What CBC already knows, but won't tell you

Published on April 21, 2012

Sometimes, your biggest strength ends up being your biggest weakness. And for the CBC, that painful truth means that, even though its management and staff may have extremely sharp and legitimate opinions about the recent budget-cutting actions of the federal government, those opinions are staying resolutely out of their coverage.

The irony here is that the CBC is extremely professional — so professional, in fact, that the Harper government is counting on that professionalism to prevent the CBC from saying publicly what is obviously true.

I don’t have any of those strictures — opinion is what I do. So I don’t have any problem in stating what should be abundantly obvious, and that is that the current federal government is deliberately singling out the CBC for heavier budgetary punishment because the Harper government does not like the coverage it gets.

Now that they hold the majority reins, they are taking extreme pleasure in laying on the whip.

Face it: if the current federal government could find a way to close down the political news-gathering side of The Globe and Mail and Postmedia, they’d do that, too. If they could pick off individual editorial writers — the ones who aren’t consistently glowing, for example — they’d jump at that, too.

Because this is not Bob Stanfield’s Conservative party. It’s not Joe Clarke’s. It’s not even Brian Mulroney’s.

No, this is a government that believes the end justifies any means — and in case you’re confused about that end, it’s simple. That end is keeping a Conservative majority in place long enough to change Canada to something that reflects the image of the 36 per cent or so of Canadians that actually back Harper et al.

It means killing off balanced coverage and salting the Senate, the judiciary and federal agencies, boards and commissions with as many like-minded right-wingers as possible. And it means bulldozing anyone who has the temerity to point that out.

The CBC, dependent as it is on federal dollars, is an easy target. And chances are, even if this latest round of cuts doesn’t kill the public broadcaster, it could well cripple it, either by having its fixed costs put a huge pinch on its ability and therefore its products, or else by effectively putting a chill on the work it does.

Are there things that drive me around the bend about the CBC? Of course there are — and I don’t really have a problem with pointing that out, because I also pay for part of the broadcaster with my tax dollars. Do I think that by making its journalists and anchors into “personalities,” it has weakened its value as an objective news source and has, perhaps by fiscal necessity, strayed into the land of the private radio morning personality talking heads? Yes. I’d like more news and less theatre.

Is the CBC a peculiarly rarified place, especially as far as salaries go? Sure it is. By and large, CBC journalists — outside of major urban centres like Toronto or Vancouver — are substantially better paid and equipped than their fellows in private media.

But public broadcasters also have some significant benefits, particularly when it comes to consumer journalism.

They, quite simply, can take chances that the privates aren’t keen to get involved in, and never will be. Nowhere is that clearer than in regional news and current affairs — not only are the regions a training ground for new national reporters and anchors, but CBC regional operations, especially in radio, are providing a service that the privates have been creeping out of for years by not replacing staff who leave.

The argument that private broadcasters will leap in to replace the CBC?

Laughable. You can count on private broadcasters to quickly leap in anywhere there is a profit — and, equally, you can count on them to quickly run away from any areas that are expensive and that they cover merely to do their best to try to keep up to the CBC’s standards.

Years ago, NTV’s owner told the CRTC that he’d run his station with two technicians and a broadcast tower, if that’s what it took to stay in the black.

That is a pretty low bar. It’s also a pretty honest appraisal.

Here’s another one. (CBC won’t tell you this, even though they know it’s true.)

The CBC is getting a particularly raw deal, and will continue to get a raw deal, because the Harper government doesn’t like it and because that government feels it has the power — and therefore the right — to do whatever it wants. Nothing more, nothing less.

You might not worry about that right away. But how would you feel if the Harper government decided it didn’t like you or your employer? And if that were to happen, keep in mind you won’t be able to make your case in the independent hands of the CBC.

This clock will not go backwards.

Last time I looked, the CBC served all Canadians. Meanwhile, the current federal government continues to serve itself and the interests of its fractional support. Maybe that’s why we have a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and a Harper government.


Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s

editorial page editor.