“Breaking” News | Photo: Mike Licht, CC BY 2.0
Turn on the television in Canada, my home and native land, and you may be surprised. Not at what you do see, but at what you don’t: there is no Canadian analogue for Fox News, no Canadian Breitbart, no peddling lies to the masses as news. Why? Because it’s banned.
Article 5 (1) of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission’s Television Broadcasting Regulations reads as follows:
5 (1) A licensee shall not broadcast
(a) anything in contravention of the law;
(b) any abusive comment or abusive pictorial representation that, when taken in context, tends to or is likely to expose an individual or a group or class of individuals to hatred or contempt on the basis of race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, sexual orientation, age or mental or physical disability;
(c) any obscene or profane language or pictorial representation; or
(d) any false or misleading news.
That’s a long-winded and precise way of saying that if you want a Canadian broadcasting license, there are rules. And one of those rules is, to paraphrase, “no fake news.”
Now there are some important caveats to keep in mind. You absolutely can get access to the Fox “News” Channel in Canada. The application for broadcast through digital subscriptions was approved in 2004. But being a foreign channel about foreign events (the CRTC noted that Fox’s Canadian coverage was limited) it’s not held to the same standards.
That said, there are good reasons we don’t see Fox analogues in Canada — no Fox News Canada Channel — and that’s because once you either (a) broadcast Canadian content, (b) broadcast content that competes with Canadian content, or (c) start a Canadian broadcasting company, you run into 5 (1) (d).
Back in 2011, a commission revisited the rule. It had considered changing the blanket ban on “false or misleading news” to something easier to skirt, having the ban only come into effect if the broadcasters were aware of the falsehood (something almost impossible to prove) and even then only when it “endangers or is likely to endanger the lives, health or safety of the public.” But in the end, they decided against. The whole saga was the result of a ruling in the 1990s that found a Holocaust-denier couldn’t be charged for spreading false information because his speech was protected by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and the uncertainty of the CRTC’s rule in the wake of that. But as I said, they went with “how about no.”
What it comes down to, in the end, is freedom, specifically the different understandings of the term above and below the border. In the US, “freedom” almost universally seems to mean “freedom to” — for instance the freedom to say whatever you want, whenever you want, to whomever you want. But in Canada we also think in terms of “freedom from,” meaning that maybe a member of a minority group should be free to go about their daily life without encountering hate speech.
In the same manner, the US conception of freedom of speech allows the printing and broadcasting of lies as news in a way that the Canadian one doesn’t. Instead of having the freedom to lie on the news, Canadians have the freedom from being lied to by the news.
It’s a shame we won’t see that kind of freedom in the “land of the free” any time soon.
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Richard Ford Burley is a human, writer, and doctoral candidate at Boston College, as well as an editor at Ledger, the first academic journal devoted to Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. In his spare time he writes about science, skepticism, feminism, and futurism here at This Week In Tomorrow.