09/27/2011 02:47 EDT | Updated 11/27/2011 05:12 EST

Konrad von Finckenstein: CRTC Departure A Sign Harper Plans To Alter Media Landscape


Konrad von Finckenstein's departure next year as chairman of the CRTC could herald the beginning of the Harper government's efforts to reshape the Canadian media landscape.

Critics of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's policies on broadcasting and media have argued for years that von Finckenstein was an obstacle to what they saw as Harper's agenda to deregulate -- or at least differently regulate -- Canadian media.

Under a Harper media regime, they argue, Canadians could see the "Fox News-ification" of Canadian news, meaning greater commercialization of content and less emphasis on factual reporting.

But Harper's approach to telecom and broadcasting -- including his insistence on greater competition in wireless providers -- suggests consumers could stand to benefit from a new era at the CRTC, at least when it comes to purchasing media and telecom services.

The news Tuesday that von Finckenstein, who has headed the CRTC since 2007, won't be reappointed to another five-year term came as little surprise to observers. Lawrence Martin, in the Globe and Mail, speculated more than a year ago that Harper wanted von Finckenstein out, presumably because of the CRTC's unwillingness to give the conservative Sun TV News a mandatory-carriage licence (a licence that would have made Sun TV News mandatory on all cable subscriptions).

Late last year, another controversy broke out over regulation of TV news when a parliamentary committee asked the CRTC to change a rule that forbids news broadcasters from disseminating "any false or misleading news." The proposed change would see that rule altered so that broadcasters could not "knowingly" broadcast news that is "false or misleading and that endangers or is likely to endanger the lives, health or safety of the public."

Though the committee said it wanted the rule change because the current rule couldn't withstand constitutional scrutiny, critics saw the change as a loophole that would allow news stations to lie so long as the lies didn't directly endanger anyone's life. In the context of the then-imminent arrival of Sun News (dubbed "Fox News North" by its detractors), the attempt to loosen truth-in-broadcasting regulations was seen by many as an attempt to "Fox News-ify" the Canadian news landscape.

The CRTC rejected that change after the committee withdrew its application, citing a tidal wave of public anger. But with von Finckenstein gone, a new, more Harper-friendly CRTC could easily revisit the issue.

Harper and the CRTC have also clashed over Internet billing. This past February, the prime minister ordered the commission to review its decision allowing large Internet providers to force small providers who use their networks to cap bandwidth for customers (the famous usage-based billing controversy). A final decision in that matter is expected in November.

Harper's order in that matter appeared to side with consumers and against the large ISPs, suggesting that a Harper-shaped regulatory regime could be more consumer-friendly.

This also appeared to be the case with the issue of wireless providers. Eager to expand Canadians' cell phone choices beyond the big three carriers, the Harper government set aside a decision by the CRTC in 2009 blocking Egypt-based Globalive Wireless from launching Wind Mobile in Canada, as the company didn't meet Canadian ownership rules.

With entry to the market effectively loosened, the floodgates to new carriers such as Wind, Mobilicity and Public Mobile were opened.

(A federal court recently overturned the Conservative government's decision on Wind Mobile, setting up another court challenge.)

A recent report found that the introduction of new competitors to the wireless market has had the desired effect: Canadians are seeing lower wireless rates.