New governance is the best Rx, but there’s more to do as listeners and viewers.
The CBC, and particularly CBC Radio, is easily Canada’s most important cultural and public interest institution. I say this not so much as someone who worked at the Corporation during the glory days of the 1970s and ’80s but, like so many other people, as a kid who was brought up in a home that was always watching and listening to the CBC.
Residing in a small village in Nova Scotia, we greatly appreciated the voices and images, ranging from Clive Gilmore’s 40-year run of Gilmour’s Albums on radio to the hard-nosed journalism of Norman DePoe on TV.
But after decades of serving and educating Canadians, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s vicious cuts have brought the organization to its knees.
Can the CBC be saved and restored? Probably. But it will take significant time and good luck, as well as some heavy duty political lobbying. CBC supporters — including those who have fallen by the wayside during the destructive Harper years — will need to unite behind some common goals and pressure the two Opposition leaders to commit themselves to restoring the public broadcaster to its proper role in the country.
There has been much discussion about the kind of content the CBC should carry in the future. I believe that radio services should be more or less similar to what it was like 10 or 20 years ago. TV, however, should be changed dramatically. Instead of copying private broadcasters such as CTV, CBC TV should focus more than it currently does on the cultural, public interest, and the social needs of Canadians. To start, get the disgraceful Dragons’ Den, which humiliates people, off the air.
The Conservatives claim they cut CBC funding because its ratings in most service areas do not match those of private broadcasters. But given the way they spends millions of dollars on highly questionable activities, such as advertising and projects in the ridings of Conservative MPs, I believe their opposition to the CBC is more an ideological one. They dislike any programming that questions their policies or programs.
Audience ratings, which would not match private Canadian network ratings, should not be a major factor when determining the level of CBC funding. But more important for now, with an election coming in less than a year, we have to find out what the NDP and the Liberals would do with the CBC if elected. Because rebuilding the Mother Corp. will require a lot of work.
Change from within
Internally, there would be a number of to-do items. First, a new government would have to get rid of the imbalance of Tory boosters on the CBC board of directors — 10 of 12 have donated to the Conservative Party. And in his new book, Here Was Radio-Canada, Alain Saulnier, who was head of French language news at Radio Canada for many years, documents several occasions when board chair Herbert Lacroix pushed hard to make CBC journalism favourable to the government.
The government would need to create a new process for selecting CBC board members so that future governments will not be able to influence the body for its own gain. Such a model could have Members of Parliament appoint half the board members while the other half would be appointed, one each, by leading groups from the cultural and private sectors. Once in place, a new board would return the CBC to its rightful role of public service, not chasing ratings.
A new government would need to find people who know how to return the CBC to its rightful role of serving the public interest. I’m thinking of someone like Peter Herrndorf, the best boss the CBC never had. Herrndorf, a long-time CBC executive, was denied the opportunity to run the Corporation but instead did a marvellous job first heading up TV Ontario and then revitalizing the National Arts Centre. This could be accomplished within a couple of years.
Then they would have to see whether Heather Conway, who has been executive vice-president of English services for 14 months, can get it right with the wind blowing in a different direction. Hopefully, even though she has no experience in truly public interest broadcasting — she is a former marketing executive — she would possess the skills and instincts to fit into a new mold.
Once the CBC is in competent hands, Lacroix’s five-year plan to expand service on the Internet will have to be evaluated. The day after Lacroix announced the new plan — along with dropping a few hundred more job cuts on the CBC — the Friends of Canadian Broadcasting demanded his resignation. “CBC’s plan to privilege digital and mobile delivery over its radio and television broadcast platforms is a retreat driven by the federal government’s deep budget cuts that will leave the national public broadcaster smaller and weaker,” said the Friends.
In view of the fact that many young people have turned away from radio and TV, the Corporation does have to change. But I’m not convinced that Lacroix’s plan is best.
NDP, Libs must provide specifics
Now, the external politics: Both the NDP and Liberals must be pushed to spell out their specificplans for the CBC.
The NDP has made its position somewhat clear. In April, responding to the Conservatives’ $130-million budget cut to the CBC, NDP leader Thomas Mulcair said in an email: “I assure you that an NDP-led government will support the CBC with stable and secure funding. We believe in CBC’s unifying role in a country as vast as Canada; especially in rural areas and minority-language communities.” The party circulated a petition opposing the CBC cuts. All this is pretty good, but too general.
What of the Liberals? Asked about the future of the CBC in an interview on Q in October, leader Trudeau said: “Where do we continue to fund it and how do we continue to fund it? All I know is the funding has to be substantial and significant… How much and exactly how depends on how we create a vision that is relevant for the 21st century.” It was a typical Trudeau sit-on-the-fence moment. Because he is ahead in the polls, he plays it safe.
To make sure that both leaders have firm and detailed plans for the CBC, we in English-speaking Canada must put on a campaign that matches what is happening in Quebec, where 20,000 people marched in support of Radio-Canada. The Friends of Canadian Broadcasting launched its campaign and should be joined by many other groups, such as the Council of Canadians, LeadNow, OpenMedia, the Canadian Media Guild, the Canadian Labour Congress, the Ontario Federation of Labour and others.
Five questions to ask
Mulcair and Trudeau need to be specific in answering some key questions, but Trudeau has to be pressed the hardest. Mulcair and the NDP have historically expressed their unwavering support for cultural institutions such as the CBC. The Liberals, not so much. Moreover, Justin’s overall performance since becoming Liberal leader shows he is not a small-l liberal like his father, and he is leading the party during highly conservative times. Most important, Trudeau has a much better chance of becoming prime minister than Mulcair. We can’t assume he would funnel more money to the CBC.
Here are five important questions and the kind of answers we should be looking for:
If they plan to change how the CBC is funded, what will that method be?
The right answer: Folks such as Barry Kiefl say the CBC would be better off if funded by an annual licence fee or a dedicated communications tax.
If they continue the current system, what level of funding will they provide?
The right answer: About $1.6 billion per year, the amount proposed by the Canadian Media Guild, which would be a 50 per cent increase in funding.
Will they provide funding through automatically repeated five-year terms with no option for cuts?
The right answer: Yes.
Will they change the current system under which the government directly appoints all board of directors?
The right answer: Yes. The government will consult with other parties in the House of Commons to appoint half of the members of the board. The other half will be named, one each, by leading groups from the cultural and private sectors.
Will they repeal Division 17 of Bill C-60, which went before the House and allows the government to be present at the bargaining table when CBC/Radio-Canada and its employees’ unions are discussing what constitutes news, etc.?
The right answer: Yes.
Many thousands of us who love the CBC — and love to hate some parts of it — spend far too much time discussing its future and not doing enough to help save it. But now, with the election only a few months away, we can do something constructive. We can, as members of public interest groups and NGOs, such as the ones listed above, contact our groups and tell them we want to be involved in helping to save the public broadcaster. Offer to get directly involved and see if you can help build a coalition of groups to save the Mother Corp.