Cultural Diversity

Does protection promote cultural diversity?

In 1997, I was invited to be a member of the Cultural SAGIT (Sectoral Advisory Group for International Trade for the Canadian government). Mostly the members were drawn from the different cultural sectors such as print, audio-visual and live performing arts. Lawyers advising these groups were members as well those representing industry and employee organizations. Each represented a lobby group and did so forcefully. In addition bureaucrats, mainly from Heritage Canada, were in attendance to record the views of the members.

As the lone academic unassociated with any cultural sector, unless you count education, but with an interest in public policy, I found the expressed viewpoints interesting, but almost unanimously concerned with either continuing or increasing financial support and protection for the cultural industries. Subsidies and protection should be maintained or increased was the general tone of the discussion. In international fora France and Canada were strong supporters for continued protection while the US opposed it. I questioned the protectionist viewpoint.

All this took place while two events were occurring. One was a series of trade negotiations where cultural protectionist policies were being challenged by some countries, especially the US, as in the case of subsidies and content policies for the audiovisual sector, especially for film and TV.

The second was the influence of technology on both the production and distribution of cultural content. Audiences for over-the-air programs distributed by established public and private radio and TV networks were declining as new online delivery services were being created. The latter expanded viewer choice, and with the internet allowed audiences to select content from all over the world. At the same time print newspaper distribution and associated advertising were declining and have continued to do so.

In the case of public broadcasting, for example, while financial support was maintained audiences were shrinking. Thus on a per viewer basis the subsidy was actually increasing. For example the federal government has maintained its subsidy to the public broadcaster at around a billion dollars per annum while with declining audiences, especially for English language television, it means that on a per viewer basis the subsidy has increased. It costs more to service Canadian TV audiences. Meanwhile those in favour of public broadcasting still argue for either maintaining or increasing the subsidy. CRTC Annual Monitoring Reports (available online) show the CBC’s share of the English language television market fell from 13.2 percent in 1994 to 7.5 percent in 2000 and to 5.1 percent in 2012.

Technological change has also affected the print media with a sharp decline in the distribution of hard copies of books, newspapers and magazines and the ability of consumers to obtain content from an expanding array of online content providers from around the world.

Within the past two decades, the developments have been so major that the ability to protect the cultural industries in the traditional ways – a combination of public ownership, restrictions on foreign ownership, Canadian content requirements and subsidies to Canadian producers – has lessened. Protectionist policies no longer work. Technology has undermined them.

The Cultural SAGIT members were presented with these changes, which became more pronounced with time, but chose to ignore their impact arguing that it would, or might, be possible to perpetuate the protectionist policies by negotiating in UNESCO an International Agreement on Cultural Diversity. This came about in 2005 with the UNESCO Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions.

How the Convention has worked out will be the subject of a future posting. Much is posted on the UNESCO website, but often outsiders are unable to open certain pages related to this Convention.

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