Reports from Blacklocks Reporter and Western Standard suggest the CRTC will write a code of ethics for news outlets to follow. The reporting appears to be inaccurate.
The Online News Act is bad for many reasons. It introduces market distortions that favour the largest players, envisions the concept of referencing material as compensible activity, and is likely a violation of CUSMA/USMCA. Back in 2022, I wrote an analysis on the then legislation, discussing the many flaws and bad takes on how things like copyright law and the internet works. In the process, I quoted a section that deals with a code of ethics, but never really touched on it since I didn’t view it as a point of concern.
In the final version of the text, Section 27, in full, reads as follows:
Eligible news businesses — designation
27 (1) At the request of a news business, the Commission must, by order, designate the business as eligible if it
(a) is a qualified Canadian journalism organization as defined in subsection 248(1) of the Income Tax Act, or is licensed by the Commission under paragraph 9(1)(b) of the Broadcasting Act as a campus station, community station or native station as those terms are defined in regulations made under that Act or other categories of licensees established by the Commission with a similar community mandate;
(b) produces news content of public interest that is primarily focused on matters of general interest and reports of current events, including coverage of democratic institutions and processes, and
(i) regularly employs two or more journalists in Canada, which journalists may include journalists who own or are a partner in the news business and journalists who do not deal at arm’s length with the business,
(ii) operates in Canada, including having content edited and designed in Canada,
(iii) produces news content that is not primarily focused on a particular topic such as industry-specific news, sports, recreation, arts, lifestyle or entertainment, and
(iv) is either a member of a recognized journalistic association and follows the code of ethics of a recognized journalistic association or has its own code of ethics whose standards of professional conduct require adherence to the recognized processes and principles of the journalism profession, including fairness, independence and rigour in reporting news and handling sources; or
(c ) operates an Indigenous news outlet in Canada and produces news content that includes matters of general interest, including coverage of matters relating to the rights of Indigenous peoples, including the right of self-government and treaty rights.
So, as written, a code of ethics comes into play only as a means of identifying a qualifying news organization. This kicks in if you are not already a recognized news organization as per the Income Tax Act or aren’t operating as an Indigenous news outlet. This is… extremely innocuous and not really all that noteworthy from my perspective. If you are wanting that Google money, this is just one of many paths to get there (though, the paths are quite restrictive especially if you are a smaller news operation like us).
This didn’t get much attention during the debates throughout the legislative debate and even in the months after passage. so, you can imagine my surprise when some outlets suddenly started working themselves into an uproar over this recently. It appears that the outlet that originally sparked these fears is a known right wing news organization known as Blacklocks reporter. The report, albeit paywalled, showcases a screenshot of a Canadian Gazette publication with the following preview:
Federal regulators may draft a pre-election “code of conduct” for newsrooms, cabinet yesterday wrote in a legal notice. The Department of Heritage said under Bill C-18 the Online News Act already in effect, newsrooms are subject to CRTC guidance on ethics: “We will have to get precise on that.”
This, of course, sounds ominous, but a Western Standard article which is public goes further into the details of where the source of concern is:
Cabinet confirmed Canadian government regulators might draft a pre-election code of conduct for newsrooms, according to Blacklock’s Reporter.
“The CRTC (Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission) may regulate the following areas: ‘Creation of a code of conduct [and] a complaint process pertaining to how groups of eligible news businesses are to be structured and their conduct under the Act,’” said Canadian Heritage in a regulatory impact analysis statement.
Under Bill C-18, Canadian Heritage said newsrooms are subject to CRTC guidance on ethics.
Heritage Minister Pascale St-Onge dismissed any suggestion of political interference at the CRTC.
Clause 27.1.b.iv of Bill C-18 states newsrooms applying for Google money must demonstrate compliance with a code of ethics. Canada has no nationally recognized code of ethics.
“We will have to get precise on that,” said CRTC Executive Director of Broadcasting Policy Scott Shortliffe.
“It puts frankly a bit of an onus on us to define that.”
That’s… a bad interpretation of the text of Bill C-18. It’s not that the Canadian government is defining a specific code of ethics that journalists must follow, but rather, asking if the outlets follows a code of ethics. In all likelihood, when the CRTC is suggesting that they’ll have to offer some precision on that, it’s likely in response to the idea that any random person could create a “news” organization, create a website, hastily put together a WordPress install, write some random code of ethics, and apply for Google money without actually doing any journalism at all. There might be other things the CRTC will have to offer more precise language, but my interpretation is wildly different from the above interpretation.
Of course, that leaves where the Blacklocks reporter screenshot comes from. The screenshot comes from the Canadian Gazette. Specifically, this publication. Towards the bottom, we see the following (which is a much more full version than what was provided in the screenshot):
Regulatory cooperation and alignment
The Regulations are not related to a work plan or commitment under a formal regulatory cooperation forum. The Regulations themselves do not directly regulate platforms. Rather, they provide details to inform the CRTC on the regulation of the application, notification, and exemption sections of the Act. As an independent regulator, the CRTC will develop and issue further regulations that apply directly to platforms for those respective sections of the Act.
The CRTC may regulate the following areas:
- the process for exemption order requests;
- the mandatory bargaining and final-offer arbitration process;
- requests for eligibility of news businesses;
- the creation of a code of conduct;
- a complaint process pertaining to how groups of eligible news businesses are to be structured and their conduct under the Act;
- the provision of information by collectives of news businesses to the CRTC about their structure;
- the structure of the CRTC to enable itself to perform its functions under the Act; and
- the CRTC’s practices and procedures in relation to the Act.
This type of relationship between the regulator and Cabinet is specific to the federal legislative and machinery context of Canada and, as such, alignment of this specific instrument to other jurisdictions is not directly applicable. However, given that the Regulations provide details to the CRTC regarding the application of a broader regulatory regime to platforms within the news sector, analysis on how Canada’s general approach to news regulation compares to other jurisdictions is still relevant.
There is a LOT of context involved here that was snipped out of the original screenshot. The Gazette generally confirms that the CRTC is simply asking if the news organization follows a code of ethics as a means of identifying a news publication. What the CRTC is not doing, at least as per the original text of Bill C-18 and the Gazette, is writing a code of ethics and telling news rooms that they must follow a specific code of ethics that they write out. Further, the CRTC is not also telling news rooms that if they don’t follow their code of ethics, then they can’t get access to that funding.
So, unless there is a mysterious additional document out there that upends both the text of the legislation and the Canadian Gazette publication, then the Blacklocks Reporter report and the Western Standard are both wrong on their interpretation. Even if the Canadian government is acting out of line and demanding that Canada’s news rooms is specifically follow a specific code of ethics, those news rooms could easily file a lawsuit and argue that such an order oversteps the governments authority and misinterprets what the original legislation says. Either way, it’s a moot issue.
Personally, I don’t see the Canadian government using the Online News Act as a means of dictating specifically what reporters can and cannot say. Using it as a means of propping up legacy news organizations as their business models fail due to lack of innovation? Sure. As a means of directly getting involved in what news rooms are able to publish? Not likely. The outlets reporting otherwise need to come up with much more compelling evidence than the above to convince me otherwise.