 song “Money for Nothing.” The 25-year-old hit, which has since started climbing on iTunes, was banned from Canadian airwaves after a complaint over its use of the word “faggot.”

But days before Straitgate, the CRTC quietly published an amendment that would punish the broadcasting, through radio or television, of “any news that the licensee knows is false or misleading and that endangers or is likely to endanger the lives, health or safety of the public.”

The amendment would replace the current wording, that “a licensee shall not broadcast […] any false or misleading news.”

CRTC sources told the Toronto Star the amendments aim to clarify the regulation, as the current text is open to legal loopholes. The amendment also clarifies “obscene” material as either the “undue exploitation of sex” or a dominant sexual characteristic combined with “crime, horror, cruelty [and/or] violence.”

Tech law expert Michael Geist blogged about the proposal, pointing out one small weasel word: “and.” Once again, the amendment concerns the broadcasting of “any news that the licensee knows is false or misleading and that endangers or is likely to endanger the lives, health or safety of the public.”

“It would perfectly permissible for a broadcaster to air false or misleading news,” he wrote, “provided that it not endanger the lives, health or safety of the public.” Geist also noted how much closer the amendment puts us to U.S. regulations.

The proposal comes weeks before the expected launch of Sun TV News in March. The channel generated controversy last fall for its attempt at Category 1 status, making it a must-offer for digital and satellite providers. Critics dubbed the network “Fox News North,” noting references to the controversial right-wing broadcaster in its application.

Before its approval, the channel prompted a scandal implicating Margaret Atwood and eventually George Soros, a rumoured ousting of the head of the CRTC, and an actual resignation from the project head. Although Sun TV generated much unfounded hysteria, hints at Fox News North have been copious throughout the coverage of this proposal.

But not without reason. This month’s shooting spree in Tucson, Arizona made many Americans think twice about overheated political discourse, propagated by many mainstream outlets.

Minutes after news that congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords had been shot, a Palin PAC image of her district in crosshairs went viral, as did clips from enflamed talk radio pundits and savage television “debates.” To quote Pima County sheriff Clarence Dupnik:

“I think it’s time as a country that we need to do a little soul searching because I think it’s the vitriolic rhetoric that we hear day in and day out, from the people in the radio business, and some people in the T.V. business […] it may be free speech but it does not come without consequences.”

Although many now draw a link to the suspected gunman’s mental health issues, that many Americans automatically thought of their violent news media is telling.

CRTC’s proposed change would make it okay for media to deliberately lie, as long as nobody’s hurt. The results could be ineffective at best. After harm takes place — an assassination, a stampede — it will be hard to find a solid link between one isolated news story and an event.

The reality is that social reaction to media coverage is often cumulative. According to agenda-setting theory, media can’t tell people what to think, but rather what to think about. Media shape the public psyche, not through individual reports but through larger thematic decisions about what merits coverage and how issues are framed.

The CRTC’s proposal is bad for journalism and democracy. Not only does it allow for lower-quality broadcasting, it could divert public attention from wide-ranging media issues by pigeonholing individual cases.

That our broadcast regulators would concern themselves more with public offence than public good is disconcerting. Critics left and right have decried the changes as dangerous for democracy.

If implemented, the changes would take effect in September. If you’d like to speak up, you have until February 9 to submit a complaint.

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