OTTAWA - A long-standing complaint concerning Quebec navel-gazing by the CBC's French-language news service has been revived as the national broadcast regulator considers Radio-Canada's licence renewal.
Sen. Pierre de Bane, a former Liberal cabinet minister under prime minister Pierre Trudeau, commissioned an exhaustive research study that suggests Quebec television viewers may be getting an "unrepresentative image of the Canadian reality."
A scientifically vigorous sample of 2010 newscasts on Le Telejournal, taken by a Carleton University researcher, found that 42 per cent of the coverage focused on Quebec, a third dealt with international news and just 20 per cent covered Canadian "national" news.
Regional stories focusing on the other 11 provinces and territories comprised less than six per cent of Le Telejournal's coverage over a month-long period.
By contrast, CBC's The National focused 37 per cent of its newscast on Canadian national news, 36 per cent on international events and the remaining 27 per cent on the provinces and territories.
And with almost as many journalist employees in the French service as the entire English CBC, de Bane can't understand why Le Telejournal and Radio-Canada doesn't more fully cover the country.
The corporation confirms that, as of August, it had 687 CBC "news reporting jobs," including 43 in Quebec. Radio-Canada had 604 "news reporting jobs," of which 377 are in Quebec.
"The findings of this study suggest there was a sharp imbalance in the national edition of Radio-Canada's Le Telejournal coverage of the different geographic regions of Canada in 2010," concludes the de Bane study's author, Vincent Raynauld, who holds a PhD in journalism and communication from Carleton.
"Canadians tuning in to the national edition of Le Telejournal are generally exposed to a partial and potentially unrepresentative image of the Canadian reality."
In a submission to the CRTC, de Bane says Radio-Canada is not meeting its mandate in the Broadcast Act to "reflect Canada and its regions to national and regional audiences," nor is it contributing to "shared consciousness and identity" — as stipulated in the act.
Angus McKinnon, the director of corporate communications for CBC/Radio-Canada, said the corporation will address de Bane's arguments before the broadcast regulator.
But he pointed out that Radio-Canada has employees in 19 communities across Canada, from Vancouver to Halifax.
"Using one program, in this case the Telejournal, as the measure of Radio-Canada's representation of regional news is spurious," McKinnon said in an email after requesting questions in writing.
"CBC/Radio-Canada has countless news programs on many platforms which serve the needs of specific regions as well as sharing regional stories with national audiences."
McKinnon noted that despite a $115-million cut this year from the CBC's $1.162 billion in 2011-12 government funding and the loss of a $40-million CRTC "local improvement fund," the corporation has "done our best to disproportionally protect and enhance regional services."
When self-generated revenues are added in, the English service has a budget of $920 million and the French services $667 million.
The broadcast mandate is being met, he asserted.
"We try to do that every day with the totality of our service offer," wrote McKinnon. "It cannot be done with one program alone."
But De Bane maintains that nothing has changed during years of repeated studies. He suggested the public broadcaster should be called Radio-Quebec, not Radio-Canada.
"In order to know what is going on in my country, I — like many, many French-Canadians from Quebec or elsewhere who watch Radio Canada — when it's time for the news, we switch to The National," de Bane said in an interview.
Some four million unilingual francophone Quebecers don't have that option, he said.
De Bane considers it shameful that francophone communities outside Quebec are now seeking their own network licence with the CRTC.
"As long as Radio-Canada ignores French Canadians outside Quebec, it's exactly what the Parti Quebecois wants," he said, arguing that Quebec nationalism is undermined by a pan-Canadian francophone reality.
De Bane presented his research and opinions to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission this month as the CRTC wrapped up hearings on CBC and Radio-Canada's licence renewals.
It is the first significant renewal of the broadcast licences in over a decade and de Bane would like to see the CRTC impose conditions on Radio-Canada.
A public consultation period concluded Oct. 5 and interventions, including de Bane's, are now posted on the CRTC web site.
Among the "issues to be of importance for the public hearing," the CRTC cites the following:
"Regional reflection: Provision of an appropriate reflection of Canada's regions to regional and national audiences, in programming categories such as news and current affairs, as well as other types of programming."
Determining what is "appropriate" is a long-standing debate.
Raynauld's research notes that numerous studies, dating back to at least the 1970s, have repeatedly illustrated Radio-Canada's Quebec-centric focus.
A CRTC report by Arthur Seigal in 1977 found "significant disparities" between the news coverage of Radio-Canada and the CBC that "contributed to the reinforcement of sharp 'value differences along linguistic lines' among members of the Canadian public," writes Raynauld.
A report based on 1988 news coverage found Radio-Canada "overwhelmingly privileged news on Quebec," according to Raynauld, and another in 2009 found that "news about other provinces and territories received little to no attention, even when they were more 'important' for a wide range of reasons."