The Harperites and the joy of negative advertising

Posted on in Governance Debates

TheGlobeandMail.com – Globe Debate
Oct. 09 2014.   Globe Editorial

We already knew that the Harper government loves negative advertising; we just didn’t know, until now, how far it would go to eliminate any obstacle between itself and its object of desire.

The Harper government is examining the option of changing Canada’s Copyright Act so that politicians can use news content in political advertising without asking for permission. Media don’t like to see their footage and other copyrighted content in partisan ads, especially the negative type, since viewers might be left with the impression that a media outlet is complicit with a political party. Earlier this year, a group of broadcasters told the government they would no longer air political ads that use their content without their explicit consent.

It’s easy to understand why the Conservatives don’t care for the broadcasters’ stance: In the heat of an election campaign, war-room apparatchiks don’t want to deal with the niceties of copyright when they are in a hurry to twist an opponent’s comment out of context in time for the next day’s news cycle.

But a less myopic government could make an argument for the fair use of news footage without wielding so obnoxious a hammer. As the leaked document points out, while news outlets will vehemently protest the proposed exemption, there will be people who see it as a boon for free expression. Why shouldn’t people make unfettered use of news images and clips of public figures in order to advance their points of view and denounce those of others? Isn’t the news a public good?

Okay. So then why doesn’t the government simply test the fair use provisions of the Copyright Act as it stands, rather than tweaking the rules in its favour? The answer may be that the government wants a monopoly on unfettered access to news content. The proposed exemption is limited to “publicly elected officials, party leaders, and those who intended to seek such positions,” as well as to registered political parties and their agents. It does not extend to other groups that might have something to say during an election campaign. Unions, for instance. Or advocacy groups. Or individuals who want to go on YouTube and rail against the government.

It’s this aspect of the government’s secret proposal that is so unsettling. The Harper government wants to give itself free rein to fire off attack ads at will. It can hardly prevent the other parties from doing the same, but it doesn’t want to see anyone else, yourself included, getting involved. That’s a foul idea that should die a quick death.

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