Uber shows the pervasiveness of sharing

July 7, 2015

There is nothing very remarkable about sharing. Even with rides it goes on in many ways. I use my car as a taxi-like service when I give friends a ride to the airport. No money changes hands but I hope the favour may be returned. The alternative is to call a licensed taxi service or now to use Uber. On vacation I may rent a car, boat or bike. These belong to someone who shares their use with others. Truck rentals are another form of sharing. Any time the word rental is used, it relates to some form of sharing.

 

In other venues we share space in places like restaurants, hotels, theatres, car washes, garages, and in rental clothing outlets. In a capital intensive society the ownership of capital provides both the opportunities and incentives for sharing and creating ways to be financially rewarded. Making intensive use of capital or finding ways for it to be used and paid for is a natural inclination for its owners.

 

The complaint by taxi owners and drivers is that they provide a service under conditions which are less favourable than those of Uber. Rules can be changed but from society’s viewpoint Uber is making more efficient use of capital resources. Cars parked or used to carry one person, say to work and back, means that it is under utilised for a large part of the day. Much of city street space is often used as a parking lot for idle capital.

 

So far the sharing examples relate to physical capital. Many items that carry a patent or copyright, such as the text of a book, a piece of music, picture or formula are bits of intangible capital which can be used over and over again without wearing out like a car or piece of machinery. Society shares aspects of this type of capital and has set up complicated means for owners to be rewarded from the sharing which takes place. Thus owners of this intangible capital can claim rewards from those who use it. The users will often try to avoid making payment, and avoidance is now aided by the ease of distribution over the Internet.

 

An outstanding feature of modern societies is that they contain large amounts of tangible and intangible capital, much of which is used less intensively than it could be. Homeowners, often for reasons of convenience, own their own set of indoor and outdoor appliances which are used less intensively than if they were shared. A wealthy society is often characterized by people owning assets and a lack of sharing. When hard times occur, as with gasoline rationing during wartime, then people resort to sharing and planning rides to make greater use of a planned trip.

 

While Uber for ride sharing and rentals in homes for room sharing are obvious examples of this practice, every economic activity can be examined for its sharing potential and to explore why it does or does not occur. Sharing is as useful a concept as scarcity in explaining the basis for how economic activity is organized and managed. Developments in information technology have expanded the sharing potential for certain types of activity, often for the greater benefit of consumers, but at times for producers who can organize activities to create additional streams of income or exposure to potential buyers.

Affirmative Action can be harmful

June 24, 2015

Canadian federal governments already exercise affirmative action (AA) when cabinets are formed to ensure regional representation, Anglophone and Francophone members, as well as those from racial minority groups. The proposal to require certain levels of gender representation in cabinets creates another dimension of AA. Once gender is added, other groups emerge to argue for similar representation.

 

This happened in university hiring for faculty members. First AA was instituted for the hiring of women, then other groups such as aboriginals and the physically disabled argued that they should be accorded preference. Earlier groups were not enthusiastic about those who came later, and questions were raised about how to establish priorities between the groups, and what this might do to the quality of the educational experience.

 

Consider another venue. What happens in so-called national soccer leagues?  The only thing English about some of the clubs in the English Premier Soccer League is the name of the team, with owners, coaches and players coming from abroad. In order to form the best teams, which provide the best entertainment for spectators, players are recruited from anywhere in the world. AA is not applied. In world cup competition AA does occur in that players have to be associated with their national team.

 

My point is that AA is present in all kinds of activity, but its presence means that it will affect the performance of the activity in ways which may not be beneficial to others. Once one group is given preference others will seek the similar treatment which will ultimately adversely affect the performance of the activity.

 

It may make sense to have AA re gender equality in the Canadian federal cabinet, but how do you achieve this when less than half the elected members of any party are of one gender, and when it merely entices other groups to argue for some form of preference. At some point the quality of decision making will suffer even further,

 

Finding Reliable News

June 16, 2015

The combination of social media and the 24 hour news cycle has lead to the manufacture and distribution of poor quality news and commentary, making it harder to separate the chaff from the wheat.  The consumer is faced with the challenge of finding the good stuff.

 

Blogs abound, some written by informed commentators, many with a particular bias or point of view.  News organizations in countries like Canada, the US and UK are caught up in this rat race. CBC/Radio Canada, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC compete for audiences, resulting in the distribution of a mass of worthless or often low quality content. Motivated by advertising revenue where audiences are sold to advertisers, these organizations compete to keep audiences tied to their output.

 

As for many other activities, communications technology has had an impact on the news media. Today, print and especially broadcast news media are fashioned as entertainment. Many consumers no longer put aside time to read a daily newspaper and listen to or view a daily broadcast, they access news 24/7 in a variety of ways which news organizations try to supply.

 

How can the consumer access quality (factual and unbiased) news reporting and commentary? The offerings are as varied as that of restaurant menus in a large city. My choice for quality news includes amongst others the following:

 

  1. Newspapers – Globe and Mail, New York Times, Financial Times, Economist
  2. TV – PBS The News Hour and Charlie Rose, TVO The Agenda with Steve Paquin. What appeals to me about these programs is that the anchors are informed and ask tough questions, but do not insert their own views into the content. That is not the case for the 24 hour news channels.
  3. Blogs – The Conversable Economist, Arts and Letters Daily, Thought du Jour

 

This may seem a short list, but since there are only 24 hours in a day and each of these items, especially the blogs, lead to further reading, they can consume a lot of time. The bad news is that there is a mass of low quality news distributed daily, often by organizations which once had a reputation for good journalism. The good news is that today’s communications technology allows for the distribution of high quality content, but this requires the user to spend time in searching for it.

 

 

Do unitary and federal states differ?

May 22, 2015

Recent elections in the UK with a population of 64 million and Alberta with 4 million have some similarities worth noting. The UK is considered a unitary state with one main level of government, and Alberta a provincial government in a federal state, Canada, with one federal and a series of provincial governments. Each level has designated powers and responsibilities. But in many ways they seem similar.

 

A closer look at the UK shows it too has federal-like features which became prominent in the recent election. The UK consists of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland (Great Britain is England, Wales and Scotland). Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland each have parliaments with some but not identical powers and responsibilities, making each area somewhat similar to Canadian provinces. Of the three, Scotland has the most powers including some forms of taxation. The others tend to rely on funds collected and distributed by Westminster with spending decisions made locally.

 

In addition, the UK is divided into counties, each of which has a county council which makes spending decisions regarding public services such as education, transport, strategic planning, emergency services, social services, public safety and waste disposal. In sum, although often considered a unitary state, the UK has levels of government with various revenue and expenditure powers. While international relations, defense, and justice in the UK are responsibilities of the parliament at Westminster, much of the delivery of services like health and education is undertaken by other levels of government. A unitary state perhaps, but with federal-like features.

 

This contrasts with the Canadian federation where elections take place at both the federal and provincial levels as well in the municipalities. Each has various taxation and borrowing powers as well as funds transferred between levels; each has assigned levels of responsibilities, such as health and education being administered by the provinces. An attempt is made to allow citizens of one province to receive a similar level of service and treatment in other provinces, but the process is messy. And, for example, there is not free trade in some sectors between provinces, although much is made of agreements like the WTO and NAFTA which promote free trade between Canada and other countries.

 

The differences may not be as clear cut as the terms imply. Both countries have parts which want to separate, Scotland in the case of the UK, and Quebec for Canada. If either does, it will have to establish treaty-type rights with what remains of their former countries. All governments do much the same things regardless of whether they are labeled unitary or federal.

Governance and the Internet

April 18, 2015

Orwell, Assange and  Snowden

Skill testing question…..what do these three have in common? All have been concerned with the state using technology to spy on and control its citizens. When George Orwell wrote 1984 in 1948, he recognised the issues, but had no idea of how the technology would develop to allow the state and others to spy on and influence citizens. When Julian Assange and Edward Snowden showed what and how the US government in 2014 actually collected, stored and used information in to spy on people at home and abroad, they confirmed Orwell’s warnings. Today, Assange shelters in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London to avoid arrest and deportation to Sweden; to avoid US authorities, Snowden resides in Moscow, where he was recently interviewed by John Oliver for a US television broadcast. Snowden had been the subject of a documentary film, CitizenFour.

In January 2013, Laura Poitras received an encrypted e-mail from a stranger who called himself Citizen Four. In it, he offered her inside information about illegal wiretapping practices of the US National Security Agency (NSA) and other intelligence agencies. Poitras had already been working for several years on a film about monitoring programs in the US that were the result of the September 11 attacks. In June 2013, accompanied by investigative journalist Glen Greenwald and The Guardian intelligence reporter Ewen MacAskill, she went to Hong Kong with her camera for the first meeting with the stranger, who identified himself as Edward Snowden. Several other meetings followed. The recordings gained from the meetings form the basis of the film. (Wikipedia).

 

Fast forward to today and the topic of the internet, what it is, what it does and what governments should do about it is the subject of numerous studies which bring together specialists from different disciplines to provide their analysis and recommendations. This material is extensive and often repetitive. One example of a paper providing an informed succinct survey of many of the issues is Melissa Hathaway, Connected Choices: How the Internet is Challenging Sovereign Decisions (Paper No. 11, April 2015 for the Global Commission on Internet Governance, CIGI and Chatham House. The Economist provides informed content of developing issues in the field.

The question posed here is whether we have been here before in dealing with a similar range of issues concerning the introduction of new communications technology. If so, then the caveat that “everything old is new again” may be a useful point of departure in discussing internet governance.

The Internet provides a means to create, store and transmit information which can be used for multiple purposes – messaging, banking, education, health services, news, book and magazine publishing, blogs, entertainment, delivery of government services, control of power grids, national defense, making and breaking criminal activities. Anything that can have an e- placed in front of it has internet implications.

Each of the listed activities has a formal and/or informal governance structure, sometimes one or more government departments or agencies, or governance organized by those involved in the activity. Thus, in Canada, the CRTC does it for telecommunications, and private producers for deciding whether food is “organic” or “gluten free.”

Given the pervasiveness of the internet, it may be ambitious to expect that it would be either easy or possible to arrange for its governance as a whole, as opposed to a particular activity which is internet related. Exhibit 1 summarises the difference between governance and government.

 

Exhibit 1.

“Governance refers to “all processes of governing, whether undertaken by a government, market or network, whether over a family, tribe, formal or informal organization or territory and whether through laws, norms, power or language.” It relates to “the processes of interaction and decision-making among the actors involved in a collective problem that lead to the creation, reinforcement, or reproduction of social norms and institutions.” 

To distinguish the term governance from government: a government is a formal body invested with the authority to make decisions in a given political system. ” (Wikipedia)

 

The case of publishing

Consider publishing as one activity impacted by the internet, and the governing regimes which have grown up over time. Publishing has a long history from development of speaking, creation of letters, alphabets and words, preparation of documents first by hand, then the printing press and now electronic word processing and distribution.

Scribes in monasteries fought the introduction of the printing press which went through changes from the setting of lead type to the use of typewriters and computers. In the UK, it took a Rupert Murdoch to break the grip of unions representing lead typesetters, some of whom were retrained to type on keyboards. This was a labour issue related to changing technology and largely unconnected with regime change except for any relevant labour laws.

 

In this industry, governance comes to the fore when considering copyright:

 “The history of copyright law starts with early privileges and monopolies granted to printers of books. The British Statute of Anne1710, full title “An Act for the Encouragement of Learning, by vesting the Copies of Printed Books in the Authors or purchasers of such Copies, during the Times therein mentioned”, was the first copyrights statute. Initially copyright law only applied to the copying of books. Over time other uses such as translations and derivative works were made subject to copyright and copyright now covers a wide range of works, including maps, performances, pantings, photographs, sound recordings, motion pictures and computer programs.”

 

Other rights, such as the moral rights of authors, evolved to increase the returns to authorship. Copyright was also used as censorship to assist the sovereign in managing news and opinions.

The terms of compensation and length of copyright ownership rights are constantly debated today, with authors lobbying to extend the protection granted to them by law. Note, a similar argument relates to patent rights, and is used by pharmaceutical and other firms to protect their intellectual property.

The accumulated protection has been weakened or undermined by the internet. It has reduced the ability of copyright owners to protect their rights. There are continual attempts to revise the laws and copyright regimes which exist to deal with electronic publishing and the use of material. This is red meat for the legal profession, which is paid to protect both owners and those seeking to introduce more competition into the intellectual property market. Economists have not done badly either as consultants in this debate.

A history of the regime for authorship, publishing and distribution, shows the way the regime has changed and is now affected by the new technology. In order to establish governance for the internet as a whole, it will be necessary to address each aspect of its impact, that is each industrial, social and political activity which is affected by it. Constructing one overall regime would seem to be a challenge to say the least. And considering there are around 200 countries in the world, each of which claims sovereignty in some sense, the challenge may be overwhelming.

 

The case of broadcasting

Fast forward to Canada in 2015, where debate swirls around the domestic regime for television. The broadcasting regulator has ruled that Canadians should, at last, be allowed to pick and pay for the channels they want to watch – as they do for food when they buy groceries in the supermarket. Previously, the regime has required that consumers be offered TV channels in bundles regardless of whether they wanted them, and some of these channels would be required to carry a certain amount of content that was branded as Canadian.

Branding meant application of a formula regarding such things as the nationality of the inputs used in the program. Requiring Canadians to view these programs proved impossible to enforce, and is even more so now with services like Netflix, YouTube and material available on the web.

The point is that the regime for broadcasting has evolved with a complex set of rules which benefited certain groups but ignored the interest of others, viewers in this case. The same thing is likely to happen when developing a regime for the wide range of activities which make use of the internet. Governance of individual activities is often complex, governance of the whole will be a Herculean task. Today about 40% of the world’s population of seven billion have internet access. In the next few years the figure is likely to rise to 80%.

An Older Adult?

April 14, 2015

In a neighbourhood park, the City of Ottawa has kindly placed a new bench. It is inscribed for the “Older Adult.” Not the old person, senior, pensioner, retiree or even old man (sorry person), shrively, wrinkly, old fart (or even something a little earthier).  I know I belong to the ranks of older adults. But is it not possible to use a phrase which describes clearly who I am? And how am I to know how old an older adult has to be to use this convenience?

Do Empires make a Difference?

April 5, 2015

The Ottoman and British Empires
Two decades before I was born, the Ottoman Empire ended and evolved into a group of new countries superimposed on old real estate. About the same time (1918-1960s) the British Empire also wound down. These large entities, both of which had had centuries of global political and economic influence, came to an end. They were followed by two superpowers or kind of empires, the U.S. and the USSR which exist today (the latter as Russia), both with waning influence, more so in the case of the USSR, and both engaged in international conflicts.

Fast forward to 2015. How are the influences of these two empires reflected in today’s geographical areas and issues of conflict? Empires make a difference, but often in unpredictable ways. Is it the case, that the toxic situations which now exist in the Middle East, North Africa, Greece, the former Yugoslavia and the Ukraine for example, can be linked to events surrounding both but especially the Ottoman Empire?

My schooling was deficient (probably in many ways). It exposed me to the history of the Roman and British empires, but with little attention paid to the Ottoman Empire. Understanding the rise and fall of the Ottomans may be a crucial factor in appreciating what is happening today. Those interested can view a three part BBC television series (available on the web) which provides an excellent summary of the rise and demise of the Ottomans.

Similarities and differences

  1. The genesis of the Ottoman Empire was a town in Turkey, whence it expanded to rule parts of Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. A map shows the furthest scope of the Ottomans with its boundaries of influence waxing and waning over six centuries from the 1300s. See:

http://peter.mackenzie.org/history/maps43.htm (other maps on the web provide similar information.)

 

  1. Today’s Arab Spring and recent conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, and southern parts of what was the USSR such as the Ukraine and the Crimea, coincide with areas once controlled by the Ottomans. Post hoc ergo propter hoc is a risky form of argument, but it may be worthwhile seeing whether the circumstances of the Ottomans help explain today’s conflicts.

 

  1. Another major player to consider at least for part of this period is the role of the British Empire. As a maritime empire with its lands spread around the world, the British, English at first, had a variety of preoccupations. North America evolved as a colony of settlement, at first with people mainly from what became the UK, and then from other European countries and later those from Asia and Latin America. Australia and New Zealand were also settlement colonies, unlike the Indian subcontinent where the British went mainly for reasons of trade in competition with other European countries, especially Portugal, France and the Netherlands in the East Indies. Maritime power and control over trade routes were crucial to Britain’s imperial development. In India, England interacted with an ancient civilization.

 

 “In the beginning there were two nations. One was a vast, mighty and magnificent empire, brilliantly organized and culturally unified, which dominated a massive swathe of the earth. The other was an undeveloped, semi-feudal realm, riven by religious factionalism and barely able to feed its illiterate, diseased and stinking masses. The first nation was India. The second was England. (Indian Summer, Alex Von Tunzelmann, 11).”

 

  1. Places like the West Indies, Gibraltar, Malta, Hong Kong and the Falkland Islands were colonised for reasons of either control over trade routes or for trade itself. British actions involving the Suez Canal were also trade related. While the Ottomans were not uninterested in trade, part of their motivation was to expand political control over neighbouring lands, and to tax the subject peoples

 

  1. The religious dimension was different for the two empires. While Christian missionaries were active in parts of the empire such as Africa, in India the British rulers were content to let the local religions (muslim, hindu, sikh) operate with minor interference to prevent practices like suttee (widow burning), which was outlawed by the British Raj in 1829. Trade predominated in British territorities, and different religions could pursue their traditional customs if they didn’t interfere with trade.

 

  1. The religious dimension of the Ottoman Empire was different. The lands they ruled embraced Christians, Jews, Muslims and other religious sects, and the holy places of worship in Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem. The Hagia Sofia, originally a Christian place of worship for the Greek Orthodox Church from 537 to 1483, converted to an Imperial Mosque until 1931 when it became a museum. The Ottomans appeared adept at ruling peoples of different religious faith. They extended their reach to neighbouring lands, but had little interest in developments taking place further afield, such as across the Atlantic. They appear to have imploded but for reasons other than religion. I am not sure why, but while the British Empire was continually revitalising itself, until it finally became overextended at least financially, the Ottomans were more inward looking and were gradually pushed back, especially after their defeat by the Austrians at Vienna in 1683.

 

    The two empires cooperated and competed at various times after 1800. The Crimean War (1853 – 1856) pitted Russia against an alliance of France, Britain and the Ottoman Empire. Competing religious factions saw the Russians promoting the interests of orthodox Christians and the French the rights of Catholics in lands controlled by the Ottomans. The British and French also allied to prevent the Russians gaining territory and power at the expense of the Ottomans who were declared “the sick man of Europe.” In particular, the British wanted to prevent Russia getting access to the Mediterranean which could threaten its trade route to the east. The Suez Canal opened in 1869, but the Mediterranean was seen as part of the trade route before this. Three Afghan wars were also fought by the British in order to prevent southward expansion by Russia, a country short of warm water coastal ports.

 

    The British and Ottoman empires came into direct military conflict when Turkey allied with Germany against Great Britain during WW1. Churchill promoted the action which led to the British defeat at Gallipoli in 1915, but overall defeat of the axis powers resulted in the final dismantling of the Ottoman Empire in the peace negotiations after 1918. Gallipoli also saw the rise of Ataturk as the Turkish ruler who would create a modern Islamic state where Christians and Muslims coexisted, although not always peacefully. Today Turkey has a leader who is leading more towards Muslim side of the coin.

 

  1. Today, the footprint of the British Empire is found in the Commonwealth, an association of 53 countries, two of which Madagascar and Rwanda were never part of the Empire. The member countries account for 25% of the world’s land area, about one-third of the world’s population and 17% of world GDP. If the US is added, the share of world GDP climbs to 35%. Before its rebellious exit, the US was the jewel in the imperial crown. The Commonwealth countries are united by a combination of language, history, culture, shared values of democracy, human rights and the rule of law.

 

  1. A similar report card for the Ottoman Empire would be viewed less favourably in most parts of the world. The most obvious difference is that today, racial and religious violence is taking place in many of the places which were once ruled by the Ottomans. Even if there is not global acceptance of universal human rights, which are seen by some to be western-oriented rights, there is universal horror of the torture, beheadings and genocidal tendencies taking place in parts of the world. Most of these places were once part of the Ottoman Empire. Maybe it’s a coincidence and I repeat, post hoc ergo propter hoc is a tricky path to follow,but its worth thinking about. It coincides with David Pilling’s conclusion (Financial Times Feb. 27, 2015) that “The Middle East is completely imprisoned in the past. Nobody can let go.”

 

Lee Kwan Yew and post colonial nations

March 26, 2015

“Lee (Kwan Yew) would surely regret not having survived just a few more months to witness Singapore’s 50th anniversary celebrations this August. But he can rest in peace knowing that the country he led from 1959 to 1990 is the world’s most successful post-colonial nation. Gulf monarchies are laden with bling but vulnerable to wars, coups, and falling oil prices. Africa needs another half-century to heal its colonial scars. India is only beginning to get its act together. Meanwhile, Singapore has grown from having a per capita GDP of $516 in 1965 to about $55,000 today.” (Foreign Policy, March 22, 2015)

 

In many ways Singapore is a gem, but rating it in contrast to countries like China, India and the US is an apples and grapes situation. There are just too many differences (Singapore 4.6 mil v. China 1.4 bn population) to make comparisons interesting except in a few ways. Singapore is politically stable, if not wholly democratic, efficiently managed, has experienced continuous economic growth, is safe and willing to try policies such as road pricing, and prepared to drop whatever does not work. Its civil servants and politicians are well paid and severely punished if they engage in corruption. The statement that it is “….the world’s most successful post-colonial nation…,” and that “Africa needs another half-century to heal its colonial scars. India is only beginning to get its act together,” which caught my attention.

Much is written about the impact of the British and other European Empires, and it will always be possible to provide both glowing as well as highly critical assessments. Mine takes countries in today’s world and looks at some of them in the light of their former imperial connections. To what extent can the good and naughty parts be assigned to previous colonizations? How are these countries working today?

  1. Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States all rank highly in various political, economic and social country league tables. There is plenty to criticize in each but they rank way above countries which are obvious dictatorships like Russia, China, North Korea and those in the Middle East. Areas of today’s Middle East, such as Egypt, Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq were parts of the Ottoman, British and French Empires, but it was the Ottomans who had the longest sway over these areas until 1918.

 

  1. The Indian subcontinent with today’s India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and merging into Malaysia, Singapore and Borneo have all been part of the of the British Empire and now Commonwealth; all have experienced economic and political progress with improved human rights, some obviously more so than others. Each has had to combine different racial and religious groups.

 

  1. Africa is a more difficult region to assess. It is a land area with enormous physical differences from the northern Mediterranean coast to the desert region to the south, and then to South Africa. Dutch, British, French, Portuguese, Belgian, Spanish, German and briefly Italian colonization took place. Only in a few of these areas such as South Africa and parts of East Africa, did political and economic progress occur. Bechuanaland and Mauritius are often held up as examples of successful development but these have relatively small populations, 1.8 mil and 1.4 mil respectively – the Singapores of Africa.

 

  1. Those who travel from East to South Africa today tell of the poverty in urban and rural areas, and mainly subsistence farming which is labour intensive with little mechanization. In many places, especially in rural areas, nothing much seems to have improved in centuries, either where there has or has not been an imperial presence. My overall impression is that, while not much improved with colonization, without it these regions would be living in the tribal type circumstances which prevailed before the colonists arrived. These people would not be living where a contemporary version of the universal human rights is recognized as it is in many parts of the world. Foreign aid has attempted to promote development but it may be that it is a deterrent and countries should devise their own path to development.

 

  1. There are other parts of the world which were touched by the British Empire, such as the Caribbean and parts of South America with investment and trade. The empire also traded with China (opium), Japan, and Russia amongst others. And western Europe was drawn into economic relationships as well as wars involving the British Empire. While the outcome reveals a mixed record which does not lend itself to accurate measurement as there is no agrred upon metric, it is probably a better one than would have existed without the British presence.

The History of England by Peter Ackroyd, that is excluding Scotland, Wales and Ireland which later combined with England to become the United Kingdom, concludes that England was itself a colonized country with invasions mainly from folk in Scandinavia and north-west Europe. These were assimilated with those who were native to England to morph eventually into England and later the United Kingdom. Whatever the ingredients were which allowed this small piece of real estate to create such an empire was itself the product of colonizers. Maybe geography had something to do with it. Centuries earlier England was joined to the French mainland, and the 26 mile stretch of water between England and western Europe did not exist. If it had, perhaps the history and geography of western Europe would have been different and Britain’s empire never existed.

News Reporting – the search for quality

March 22, 2015

News reporting, print, radio and TV, has morphed into another form of entertainment with actual news buried in other content including advertising. The 24 hour news cycle is the result of radio, TV and internet delivery which needs material to fill a greatly expanded carriage capacity. But because there is not enough genuine news to fill the space available, the carriers create or invent news and views to fill the pipes. By genuine news, I mean items which are of interest to viewers interested in topics typically found on the pages of a printed daily newspaper. Of course there are many other interests such as the hobbies which people enjoy and which could and often do fill the space, but the delivery of traditional news has taken a turn for the worse…in my view.

 

There are some redeeming features. The 24 hour news cycle has spawned programs like the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, delivered on the US Comedy Channel (available on CTV in Canada) and using material from Fox News, CNN and MSNBC to highlight the often biased and ridiculous nature of the reporting by these news channels. These tend to fabricate news if it does not exist. John Oliver does a similar program financed by HBO. Unfortunately English-language Canada has no such show. Rick Mercer operates in a somewhat similar vein but without Stewart’s bite. This is a bit surprising in that Canada has produced probably more comedians per capita, but they often make their name in the US, such as Sandra Bee and Jason Jones On the Daily Show, and others on Saturday Night Live.

 

News reporting is and always has been mixed with commentary, with the comments often reflecting a particular political or other viewpoint. One difference now is that the news channels look for people who will be deliberately provocative, which is fair game, but their provocation can come in such a biased or unbalanced way that it undermines any value their comments might have, and casts doubts on the reliability of the delivery channel as well as the commentator.

 

I suppose it is time to provide names to illustrate my view. In Canada, I find the commentary and reporting of Andrew Coyne, Geoffrey Simpson and Christy Blatchford amongst others to be well researched, argued and presented, even when I don’t agree with the position taken. Accordingly I am inclined to read the general editorials of the publisher or broadcaster who would hire such journalists.

 

At the other end of the scale, when I read the rants of Michael Harris in various news outlets, I read the contributions of a man who could not see a good conservative if one was placed under his nose, and would be unable, perhaps unequipped, to examine the implications, good as well as bad, of conservative policies past and proposed. Some may like his reporting. For me he is a disgrace to the profession of journalism, if that is his calling. Accordingly, it casts a shadow on the news outlets which carry his and other materials.

 

Another scribe with similar attributes is Robert Fife who moderates Question Period on CTV. A moderator’s role is to poses question about issues of the day and to ask informed panelists for their opinions. CTV’s panelists are usually well informed but they are presented with issues where the moderator exposes his own opinion instead of just the question. The panelists often try to provide balance but constant interventions are made by Fife to guide them back to his viewpoint. The consequence for me is that Question Period is no longer a useful Canadian news program. Fortunately there are other news sources to interact with, increasingly on the internet, which compete with the established news channels.

 

There is an alternative model operating in Canada and the US. Steve Paquin, the moderator of TVO’s The Agenda performs in a manner which appeals to me. He selects tough issues, assembles an informed panel, often with opposing views, and poses questions to them without inserting his own opinion. Perhaps this is why he is often chosen to moderate leaders’ debates at election time. In the US, the PBS Newshour and Washington Week in Review provide balanced reporting overseen by an informed and intelligent moderator. Charlie Rose is another hour long interview program on PBS which has the interviewer asking the questions and the guest rather than the interviewer answering them.

 

While the 24 hour news cycle is responsible for the reduced quality of news reporting on traditional channels, there are bright spots. Individuals rather than large news organizations can post material on the internet which is instantly available. It is a challenge to determine who is worth reading or listening to, but the menu of reporters and commentators is expanding and word of mouth directs members of the audience to quality reporting and commentary. The world has changed because of technology, but this is a good news story which can improve the operation of news reporting as well as news organizations.

Cows and Content

March 18, 2015

Milk from contented Canadian cows and TV programs from contented Canadian producers are two items which remain protected by Canadian policies. While dairy products can be labeled Canadian if they come from a cow residing in Canada, no such clear labeling attaches to Canadian TV content. It might be based on a story written abroad, contain foreign composed music, foreign words, foreign actors but still be considered Canadian if it attracted enough brownie points in each of these areas to make it Canadian according to a carefully administered set of policies. While people consume milk and its products whatever its national origins and ask no questions, they have to be offered only Canadian milk to make the dairy quotas work. This happens and a shrinking number of dairy farmers are enriched by the policy at the expense of consumers.

 

When it comes to TV programs, viewers choose on the basis of taste, quality and what they consider as good entertainment regardless of where it originated. This often comes from abroad. There was a time, decades ago now, when there were only a few channels to watch, and viewers would be forced to select from this limited menu. This has now changed with the growth of internet delivered programming (Netflix for example) and Canadian programs face stiffer competition which decimates the means to administer Canadian content regulations.

 

The regulator, the CRTC, can always force TV stations and cablecasters to carry Canadian programs even when few watch them. This exists today with, for example, religious, ethnic and gender channels, where the audiences are often so small that they cannot be supported by advertising. The regulator can require stations to broadcast them, but viewers cannot be required to watch, at least in numbers which make them commercially viable.

 

Communications technology has now evolved so that viewers no longer have to select programs received from TV antenna or cable, but, as noted, can choose from internet offerings with Netflix, Amazon and Apple providing three viewing and listening options. The CRTC (in March 2015) has recognized the inevitable and proposes to adjust their Canadian content rulings to current circumstances.

 

Patrick Doyle provides an excellent survey of what happened, why past CRTC policies don’t work and why the proposed CRTC actions are inevitable, and too may not work.

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/television/john-doyle-crtcs-new-plans-good-luck-with-the-blue-skies-and-cul-de-sac-thinking/article23432611/

Canadian content rules

The policies no longer achieve their objectives, which in my view were outdated many years ago and only ever had limited effectiveness. It may have made sense to have a Canadian national broadcaster and content policies for commercial operators when radio and TV were infant industries from the 1920s through perhaps to the 1960s. In the early days foreign, especially US programming swamped the Canadian airwaves for radio and TV and some Canadian backed input was required. But like any subsidized activity a lobby grew for its continued and expanded support, hot-housing a group of beneficiaries who are protected from the competition they need to face in order to survive in a commercial marketplace.

 

If the CBC had been funded solely by government as opposed to a combination of government and commercial revenue, then it could perhaps justify its operation which has a declining audience share for its English and French language services. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation has been financed entirely from the public purse, does not have to justify its audience share, and is not in competition with commercial broadcasters. The BBC and PBS have different financing models which have survived public and commercial scrutiny. However all these models will need to be and are being revised in the light of today’s technology. Not only viewers but content producers will benefit once they adapt to the opportunities of the new technology. Some producers are already doing so.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 67 other followers