Heritage committee probes state of Canada's media

Former broadcasters Seamus O'Regan and Kevin Waugh are lending their expertise to a House of Commons committee examining Canada's fast-changing media landscape.

Journalists-turned-politicians playing key role in Commons' media study

The centre block of the Parliament buildings in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Former broadcasters Seamus O'Regan and Kevin Waugh are lending their expertise to a House of Commons committee examining Canada's fast-changing media landscape.

O'Regan, a Liberal MP, and Waugh, a Conservative, entered politics from careers on television.

At the same time as O'Regan was working for CanadaAM and then CTV national news, Waugh was covering sports for CTV out of his home province of Saskatchewan.

Seamus O'Regan is Liberal member of the Common's Heritage Committee. (CBC)
Now as MPs they're putting their professional backgrounds to use at the Commons' heritage committee studying the state of local media in Canada.

The study began in February amidst a wave of change in Canadian newsrooms. It will hold at least 10 meetings but has been inundated with requests from people to appear, raising the potential of going longer.

What they've heard so far is not encouraging:

  • A decision by the former government to stop advertising in community papers, for example, has seen some publications lose more than half their budgets.
  • Three French-language community radio stations no longer have any paid staff.
  • Since 2011, 20 out of 122 daily newspapers have closed, including two in 2016, according to a presentation to the committee from the Heritage department.

But the committee is also tackling bigger questions about the future of a free press in Canada and the impact digital-only publications have on the age-old question of who is a journalist, or who polices the quality and veracity of content both online and on the air.

Committee chair and Liberal MP Hedy Fry raised eyebrows early on when she asked the CRTC if regulators were examining whether digital content needed to be regulated to ensure it is truthful.

She said she didn't mean to suggest curbs on free speech but more whether existing legislation that covers broadcasters and holds them to certain standards is being equally applied to those who only broadcast online. The CRTC has yet to submit an answer.

Media landscape changes quickly

What the entire study will come to is anyone's guess, said Fry. The intent is to submit a report and with it, recommendations. But she acknowledges the media landscape changes daily.

"Between the time we started the study and now, the sands are shifting and we don't know what's going to come out," she said.

Two things could change the landscape in the coming months: the CRTC's own review of local broadcasting, which is also considering whether funds it has at its disposal could be used to better support the industry; and the Liberals' promise to reinstate $150 million in annual funding to the CBC. That money could come as early as Tuesday's budget.

Conservative MP Kevin Waugh, who represents Saskatoon-Grasswood, Sask., is a former sports director for CTV Saskatoon. Waugh spent 40 years in broadcasting before making the jump to federal politics. He is on the Common's Heritage Committee. (Conservative Party of Canada)
Waugh said he sees clear benefits to having former broadcasters like himself and O'Regan at the table. Witnesses — especially those from government departments or the CRTC — can't hide anything, he said, because he and others have seen the realities of cuts and technological change first hand.

But no matter their backgrounds, all the MPs on the committee have a vested interest in trying to suggest some viable solutions to help support local news, he said.

"As parliamentarians the worst thing that can happen is two years from now we have a big statement in the House of Commons and we come out and guess what, there's nobody there to put a mic to us," Waugh said. "That's what we're headed for."


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