Sunday, January 30, 2005

Regulating Media

Regulating Culture (or, Censorship Part II)

In my last posting I offered my views on whether or not censorship could be legitimate. I argued that currernt debates about censorship, which present the issue in a “yes”/”no” light are academic. They fail to grapple with both the need for censorship (say, in making a criminal conspiracy illegal) or with the important issue of an appeals mechanism. Moreover, they often neglect the right of private institutions to control their own space. In this blog I want to extend this discussion to look at cultural regulation in the Canadian context.

As anyone who has studied Canada culture knows, it is regulated by the government. People who, for philosophic reasons, oppose government regulation, often paint regulation as a bad thing: too much red-tape, censorship, limiting consumer choice, etc. Again, I think this discourse misses the point. A great deal of the regulatory matrix of culture is needed for its smooth functioning. Someone, for instance, has to decide which radio station uses which frequency so a bunch of stations don’t try to broadcast on the same wavelength. This just makes sense and before anyone gets to strung out over regulation, they should know that a lot of the stuff regulators do is ordinary, day to day, stuff like this.

The real question is this: should the federal government regulate content of media? The instant answer might seem to be “no.” After all, who wants the government determining what they can watch or what they can listen to or see in the theatre? Certainly, not me. Thankfully, in Canada, content regulation does not work like this. The government does not determine what is broadcast on radio or show on TV or played in the theatres, except in a very general sense. And, I’d be willing to argue that in this very general sense, the system of regulation we have in Canada works very well.

How does it work? For anyone who doesn’t know, federal regulations exist to ensure that a certain percentage of music played on the ratio and programming on television is Canada and there is a formula to determine what counts as “Canadian.” (The merits of this formula can be a matter of debate. I’m interested in establishing the principle right now that regulation can be good.) Is this censorship? Is it the govvernment telling Canadians what they have to watch and listen to? Is it a bad thing?

I’d argue no because the effect of content regulations such as the ones Canada has is to broaden “consumer choice”; not to limit it? How so, well the fact that, say, a radio station has to play Canadian music does not mean that it has to play any particular Canadian artists. If you wanted to play, say, Bare Naked Ladies and not Celine Dion, go ahead, or vice versa. If you wanted to play Melanie Doan all day no ... oh, gee, Irish Descendants, that would be fine. The regulations say merely that it has to be Canadian. They don’t say which artists and they don’t limit any form of political expression on the radio. (I might write a blog on the CHOI case because the problems that station ran into had nothing to do with Canadian content; in fact the supposedly offensive individual was a Canadian!) Moreover, playing American or French or German or British music is not prohibited. A radio station can play any foreign music it wants. Say, you want to spend a day interspersing Green Day with Great Big Sea, you’ll run into no problems in terms of Canada content regulations. The issue for content regulations is the amount of Canadian versus foreign music played: no foreign music is denied airwaves in Canada. In this way, the government is actually not telling radio stations what to play at all. It leaves this decision (correctly, in my view) up to radio stations (in my last blog, you’ll recall I defended the right of private institutions to make their own determinations about the forms of expression they accept).

Why approach content regulation in this way? Precisely because it avoids the serious pitfalls that come from the excessive regulation of culture. Under the current system of cultural regulation maintained in Canada, the Canadian government ensures that private interests (or, an arms-length CBC) make content decisions. It does not eliminate, say, American music, which you can hear any day if you turn on the radio. It does not interfer with new reporting. All it does is ensure that Canadians get a certain amount of air time in their own country. What it ensures, in other words, is that Canadians can listen to Canadian music, should they so desire. In this way, I would argue, that Canadian content regulations actually broaden consumer choice in terms of music. Without these regulations, radio stations could ignore Canadian music and, hence, some choices would be not be available to consumers. Far from challenging consumer choice and forcing stuff “down consumers’ throats”, content regulations serve to broaden choice, promote the ability of Canadians to hear their own music, and they do so without government control of radio (or, television) so that freedom of the press is preserved.
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