OTTAWA - The federal Conservatives are suggesting national media outlets censor political speech, all but confirming their plans to guarantee political parties full access to news content for attack ads.
Internal documents leaked to reporters this week detail a proposal from Heritage Minister Shelly Glover to change copyright laws, guaranteeing politicians and their agents access to journalism for their advertising.
While she refused to comment on “rumours” – presumably the leaked cabinet documents – Glover raised the spectre of censorship to defend the idea.
“Major television networks should not have the ability to censor what can and cannot be broadcast to Canadians,” Glover, who is also the minister responsible for the CBC, told the House of Commons.
“We believe that (using news clips for advertising) has always been protected under the fair dealing provision of the law and if greater certainty is necessary, we will provide it.”
The proposal would create an exception in copyright law for political advertising, giving political parties the right to use news content “without being bound by rights holder authorization.”
While newspaper and magazine clips are mentioned, the documents focus mostly on broadcast news. The Conservative government has used television attack ads to devastating effect against successive Liberal and NDP leaders.
Speaking to reporters in Whitby on Thursday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said he would be wary of any proposal to “censor that kind of information from the public.”
According to the documents, the Conservatives anticipated some political backlash from the proposal. A robust communication plan to deal with “vocal stakeholders” was suggested.
It was also suggested to tuck away the change in the omnibus budget bill – legislation that typically makes hundreds of legislative changes over hundreds of pages.
“Creators of news … will vehemently claim that their work is being unfairly targeted for the benefit of political parties,” the document reads.
While the television networks may not like it, the document notes that they’re obliged to provide airtime to political parties during elections.
“You could have the completely bizarre situation where a broadcast outlet is actually forced to run advertising that perverts the content that they themselves originally collected,” said Ralph Goodale, deputy leader for the Liberals.
It’s not clear when or if the presentation was made to cabinet. But the fight appears to have been brewing since the spring, when national networks notified political parties they would not air ads featuring content used without permission.
The document notes that corporations cannot hold “moral rights” to oppose the use of their content, although employees (such as news directors or editors) may.
Craig Scott, the NDP’s democratic reform critic, said only applying the exemption to political parties mean only a “select few” will benefit from it, and said that could not be defended on freedom of speech grounds.
“Whatever public policy rationale they’re attempting to float out there, limiting it only to political parties cannot be defended as something to do with democratic speech,” Scott said. “It’s about pure political advantage of a political party, but particularly (the Conservatives).”