Archive for the ‘Cultural Industries’ Category

Cultural Appropriation

February 15, 2017

The Shattered Mirror

February 8, 2017



The Shattered Mirror – News, Democracy and Trust in the Digital Age proposes increased bureaucratic input and public funding for a sector rocked by new technology.

What Uber has done to the taxi business and Airbnb to accommodation, has invaded all forms of media including news reporting and distribution. Daily newspapers are haemorrhaging advertising revenues and many have been forced out of business, or to adopt different means of distribution. Many other sectors are affected by technology such as education with the offerings of online courses. Existing suppliers fight back to maintain at least some semblance of the status quo, often lobbying governments for increased support. Ultimately new technology usually wins and a new breed of entrepreneurs rise to fill any gaps to provide the desired goods and services.

The process is part of Schumpeter’s stages of creative destruction which benefits consumers, and those producers who adapt. Those who lose appeal to the government for support. Such is the case for The Canadian Public Policy Forum’s latest report The Shattered Mirror, News, Democracy and Trust in the Digital Age which examines how technology has affected traditional news media. It argues that the public is poorly served by the new digital news providers and that democracy is at risk with, for example, the reporting of fake news.

Since the 1950’s numerous reports have examined the Canadian media including news. They include:

1951 Royal Commission on National Development in the Arts Letters and Sciences (Massey Report).

1961 Royal Commission on Publication (O’Leary Report)

1970 Special Senate Committee Report on the Mass Media, (Davey Report)

1981 Royal Commission on Newspapers (Kent Report)

1982 Report of the Federal Cultural Policy Review Committee (Applebaum Hebert Report)

2006 Senate Report on the Canadian News Media (40 recommendations and 10 suggestions).


All recommended measures of protection and support to which The Shattered Mirror adds its contribution. Written by a person who has had a distinguished career in journalism, this almost assures that the recommendations will include further government support for the industry. It succeeds in this regard. It would be the same if dairy farmers were asked for advice on supply management or academics on university funding.

The report contains thirteen proposals. Many require additional administration of funds and rules which in total would require both added bureaucratic overhead and time spent by firms to qualify for the funding.

Two proposals provide the tenor of the report and the tortuous process that would be required to comply with the provisions.

  1. In the proposal to extend provisions of Section 19 of the income tax act to other media. Producers of eligible news will be required to show that: (Recommendation No.1).

At least 75 percent of editorial payroll and 75 percent of their eight most highly paid employees are Canadian individuals or personal-service companies.

At least five percent of the company’s revenue generated in Canada is spent on editorial operations, with a significant amount for civic-function journalism.


  1. Creation of a fund managed independently from the government (Recommendation No.5).

Creation of the Future of Journalism and Democracy Fund would provide financing for digital innovation, especially in its early stages, and be directed at those operators who produce civic-function journalism at the national, regional and local levels. To qualify, enterprises would have to be Section 19-compliant and deliver original news on digital platforms that are refreshed at least once a week. The fund would cover a maximum of 75 percent of the cost of a project. The ability of applicants to attract support from other partners would factor into the grant decision.


Proposals regarding the CBC fail to note shrinking audiences especially for English language television. 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. While government financing has remained around $1bn, this segment of its mandate has been shrinking, so that on a per viewer basis the funding has been increasing.

If the CBC is to survive, consideration should be given to it being funded only by government and not selling commercials. The latter puts it in competition with private broadcasters, allowing it to use public funds to buy programs like major sporting events. In the UK and Australia, the public broadcaster is funded almost entirely by government, with far less angst being created between public and private broadcasters. A government owned broadcaster, if one is needed, can devote its attention to its public service mandate and have a far lesser concern for audience size.


The Shattered Mirror focuses on the importance of civic-function journalism defined as the coverage of elected officials and public institutions, from legislatures, judicial and quasi-judicial bodies and city halls to school boards and supporting public services. That is important, but in a globalized world coverage of what happens outside Canada is increasingly important. Much of this can be accessed online from websites and blogs run by people whose judgement I personally respect in different news related fields, and superior to many traditional news sources. In broadcast media, my preference is for The Agenda on TVO and the PBS Newshour. In both instances the anchors are informed but do not insert their own opinions, unlike what prevails with the CBC and CTV.

There is much more to comment on in the report. As it stands it argues the case for supporting more of the same with increased bureaucratic input. It deserves further discussion.

Cultural Diversity

January 28, 2017

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.

What future for news?

October 2, 2016

My gold standard for news reporting use to be the BBC. While still highly rated, PBS Newshour for news and Charlie Rose for interviews now top my list. In Canada, I tune into Steve Paquin and The Agenda on TVO for interview programs. The CBC and CTV are not priorities for me. Although both have some excellent individual reporters, the news programs have political slants. What the Newshour team, Rose and Paquin have is a thorough knowledge of the issues, a willingness to present opposing viewpoints, and to suppress their own opinions on the issues under discussion.


Their competitors in the print but especially radio, TV and online media focus, for commercial reasons, on making the news entertaining in order to attract audiences. It’s understandable, but it comes at a price for the quality and authenticity of the news content. Fox News in the US and Sun Media in Canada are illustrative of the adulteration of news and informed views on particular issues.


The internet is another means of delivering news content. There are now umpteen web sites offering both general and specialized news stories and opinions, so that audiences have an overwhelming number of options including Tweets and Facebook. These range in quality from good to mediocre to awful, with an increasing number in the last category. So how does the reader/listener/viewer choose? Consider the situation.


An audience member works with one ironclad constraint…. there are 24 hours in the day, and only a fraction of these will be allocated to consuming news along with sports, recipes, videos and competing items of possible interest contained in various media. When someone suggests downloading another App, my reaction is why? It may be useful, such as say Uber, but it is likely to divert me from other priorities that I have, and which have to be fitted into the 24 hours. Each has to make their content decisions.


What role does the government have in providing news? Each year the federal government allocates about $1bn to CBC/Radio Canada some of which is used for collecting and distributing news and news-type programming in both official languages for radio and television. The public broadcaster also sells advertising which puts it in competition with commercial broadcasters, a continuing cause of tensions. Note, the BBC and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation use a different funding model.


The circumstances which gave rise to public broadcasting no longer exist, so that the Canadian federal and provincial governments will have to decide its future. There is no shortage of news sources for Canadians and in my view no need for public support. The audience share of CBC English and French language television programming has been declining, so that unless it is servicing some essential (in someone’s view) market niche, the funds could be better spent elsewhere. What Uber has done to taxi services, the internet has done to distributing many types of media content.

Canadian Content – Milking the System

May 31, 2016


What do cows and culture have in common? Both crave protectionism, supply management for dairy products and content quotas for culture. While technology has driven a stake through the heart of cultural protectionism, Canadian dairy content at present remains intact.

The Liberal government is re-examining Canada’s cultural policies, which includes the hoary issue of the nature of Canadian content and whether it needs protection. Robert Fulford speaks of this in the National Post (May 27th, 2016)

 “Canada notably lacks a collective imagination. Individual novelists find ways to develop Canadian stories that win both national and international readers. But for the CBC “our stories” remains an empty slogan, a claim that commanding and important legends live offstage, waiting for broadcasters to bring them to life. Federally mandated Canadian content regulations express a yearning for a more robust national spirit, but it’s not something you can regulate into existence.”

On the same general topic, Andrew Coyne in the National Post (May 25th, 2016) writes

“… “American” TV, much of which is created by Canadians. As if the other paradoxes and contradictions of cultural nationalism were not enough, there is no self-evident definition of “Canadian content.” How do we define a Canadian? Parentage? Place of birth? Residence? What makes a Canadian story? Written by a Canadian? Set in Canada? “Identifiably Canadian themes,” whatever they are? 

Now add together all the moving parts needed to make a film or TV show — producers, directors, actors, writers, “in-betweeners” — and you have the absurdity of CanCon as it is actually practised, teams of dedicated bureaucrats using precision-crafted calipers to determine that, say, a Blue Jays broadcast from New York is Canadian but a Bryan Adams song is not.”

Lobbyists for retaining CanCon are the cultural industry associations, their lawyers and academics who feast on the policies.

So should cultural nationalism be supported? The answer here is a conditional yes, but not as presently structured. Questions to be answered include:

What is a Canadian story?

When do Canadians create them?

Why should Canadians listen/view them?

What happens if Canadians don’t read, listen to or watch them?

I will try to address some of these questions and suggest some policy options, one of which is to do nothing and let audiences decide. This is pretty much the view of Andrew Coyne, and one which has merit.

One qualification I would make is to recognize that at the birth of film-making, radio and TV, there may have been an infant industry argument for granting some support/and protection, so that Canadian producers and distributors could get started. This was one reason for establishing public broadcasters like the BBC, CBC and ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) in a number of countries, although not in the US….ok, PBS and NPR have elements of public broadcasting.

The difficulty is that once the infant is supported it is never weaned from the public teat. Canada made the mistake, in my view, of funding its public broadcaster with a combination of public funds and commercial advertising revenue, unlike the BBC and ABC. If the public broadcaster is to remain, it should not be in competition with private broadcasters for commercial revenues.

What is Canadian?

Content is usually considered Canadian if it is authored, acted/performed or produced by Canadians, involves Canadian writers, actors, performers etc, or Canada is where the money to produce it is raised and spent. Some connection to Canada is required. A movie made in Canada about Denmark would likely be considered Canadian content, while a movie made in Denmark about Canada would not. All sorts of anomalies arise.

In the case of current policies, whether Canadians are actually the audiences for Canadian defined content does not matter. For example, the audience for CBC English language TV has been declining markedly, and French language TV to a lesser extent.  CBC radio in both languages has experienced a lesser decline. It does not broadcast commercials.

A private Canadian broadcaster is required to distribute a certain amount of Canadian defined content regardless of whether anyone watches it. It is a push as opposed to a pull strategy where audiences choose to see certain programs. Check the channel packages you are forced to purchase with channels you never watch. Or imagine going to the grocery store and being told that if you want to buy a cabbage, you have to buy a turnip as well.

 Why the need?

The need for Canadians to create Canadian stories is argued to be good for national cohesion and as an aid to education. Canadians need to know about Canada, and the media is an important avenue for this to happen if it transmits the “right” content. So goes the argument.

The problem is that Canadians often do not fall into line. They choose to spend their time with other types of print, sound and visual content. Never more so than now, when the internet age makes it possible to access content either for free (if you own the right hardware) or at low cost and in a wide variety of locations.

So is there another way to proceed? That is to meet the desire of governments to support the arts, which is a branch of education, and to get larger Canadian audiences to pay for the output and delivery?

An alternative approach?

Those most in need of support are in the early stages of their artistic careers, where they have yet to gain a reputation and a track record whether as author, director, producer, performer, artist, etc. Similar to the support given to education and athletes at an early stage of their careers, assist those developing cultural related talents.

Subsidies directed to those who are already established can be both a waste, and a disincentive to survival without dependence on state support. The state does have a role, but it is with measures like copyright and patents to support those who are creative and who do succeed.

In today’s world (globalization and all that), creative opportunities have expanded as it becomes easier for artists to reach larger audiences. Challenges will remain to be rewarded financially from all those who benefit as audiences from artistic work, but this has always been the case. Today, the technology makes it easier to create and publish works, even though the competition for audiences has also increased. Music groups, for example, use the internet to distribute their productions for free with the aim of becoming known and then being paid. Apprentices in the trades face a similar situation.

Like the success of dairy farmers in retaining supply management, the cultural industry lobby in Canada has captured the politicians and bureaucracy to provide increased funding and protection without Canadians necessarily consuming it. Benefits accrue to certain cultural participants but not necessarily to Canadians as consumers.

There is a case for certain types of government support for creative endeavor by Canadians (I prefer to call it that rather than Canadian content). At the same time, there is a need to wean the lobbying groups off the existing so called cultural teats that have been used by all three levels of government. An alternative is to direct support to those at the outset of their creative careers. But at some point they need to be able to stand alone and not turn to the nanny state.


Having spent a lifetime in academia with tenure and as the recipient of grants, I realize a similar argument can apply. Here new technology may also bring about change, the subject for a future posting. With a colleague Keith Acheson, I did write Much Ado about Culture, North American Trade Disputes (University of Michigan Press, 1999) which dealt with these issues. We were unable to find a Canadian publisher interested in publishing this book.

Any Future For Public Broadcasting?

March 25, 2016

Many Canadians feel that the CBC/Radio Canada is a national icon. Some want to keep it, others argue that it is past its due date, meaning that under current conditions affecting the media it is no longer needed. Wade Rowland, author of Canada Lives Here, The Case for Public Broadcasting (Leith Publishing 2015) is an articulate supporter of the CBC. I have my doubts for the following reasons.


Evolution of public broadcasting

Public broadcasting came into being with the birth of radio. The BBC, set up in 1922, is often considered the original role model for public broadcasting, with John, later Lord Reith, its first Director General.  Initially, it had few competitors and was funded by a grant from the government. Radio and later on television programming was distributed by the BBC.

Over time, commercial radio and television evolved financed by advertising, and the means of producing and distributing content exploded. Today audiences receive programming, financed by advertising, from many sources using a variety of means such as cable, satellite, and the internet. With the use of recording devices, they can store and watch programming at their convenience, and by fast forwarding through advertising.

Despite these changes, some still argue the need for a public broadcaster. For example, Rowland writes “…the CBC must broaden public taste, rather than pander to it – to provide a venue for excellence. Success is, or ought to be measured in that context (p.96).” This is like saying one should undertake regular exercise. The opportunity always exists but there is no way of enforcing it.

Public broadcasting began with radio and spread to television. At the same time commercial broadcasting grew, and the choices for listeners and viewers multiplied creating competition for public broadcasters, which experienced declining audience shares. The CRTC annual monitoring report (available online) shows the CBC’s share of the English language TV market fell from 13.2% in 1994 to 7.5% in 2000 and to 5.5% in 2013. The long run trend is clear. (Figures for the French language TV market show a lesser decline).

CBC supporters will argue that inadequate public funding and the quality of CBC senior management are responsible. An alternative view is that, at least in some market segments, the case for public support is weakened or no longer exists. People cannot be forced to watch certain programs even if some think it would be good for them.

There are a variety of Canadian statistics to view. Radio audiences behave differently from TV audiences, and French and English language audiences show different trends over time. Part of this has to do with the availability of alternative programming which, largely due to technology, has increased.



Broadcasting has been financed by the state, by advertising and by other commercial activities, or by some combination of these. Factoring this in with changing technology helps to explain how individual broadcast undertakings behave.

In the UK, the BBC is a public broadcaster with a commercial arm. It is not permitted to carry advertising or sponsorship on its public services. This keeps it independent of commercial interests and ensures it can be run purely to serve the general public interest (somehow defined).

The BBC is financed instead by a TV licence fee paid by households. This guarantees that a wide range of high-quality programmes can be made available, unrestricted, to everyone. The BBC runs additional commercial services around the world. These are not financed by the licence fee but are kept quite separate from the BBC’s public services.  (from the BBC website).

About one quarter of the BBC’s total revenues come from commercial services and the remainder from licence fees.

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) is funded by a grant from the government, with some commercial revenues from shops which it owns. Like other public broadcasters it has been criticized by political parties (of all stripes) for its news and commentary coverage. The ABC receives little criticism from commercial broadcasters because it does not compete with them for advertising.

The CBC is funded by a combination of government grant and advertising revenues. The latter puts it in competition with private broadcasters. For example, the TV rights to popular hockey and other sports programs can be bought using taxpayers money in competition with private broadcasters, and then advertising can be sold. (Recently Rogers outbid the CBC for hockey programs which caused a substantial drop in the CBC’s advertising revenues.)

In 2014-15, the CBC received about $1bn in government funding and $600m in commercial revenue including $333m in advertising (CBC Annual Report). Not included are funds from agencies like Telefilm Canada, which support the production of programs in Canada. Overall the CBC receives more than $1bn annually from the public purse.



In a short piece, it is not possible to make a detailed argument concerning the need for and financing of public broadcasting in Canada. The following two points I think are noteworthy:

  1. It was a mistake to fund Canadian public broadcasting through a combination of government grant and advertising, as it puts public and commercial broadcasting in competition with each other. The BBC and ABC have avoided this conflict.
  2. The explosion of communications technology has meant that audiences now have access to all types of content, including that distributed by public broadcasters. There is no way public broadcasting can survive (retain audiences) unless they can compete with what is available elsewhere.



For those interested in media history, the following may be of interest:

Lord Reith, often considered the founding father of public broadcasting, was a stern and dictatorial figure.

For all his outward pretence of stern morality, he was in fact a hypocrite, according to his own daughter, Marista Leishman, who has written a book about him. Publicly, she says, he abhorred infidelity; but privately, he enjoyed relationships with a series of malleable young women – and once, while in his 20s, even had an intimate liaison with a man.

Stop books becoming furniture

August 15, 2015

Why do our patterns of reading books, watching films and videos and listening to music differ? Homes are furnished with book shelves where often each book is often read only once, if that. Music is listened to frequently and films and videos perhaps more than once.

Each format contains information appreciated by the senses, although different ones. The question arose when I took from the bookcase Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel. I had read it before, but when I reopened it I realized how little I recalled or even understood the content of a book, which offers an explanation of the evolution of human history over the past 13,000 years.

So many basic questions are discussed in the book, that like religious texts it could be studied for a lifetime, especially as new scientific information becomes available, which may alter some of the conclusions reached and raise new questions.

Instead of acquiring new books, there is often much to be gained by rereading older ones. New understanding can be acquired from the text which may have been missed in an original reading, and especially in the light of one’s own (hopefully) intellectual development. Jared Diamond offers that to me. A general conclusion is to apply to books the same treatment given to music and films….use them more than once.


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.

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.

Grade Inflation – Some people are smarter than others

August 12, 2014


Greek tragedy often involves arrogance leading to foolishness and destruction. This can occur with the assignment of academic grades, where number and letter grades are experiencing a process of grade inflation. It is not unlike price inflation which can give misleading information about the growth of an economy, as in the case of measuring Gross Domestic Product in current dollars. Grade inflation provides misleading information to students, teachers, admissions officers assessing students for entrance to post secondary institutions, to employers and to the public. While neither the educational system nor the economy will be destroyed, both can be weakened. And there are alternatives to consider.

Academic grade inflation

One example of grade inflation is the number of Ontario scholars, those with an average of 80% or more in their graduating school year. It has risen from less than 20% in the 1970s to over 60% today. I found the actual figures hard to come by as the provincial authorities did not answer my requests for what I thought would be easy to access information.

Province wide exams in Ontario were abolished in the 1960s following the Hall Dennis report which recommended that each school mark its own students. Teachers warned that this would lead to grade inflation. Foolishness prevailed, inflation took place and now when standardized testing is proposed teachers (and others) oppose it, recognizing that it could be used as a measure of their teaching as well as the performance of a school. The problem is then passed on to post-secondary institutions, which themselves have issues regarding the assignment and meaning of grades.

University grades are discussed on the freely available website The Conversable Economist for August 6, 2014. A quote from it:

“Here’s a link to a November 2011 post…on “Grade Inflation and Choice of Major.” Rojstaczer and Christopher Healy write: Even if grades were to instantly and uniformly stop  rising, colleges and universities are, as a result of five decades of mostly rising grades, already grading in a way that is divorced from actual student performance, and not just in an average nationwide sense. A is the most common grade at 125 of the 135 schools for which we have data on recent (2006–2009) grades. At those schools, A’s are more common than B’s by an average of 10 percentage points. Colleges and universities are currently grading, on average, about the same way that Cornell, Duke, and Princeton graded in 1985. Essentially, the grades being given today assume that the academic performance of the average college student in America is the same as the performance of an Ivy League graduate of the 1980s.”


There has been debate over grades assigned at Carleton and Ottawa Universities in the past, and at other Canadian universities, so that this is not only a US issue.

In 1989, the Ottawa Citizen published the list of Ontario Scholars by school in the Ottawa area, those with an 80% plus average. The top scholar amongst all schools (Lisgar) had a 99.1% average. Of the 41 schools listed, all but 3 had a top scholar with 90% plus average. One of the three was Elmwood, a private school where the top student had an 89.3% average. I had been a member of the Board of Governors of Elmwood where the school was frequently pressured by parents to give higher grades, in order that graduates would be able to compete for university places and for awards with those graduating from the public school system, where higher grades were given.

This was a fair concern, but Elmwood graduates seemed to do all right as university authorities knew that private schools tended to give lower grades and made allowance for it in their admission decisions. I am not sure whether this happened with the award of scholarships.

Grades signal to students, their parents and to outsiders (potential employers and post secondary educational institutions) information about the students. These now have to be evaluated carefully because of inflation. While universities state that they treat a given grade from one school the same as from another, experience suggests that this may not be the case, and they use judgment when making decisions about admissions and awards. In the same way that price inflation undermines the value of a currency, so grade inflation affects the value of or the information provided by a grade.

But the effects do not end there because, as noted, grade inflation takes place at universities as well. Undergraduates want high marks for their first degree so that they gain admission and scholarships for graduate study. Acceptance at graduate school depends on a combination of grades, reference letters from faculty and statement of interest by the candidate.

Are there alternatives?

When a figure or grade loses its information value, other measures are used. At the school level, an obvious one is the use of common exams for different institutions where the grading takes place by independent or common examiners. There are a number of examples:

  • Province wide exams as occurred in Ontario up to the 1970s
  • Some province wide exams in Alberta
  • A-level exams as used in the UK and other countries for university admission
  • The International Baccalaureate (IB) program
  • The Graduate Record Exam (GRE)

In each case there is the criticism that instruction will be focused on passing the exam rather than providing a more general education. While this can be the case, the alternative of a system which results in grade inflation and requires other, often unclear, means of evaluation by those comparing students for admission and awards is in my view preferable.

UK universities have traditionally used the A-level exam process which involves a narrowing of subjects studied, and forces students to decide on a particular discipline before they are knowledgeable about the available choices. The IB which requires a broader set of subjects is being recognized for university admission in the UK and elsewhere. Exactly how IB results and A-level results are compared is unclear to me, but some process must be used by admission officers. Use of the IB moves the British system towards the liberal arts approach of North American universities, where specialization takes place in later years of an undergraduate program or with a postgraduate degree. I prefer the liberal arts approach, but more importantly English speaking students with the right qualifications now have a choice of which program approach to pursue.

The IB program is not without its critics, but these seem to stem mostly from the fact that the Geneva based Director General of the program was caught plagiarizing in a speech he gave, a sin which the program warns about in the case of IB students – See Times Educational Supplement Sept. 17, 2010 and subsequent issues.


There appears some hope that arrogance and foolishness may not be followed by destruction. The present era of entitlements pressures politicians to create educational systems which grant equal treatment to all students, even though there is clear evidence that the distribution of academic abilities is bell shaped. Some people are smarter than others. Not all will benefit from an academic post secondary education. Some will benefit from the subjects taught in community and trade based colleges. Some will benefit from on-the-job experience, either with or without further education. Some people will earn more than others because they have different skills. There are means to reduce income inequalities other than by weakening, perhaps destroying, the educational system.

Some further sources:
Professor James Cote of Western University is an authority in this field.
The UCAS website deals with conversion standards for universities
The IB website at
The truthaboutIB website is generally critical of the IB