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How to make CBC stronger

No one should be under any illusion that the conservative assault on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation is anything but an organized and coordinated campaign. The Sun Media Group has declared war on the CBC.  And why not? The CBC is a heavily taxpayer subsidized (to the tune of $1.3 billion annually) direct competitor. I do not blame Sun Media or any of the other private networks for doing what they can to knock the CBC off its privileged and protected pedestal.

 Why? Because the CBC’s massive nationwide infrastructure was not only bought and paid for by the taxpayer, but it has been also taking increasingly scarce advertising dollars away from unsubsidized competitors in a highly competitive marketplace. That is wrong and distorts the marketplace. In its current configuration, the CBC represents a patently unfair competitive threat to the private sector.

 I do not have any basis to criticize the new villain du jour, Pierre-Karl Peladeau, the chief executive of Quebecor. If I were him, I would do exactly the same thing. He deserves our thanks for forcing us to think hard about the issue of the CBC’s perennial funding woes and its core public policy purpose.

 The CBC has not done itself any favours by the attitude of its president, Hubert Lacroix, who projects a smugness and arrogance toward parliament that is, at best, inappropriate.  Granted, the onslaught against the CBC is politically and ideologically motivated. Nevertheless, the CBC is a Crown Corporation belonging to all Canadians, as such, their elected MP’s have every right to demand answers to the questions being asked. The CBC should not be exempt from scrutiny on the use of public funds. At the same time, Conservatives MP’s are being used as tools by some to flood the CBC with Access to Information requests and nickel and dime the broadcaster. If they are really sincere about scrutinizing the use of public funds, for a start, I’d like to direct them to that unprecedented boondoggle called the Canada Action Plan or Tony Clement’s backyard gazebos. The list of things MP’s can and should look at is a very long one.

 All of that said, Stephen Harper’s Conservatives have once again taken on an issue through the backdoor – as it does on so many files – through thuggery and intimidation.  What it should do is do something that it is not capable of: showing substantive and honest leadership on an important public policy question.

 So allow me to try to help.

 If there was ever a spinal chord vital that nourishes the unity of the country, surely it is the CBC. It has been indispensable to fostering a shared understanding between Canadians of the vastness, closeness, and promise of this blessed land of ours. I can watch and listen to CBC-Radio Canada anywhere I am in the country. Is there any way that Radio-Canada makes any economic sense outside of Quebec? I don’t think so. Yet, it is there. And people like me watch and listen to French local and national programming all the time. Would The Nature of Things ever find a home anywhere else? Would The Fifth Estate? Would Tous le monde en parle?

 What I would like to see is for CBC-Radio Canada to be 100% publicly-funded so that it doesn’t compete – and feel it has to compete – with private broadcasters. Our public broadcaster should not be forced to buy commercial programming from the United States, for example, because it is chasing the next big hit that will attract precious viewership and advertising revenues. You want to watch “Jeopardy!”? Fine, go to a private channel, not the CBC. 

 The CBC-Radio Canada must have a sharper and more focused mandate as a pillar of a national culture policy. And that mandate to go back to its original purpose: To bring Canada to Canadians.

 On the journalistic side, I can understand why many politicians on all sides of the spectrum may take exception to a publicly funded institution that frequently takes a swipe at duly elected representatives of the people. To that, my answer is tough beans. Get over it.  Canadians have a diminished level of trust and respect in their institutions as it is. The CBC must not be one of them. That trust must be safeguarded and enhanced. Our parliamentarians have a responsibility to do that, not tear it down to score crass political points. The CBC has a long and proud tradition of journalistic excellence. It is in our national interest for that to continue, and in fact, be strengthened. The economics of quality content in news gathering and investigative journalism makes no sense. But we need it – badly.   

 Does the CBC need to be in the professional sports business? No, it doesn’t. The only reason it does is to generate revenue. I would surely miss Hockey Night in Canada. The fact is that the private sector is more than capable of handling that. But does the private sector in Canada do a sufficient job at providing an opportunity for Canadian artists to create? No. To consistently produce quality documentaries? No. Televise important conversations and debates of importance to Canada? No. Highlight the richness of the local and regional character of the nation? No. In English and French and through its northern service? No. Do the economics of the private sector allow for correspondents to be in every corner of the world so that we get the news and insight from a uniquely Canadian perspective? No.

 All of that is where the CBC comes in.

 Part of the problem is that the CBC reports to the government. You can’t have the kind of creative freedom and journalistic integrity if you are living in constant fear of offending the government of the day. You also cannot do that if you are hostage to the fickleness of advertisers. That diminishes all of us. The CBC should report to parliament, not to parliament through a minister responsible for the CBC. Funding appropriations should be for at least for ten-year periods and must be secure.

 Parliamentarians from all parties should stop using the CBC-Radio as a punching bag for its partisan and ideological wars. Wedge politics may appeal to narrow constituencies, but it does not serve the larger public interest. CBC-Radio Canada is an indispensable national institution. It is, in fact, a national treasure that helps us stay connected with each other.  Let us get out of the business of competing with the private sector. That is not and should not be the CBC’s role.

 Let us insist that parliamentarians instead help the CBC transition to what it must and should be: a strong and vital public broadcaster that broadens and deepens Canadian culture and our unity as a people.



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