Canuck watchdog growls at convergence

CRTC concerned over news gathering sharing

TORONTO — Canada’s broadcast regulator is in a tricky position in the wake of two major newspaper and television mergers last year.

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) is concerned about concentration of ownership, and particularly its effects on news gathering. But it has no powers to police the print media.

This dilemma came into sharp focus at license renewal hearings for the country’s two largest private networks, CTV Inc. and CanWest Global, which ended April 25.

CTV, with 31 stations and a raft of specialty channels, joined forces late last year with Canada’s largest national newspaper, the Globe & Mail, under new parent company Bell Canada Enterprises.

CanWest Global took a majority of Southam’s Canadian newspapers, Canada’s largest newspaper chain, including national newspaper the National Post.

The usual “hot” buttons — Canadian content and advertising regulation — took a back seat as the rivals teamed up to keep CRTC fingers out of their cross-media pies.

French Canadian TV and newspaper company Quebecor have already signed a voluntary code of conduct agreeing not to share newsgathering resources between its print and TV journalists.

Both CTV and CanWest Global flatly refused to the convergence-buster.

“The issue is whether the commission is going to regulate how journalists do their work,” CTV president and COO Trina McQueen tells Variety.

“CTV is trying to assure the commission that there will be diversity of presentation and news, and not get into the regulation of how a journalist works.”

The two networks presented their own codes of conduct offering to maintain separate management in their print and broadcast newsrooms and to set up independent bodies to handle complaints. But they fell short of promising separate news units.

The CRTC seems less than satisfied and is considering its own code.

But feisty CanWest Global scion Leonard Asper says he will challenge any code as impinging on freedom of speech. Bell Globemedia head honcho Ivan Fecan says he would not accept such a code.

The CRTC is expected to issue its decision in June or July. It has the authority not to renew the networks’ broadcast license but is unlikely to do that and leave most of English Canada without private television.

However, the commission can renew the license with conditions attached. It remains to be seen how stringent those conditions will be — and whether the firms accept them.