The McGill OpenMedia.ca campus club goes to the Bell/Astral hearing

McGill campus club members with CRTC Chairman Jean-Pierre Blais

As part of a larger campaign to spread awareness about communications issues in Canada, we at OpenMedia.ca have been encouraging students at universities and colleges across Canada to run OpenMedia.ca clubs on their campuses.

These clubs work on a variety of outreach, organizing, and public education activities—including speaking events, film screenings, hosting educational workshops—but this fall, OpenMedia McGill club started their semester with a bang: they sat in on a part of the CRTC hearing on Bell’s takeover of Astral Media. Here’s what they reported back:

On Wednesday September 12th, members of OpenMedia McGill’s campus chapter ventured to the Palais de Congrès to sit in on the public hearing. The hearing can be categorized as the third phase in the CRTC’s decision-making process. To provide a bit of background, in phase one Bell/Astral submitted their merger to the CRTC. During phase two the CRTC notified the public about the merger, and called for public comments that responded to the news. All parties presenting at the five-day hearing were groups or individuals who had previously commented on the merger during phase two, and were called to the CRTC to clarify and expand upon their comments. In the context of the hearing, groups or individuals who had submitted comments to the CRTC were termed “interveners.” Essentially, the hearing acted as an interactive forum and provided the CRTC commissioners a chance to question, clarify, and expand upon and statements made by interveners.

Before entering the hearing room itself, we were greeted by Denis Carmel, the CRTC’s Media and Parliamentary Relations director. This was a wonderful stroke of luck, as we were able to ask him background questions about this particular hearing, as well as general questions about the CRTC. Soon after, he brought us to a room where you could find anything from transcripts documenting the hearing, from the first two days, to intervenor's individual submissions. He also kindly arranged a quick photo-opportunity with Chairman of the CRTC, Jean-Pierre Blais, during an intermission in between interventions. It was an incredible opportunity to meet Mr. Carmel, as he acted as a personal guide to the Bell/Astral hearing.

We arrived at the hearing around 9 AM and stayed for a couple of hours. The presenters we saw included the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada, the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists (ACTRA), L’Équipe Spectra, Première Bobine Inc., and Rogers Communications Inc. In the afternoon Janet Lo from the Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC) was presenting; however, due to time constraints, we had to leave before she spoke.

It was amazing how quickly the audience in the room increased as we approached Rogers’ presentation. Rogers’ intervention elicited the largest number of questions from the commissioners as the big telecom company spoke out against the merger of Bell and Astral Media. While Rogers had a number of reasons as to why it opposed the merger, it kept referring to the several underlying issues: should Astral Media merge with Bell, the problems of vertical integration and media concentration would run rampant.

Club leaders Stella and Alex went on to write about the public interest, both in terms of what they’ve learned at McGill, and about the way the notion was being manipulated by Bell to advance their dominance of Canada’s communications system:

In media governance classes at McGill, one key concept discussed is how one determines what the public interest is, and the different welfares (social, political, and economic) that influence what one considers to be in the best interest for the public. At the hearing, public interest was the key issue, namely whether the Bell/Astral merger would benefit or hinder the public interest.

It was fascinating to see how both proponents and opponents of the merger used arguments that could be grouped under these three common welfares to support their views. Sometimes it is forgotten that big businesses do not only utilize economic welfare arguments, but they also employ, and sometimes manipulate, social welfare arguments to support their position. The Bell/Astral merger would decrease consumer choice (social/economic welfare), threaten innovation (social welfare), and increase prices for consumers (economic welfare), which negatively affects public interest.

The students from OpenMedia McGill were also sure to note that we have a long way to go before digital policy-making is as open and participatory as Canadians need. This is why Canadians engaged in these issues need to be sure to spread the word within your communities, online and off:

At OpenMedia McGill, we hope to make students aware of such media-related issues and guide them in the right direction should they hope to take action.

You can learn more about Bell’s takeover and take action at StopTheTakeover.ca.