BROOKE GLADSTONE: Last week, Canada’s equivalent of the FCC, the Canadian Radio, Television and Telecommunications Commission, announced that its regulation forbidding Canadian newscasters from broadcasting lies on the air will not be changed. The committee had discussed a proposal which would have softened the blanket prohibition on falsity on Canadian TV news; broadcasters wouldn't be liable for lies that were accidental or harmless. But Canadians revolted, the commission relented, and the result is that the Canadian law against online fabrication remains strict. University of Ottawa Law Professor Michael Geist followed the controversy. Michael, welcome to On the Media.
PROFESSOR MICHAEL GEIST: Well, thanks for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So the regulatory body was asked to consider changing the regulation. It decided not to change it. That means that there is still the blanket prohibition on false or misleading information. So what are the consequences if you break this rule?
PROFESSOR MICHAEL GEIST: Well, if you break the rule, in theory you could lose your license or face significant penalties. We haven't seen the rules applied. There’s a bit of a reticence on the part of the regulator to seek to apply those - rules, even in instances where the provision might actually apply.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: As far as I know, no one has ever lost their license as a result of presenting false or misleading information. I can't believe that Canadian broadcasters never lie. So why are they so reticent to enforce this rule?
PROFESSOR MICHAEL GEIST: Well, I, I think you’re probably right. I'm sure there are instances where there are broadcasts that are false.
[BROOKE LAUGHS] I, I suppose in a sense the regulator may have almost be reading in a higher threshold. I suspect that were a case of false or misleading news to come to light, one of the first questions they'd ask before trying to proceed down the road of enforcing the rule is whether or not there was actually a knowledge present – so did the broadcaster knowingly broadcast something that they knew to be false or was there something that was broadcast false inadvertently or through a mistake? And so, while the law itself doesn't distinguish, it certainly is in the realm of possibility that the regulator does in the extent to which they're looking to enforce those – rule.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So is this law effective despite the fact that it’s never enforced? Does it have the effect, do you think, of dissuading would-be liars? Could you even know?
PROFESSOR MICHAEL GEIST: That’s a good question, and in, in many ways I suppose it’s hard to know. Quite frankly, it’s been such an obscure provision that most people weren't even aware of it. It’s only when the CRTC, the regulator, proposed to changed it that suddenly it started capturing some real attention.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Real attention? My understanding is that Canadians got as upset as Canadians can get.
PROFESSOR MICHAEL GEIST: [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Explain to me how much of a lightning rod it was.
PROFESSOR MICHAEL GEIST: Well, it was one that generated thousands of Canadians to respond. It got a lot of coverage. It was even discussed on the floor of the House of Commons. And there were those that thought there was the sinister deep-secret motivations behind it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Why?
PROFESSOR MICHAEL GEIST: Well, part of it actually stems from the regulator itself, who’s been in the public eye on a number of issues, and this was, in a sense, just piling on. Beyond that, I think that there is, was some concern or at least attempts to link this particular proposal with the imminent entry of a new broadcaster into the marketplace, SUN TV, dubbed by some as FOX News North in Canada. The regulator has been adamant that there is no connection, but there were some who argue that surely this wasn't pure coincidence. The entry into the marketplace of a potentially more controversial news broadcaster that might push the envelope a little more might be happy to have some additional legal protection, knowing that the ability to broadcast something false or misleading wouldn't carry the same sort of penalty or wouldn't have the same sort of barrier they were facing under the previous rule.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Was FOX invoked a lot?
PROFESSOR MICHAEL GEIST: Oh, unquestionably. And so FOX is sort of the poster child for the view of a more polarized kind of, of television, and I suppose there are many in Canada who don't want to see that as yet another American import.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thank you very much.
PROFESSOR MICHAEL GEIST: Oh, my pleasure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Dr. Michael Geist teaches law at the University of Ottawa.