The iron rice bowl

I recall the delegation of the Quebec media production types  appearing before us – a panel of CRTC commissioners –  when we were considering the extension of the Broadcasting Act to the Internet. The issue was whether every Canadian website should be licenced by the state, and taxed, to supply funds for Canadian video programming. When asked whether they understood of the scale of government intrusion into communications, one of the panelists slammed her fist on the table and said “regulate it first, then we’ll figure out what it means!”.

Ah, the true descendants of Louis XIV continue to dwell in la Belle Province. Regulation by coup de poing, justified by droit du seigneur.

A colleague of mine used to talk about protection of the Canadian TV production industry as the “iron rice bowl”. The term is adopted from Maoist China where the deal was: you put up with the rule of the Party, and in turn you will be fed, forever. Recipients of this arrangement react badly to any change in the regime. The invaluable CARTT reports that the Usual Suspects  are dismayed. I could not think of a higher recommendation for a policy than that the coddled Quebec media production industry is concerned. Is the Minister’s announcement of $349 million MORE for the Canadian media fund, and $125 for the promotion of Canadian media products abroad, not enough? $475 million gets you an up-to-date small warship. A type 23 British frigate – chosen because it was the first answer on a google search – costs about 170 million pounds to build, and supply with an anti-submarine helicopter, and French, German, and  Spanish figures are equivalent. So double 170 million pounds  and you get 340 million dollars and add a hundred or so million for any reason whatever and you get contemporary prices in Canadian dollars. So let’s put a modern 3,000-4,000 ton destroyer with anti-submarine helicopter at half a billion bucks, Canadian. And this is being spent every year on Canadian television production. And that does not include a billion or so for the CBC/Radio Canada.



I engage in this ludicrous comparison because I want to show the scale of expenditure on television production. You could buy a navy with what is being spent on television programs, and as I like to say: it is only television. It is important, yes. Is it worth subsidizing as much as it is? That is a political decision, and not mine to make. I do not mind the subsidization of art in principle, but I do mind the attitudes of the privileged recipients of the subsidies.

Quebec’e cultural sovereignty is at stake, Quebec’s cultural critics say. I think what is really at stake is the perquisites of a cultural production clique whose country houses in the Laurentians and the Townships have yet to be paid for. Maybe I am too cynical, but I have met these people, in French Canada and English Canada. They have a marvellous capacity to conflate the narrowest of self interest for the public good, and call it “cultural sovereignty”, which is a contradiction in terms, by the way.

Which makes the government’s television/Internet policy all the more amazing for its far-sightedness.

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