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RUSSELL WANGERSKY: Fresh CBC funding will only help in sucking air out of local media

No one ever really does anything about CBC other than to either make it anxious about its funding, or make it happy about its funding and hoping that it will continue, writes Peter Menzies.
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Re: the CBC? I disagree.

Just before New Year’s, the federal heritage minister, Steven Guilbeault, spoke to iPolitics about his plans for the CBC.

He spoke about the CBC hiring more people and opening more offices, among other things.

The plans echo details in his ministerial mandate letter, which said he was to, “Strengthen the regional mandate of CBC/Radio-Canada to broadcast more local news and require CBC/Radio-Canada to open up its digital platform.”

In the iPolitics interview, he said that the broadcaster would receive the extra funding needed to finance the expanded role.

Normally, I’m all in favour of support for local news; as local papers shut down in the U.S., areas known as news deserts are growing — places where people can’t get information on local politics or civic issues. I think people will only realize what they’ve lost after it’s well and truly gone.

But the CBC hasn’t been exactly, well, reasonable about how it has spent its past increases in funding from the Trudeau government, and there’s no reason to believe that the corporation would be any more reasonable with any new money.

In fact, despite protestations to the contrary even by its own president, the CBC seems intent on sucking all the air it can out of the media environment.

It’s already easily the largest news operation in most areas outside central Canada, and has been on a hiring binge for months. And a recent influx of money from the federal government didn’t go towards the CBC’s existing broadcasting mandate, but to its digital side instead.

Don’t take my word for that: “The recent reinvestment in CBC/Radio-Canada has helped us continue our digital transformation,” the CBC said in a recent submission to the federal government.

It’s strayed from its news mandate and now buys and writes opinion pieces for digital use. It’s happily selling digital advertising.

And, on a more practical basis, while it claims not to be competing with private media, it matches exclusive stories posted behind private media pay walls on its own sites, often within minutes of their posting, and usually without crediting the original source. (The most egregious sample I’ve seen in the past month? When the CBC couldn’t obtain information to match details in a SaltWire sports column, the CBC simply repeated the information in their matching story, saying, essentially, “there are rumours that…”)

In fact, despite protestations to the contrary even by its own president, the CBC seems intent on sucking all the air it can out of the media environment.

Its broadcasting staff regularly write for its digital side, and the lines about what constitutes its mandate have blurred.

As the CBC prepared for a review of the Broadcast Act that’s due to come down within weeks, it argued that references to its broadcasting mandate be changed so that it can shoulder into the digital marketplace even more, eventually becoming a solely digital operation — presumably, at the same time keeping its existing subsidy for traditional broadcasting and seeking more, and more stable, funding.

For its part, the CBC argues that it’s not the bad guy — that Facebook and Google have a lion’s share of digital advertising dollars in Canada as the media landscape has changed, and that we’re somehow all on the same team here, fighting against big foreign competition.

We’re not.

While CBC senior management is talking about “big” issues, the on-the-ground gutting continues.

I’m not convinced that the CBC even sees that, by both capturing advertising dollars and providing for “free” (with a healthy federal subsidy) the product that private outlets have to sell, it could be the last straw for some of the people it claims not to be competing with.

Let’s hope the federal government has better vision.

Russell Wangersky’s column appears in SaltWire newspapers and websites across Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at russell.wangersky@thetelegram.com — Twitter: @wangersky.


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