After months of deliberation, the CRTC today finally approved Al-Jazeera English for distribution in Canada, without conditions.
What’s remarkable about this decision is, well, that it’s entirely unremarkable. To all appearances, this should have been a relatively easy regulatory call: Al-Jazeera English fit squarely within the new regulatory framework announced a year ago for distribution of non-Canadian news services, where the CRTC stated that it would generally approve such services absent “clear evidence” that the service would violate Canadian regulations. There was strong demand for the service, as shown by the 2600 interventions in favour. Furthermore, Al-Jazeera English wisely engaged in extensive outreach to potential opponents, such as Jewish organizations, which had vocally objected to the request for approval of Al-Jazeera Arabic several years ago. These efforts were apparently successful: this time, those organizations stated that they would not oppose approval for Al-Jazeera English.
And yet, the CRTC took nine months to finally grant approval to Al-Jazeera English. Compare, for example, the recent approval for Russia Today, like Al-Jazeera English a non-Canadian, English-language news service. Like Al-Jazeera English, Russia Today is funded by the government of a state, and like Al-Jazeera English, some outside observers have accused Russia Today of serving the propaganda interests of that state.
Unlike Al-Jazeera English, though, the number of interventions on the record in support of Russia Today were – two. Yes, two. And unlike Al-Jazeera English, Russia Today was approved in just three and a half months.
Personally, I have no objection to the speedy approval of Russia Today. This is, after all, exactly the way the process was intended to work. But from a business perspective, I don’t doubt that the uncertainty is deeply frustrating. Al-Jazeera English should have had every reason to believe that its service should eventually be approved, but it had no way of knowing when. Originally, it had stated it hoped to be broadcasting in Canada by the fall. The record for the proceeding had closed by the end of June, and the CRTC said it would issue a decision by the end of the summer.
In fairness, the CRTC’s statutory mandate for broadcasting is complex and often rather cumbersome. I can’t help wondering, though, whether there aren’t ways to further streamline the process. The CRTC has already set out a more light-handed regime for approval of non-Canadian news services, or third-language Canadian and non-Canadian services. What if, for example, the CRTC could also set out timelines within which such decisions will be issued (perhaps in a summary fashion) where a licensing application or distribution request raises no novel regulatory issues?
One other striking aspect of today’s decision was the unusual dissent by Commissioner Marc Patrone, who objected, among other things, to the absence of sufficient evidence that Al-Jazeera English is truly free of “bias”, the absence of proof that the Qatari government will not interfere in its content, and the absence of proof that Al-Jazeera Arabic and Al-Jazeera English are sufficiently separate. With all due respect to the Commissioner, however, his approach seems to have effectively placed the burden on Al-Jazeera English to prove a negative, as well as finding it guilty by association. As a viewer of the Canadian broadcasting system, moreover, I find rather patronizing – not to mention alarming – the suggestion that the government’s regulator must protect me from potential editorial biases. Thanks, but no thanks.