Radio & Television

COMMENTARY: Debate on Bill C-11 went nowhere – I think I know why

By Irene Berkowitz

BILL C-11, THE ONLINE STREAMING ACT, is Canada’s second attempt at modernizing media legislation. As many of us remember, in June 2021, its nearly identical predecessor, Bill C-10, failed to pass before Parliament dissolved.

Bill C-11’s progress through Parliament has been strategically plotted and the 2022 bill is likely to pass. However, since virtually every Canadian consumes media, every Canadian should know what’s been happening recently in Parliament.

For policy wonks like me who watch Parlvu, the Canadian Parliament webcast, recent episodes have been unforgettable. Twenty hours, May 24-June 2, of expert witness testimony to the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage (CHPC) on Bill C-11 were followed by an appearance, the following Monday, by Minister of Canadian Heritage, Pablo Rodriguez.

Thursday June 2 could have been a skit on Canadian Lorne Michael’s 47-year hit, Saturday Night Live, except it was real. Rodriguez waited to provide remarks and answer questions but left because time ran out during a filibuster of motions and sub motions.

Rodriguez returned Monday evening, June 6, and made the expected remarks promoting legislation that I believe is wrong-headed and counter-productive to strengthening our Canadian media economy. He referred to “decades” passed since Canadians decided to “defend our culture,” but did not acknowledge how the Internet has empowered Canadian culture in these decades.

What happened is that the Internet solved Canada’s 20th century policy problem: our small domestic audience. The old framework had worked brilliantly, until it didn’t. Results include our world-class media workforce that is fully employed and seizing the world stage, thanks to innovations built on the Internet.

During the last two weeks in Parliament, what happened was that twenty hours of witness testimony on Bill C-11 went nowhere. Rather, they were political theatre, grandstanding where MPs asked questions only of witnesses who supported their positions.

I’d appeared May 24, asserting Bill C-11 does not support Canadian storytelling, but rather, obsolete ways of defining and distributing Canadian stories. I’d expressed concern that Bill C-11 will chill Canadian media innovation in a sector exploding with exuberance, employment, and revenue.

YouTuber J.J. McCullough, after listening to the exhortations about old media’s rules and regs, observed: “As a new media creator, I do not want to live in old media. Leave us out of it. Thousands of Canadian creators are thriving because they appeal to a global audience.”

Morghan Fortier, CEO of Skyship Entertainment Company, creator of Canada’s #1 YouTube channel, Super Simple Songs, pointed out that business models of old and new media are non-overlapping, together expanding our media economy. She suggested C-11 was written by people who don’t understand new media.

Two expert witnesses, Tim Denton and Philip Palmer are highly credentialed attorneys who were on the policy team that wrote the 1991 Broadcasting Act (that C-11 will replace), but they do not support C-11’s approach. They referenced the natural process of creative destruction since the wheel, fire, assembly line. Transformation to a global, online media market is the biggest communications change since the 1450’s printing press. Per Palmer, C-11 is like requiring gas pedal manufacturers to subsidize buggy whip makers, because buggy whips are going obsolete.

Why do we seem stuck in the past? As the recent drama wound down, I realized I do know why. It’s the teacher in me.

Fortier was right. Those who support C-11 may not understand global dynamics underway for decades. Sheltered by Canada’s closed system, they can’t see the global view. They’re afraid of the unknown, which is normal; and they’re mad as hell, which is predictable.

In 1990, Harvard icon Michael E Porter analysed entrenched stakeholders: “Policy entitlements are an invisible dry rot, slowing the pace of innovation…successive generations of managers want to eliminate excessive competition to make life more predictable.”

Thinking of it like this creates empathy for C-11 supporters. They don’t see access to a global audience as a solve that came along just as Canada was ready with a world-class media workforce; just as technology enabled any Canadian to be a producer and consumer of global media. Policy could have adapted years ago, from “correct and protect” to “send and receive.”

I empathize because of a graduate media seminar I teach in The Creative School at Toronto Metropolitan University. Students respond to Exponential Potential: Media Growth and Innovation with comments like “best course ever” and “it should be mandatory.” Students are initially fearful about their imminent job search and see no jobs at legacy networks or newspapers. They panic.

A recent guest was Jeff Elgie, CEO of Village Media, a born digital network that champions local news and is leaping in size, advertising for employees nearly every week on LinkedIn. Village Media opened my students’ eyes to many growing Canadian media businesses.

I introduce the Fourth Industrial Revolution. We explore how public policy resists change, explained by Canadian Salim Ismail in a still riveting 2016 Ted Talk, How do we fix civilization? This YouTube should be required for all MPs. One extra-credit question: is it Cancon? Hint: it stars a Canadian, produced in Canada…

Perhaps education could fix this mess? I could give an executive version of my course for interested parties in Heritage, Parliament, or any interested witnesses.

I’m cloning a new word for how I envision the result of such effort: GLATIONAL, national policy informed by mastery of global dynamics. The teacher in me really wants to help.

Irene S. Berkowitz, PhD, is senior policy fellow at The Audience Lab, a research group in The Creative School, Toronto Metropolitan University, where she teaches. Also: executive producer and host of The Audience Lab Podcast series, The Sessions and Mediaucracy; author of Mediaucracy: Why Canada hasn’t made global hits; and lead author of Watchtime Canada: How YouTube connects creators and consumers