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CanWest pushes to drop ‘firewall’ between print and TV newsrooms

CanWest Gobal has asked federal regulators for a ruling that will reduce diversity of news coverage and “gut newsrooms,” says a representative of the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers (CEP), the union that represents many CanWest employees.

On January 13, CanWest filed an application that asks the CRTC, which regulates electronic media in Canada, to suspend “conditions of license respecting cross media ownership in light of the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council’s Journalistic Independence Code.”

The Journalistic Independence Code is an industry self-management document approved by the CRTC in October 2008.

If granted by the CRTC, the new ruling would apply to Burnaby’s Global BC and to CHEK TV in Victoria, as well as other CanWest stations across Canada.

The application asks the CRTC to remove conditions of licence imposed in 2001 when CanWest stations across Canada last came before the commission for permission to do business as TV broadcasters. Since their last application, CanWest had acquired Canada’s largest newspaper chain.

The 2001 conditions called on the company to “ensure the independence and separation of newsrooms of its television services and affiliated newspapers” by adhering to a Statement of Principles and Practices also imposed on Bell Globe Media.

At the time, the CRTC expressed strong concerns about the trend toward mega-media mergers in Canada. Its ruling said melding TV and print newsrooms owned by the same company might “enhance the quality of news coverage” or instead cause “loss of diversity voices and … distinct editorial voices available to the public.”

However, the 2001 ruling by the regulatory body did say that it would consider suspending the conditions of licence if CanWest agreed with the CBSC to comply with an industry-wide code of conduct approved by CRTC.

Eight years later, “Canwest is doing everything it can to slash newsrooms and reduce labour costs,” Peter Murdoch, Vice President Media of CEP, told The Hook.

“Our concern is that the application, which asks the CRTC to release the company from firewall protections will further gut newsrooms. This will not only cost journalists jobs, but it will give CanWest a single voice in all its operations. This is not healthy for democracy.”

Murdoch said that the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council and its Code of Journalistic Independence would represent a poor substitute for government oversight. He said that the Council is “primarily an instrument of the broadcasters themselves,” and the CanWest application, if approved, would “set up a self-adjudicating tribunal, not a real watchdog.”

The union spokesman said the cutoff date for public response to the application, January 28, is too soon. Far better, he argued, to let any such consideration happen later this spring, when TV stations are due for licence renewal hearings.

John Douglas, CanWest’s Vice President Public Affairs, said CEP claims about what the CRTC application means for broadcast and print newsrooms are wrong. In an email to the Hook, he wrote:

“I think you should read the CRTC information carefully because the comment that you have made about newsrooms is incorrect. We will defend our position within the appropriate forum … other than that, we have no comment.”

Tom Sandborn is a Tyee contributing editor and regular contributor to The Hook.

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