OTTAWA — A Senate committee studying the future of CBC/Radio-Canada came dangerously close to “political interference,” French-language service ombudsman Pierre Tourangeau said Monday.
In an interview with The Huffington Post Canada, Tourangeau said non-elected senators had no business calling him or his CBC counterpart, Esther Enkin, to testify. The “partisan” senators, he said, also had no business calling journalists in charge of news operations, such as Jennifer McGuire and Michel Cormier, to appear before them.
“It’s very, very delicate to summon before a Senate or parliamentary committee news directors from a journalistic enterprise who are not answerable to politicians,” he said in French. “I think that is at the limit of political interference. No matter what the questions that they are asked, the fact that these individuals were summoned can give the impression that there is an attempt to influence or intimidate,” he said.
In his annual report, Tourangeau took aim at a review of the public broadcaster by “an assembly of non-elected personalities” in the Senate “named because of their political affinities.” He wrote that the senators who questioned him didn’t understand the news media or the role that a public broadcaster must play, and they were “openly hostile” towards the CBC/Radio-Canada, something Tourangeau found strange, given the committee’s mandate.
“The hearings, in my opinion, looked more like a trial than an exercise aimed at examining and understanding the challenges facing the Crown corporation,” he wrote.
An author and former journalist, Tourangeau said it wasn’t up to him to issue a judgment on the legitimacy of the Senate’s work.
“The Senate is at the heart of a debate that has gone on for several years now about its legitimacy because the people who sit in the chamber are not elected but named by the government,” he said.
He felt it was natural that CBC/Radio-Canada administrators, such as president Hubert Lacroix, would have to accommodate a Senate committee wanting to hear from him, he said, but he feels ombudsmen and journalists need to preserve their independence.
“I don’t answer to anybody. And I have difficulty seeing why a parliamentary committee, whether it is elected or not, can summon people who are, by definition, independent.”
Liberal Senator Dennis Dawson, head of the standing committee on transport and communications, told HuffPost that the Supreme Court’s opinion on the Senate’s role as a legitimate and foundational political institution is more important than the ombudsman’s.
“I must admit some of the questioning was doubtful,” he said, “but for a billion dollars a year [in public funding], a minimum [of] scrutiny seems reasonable.”
Dawson’s committee issued 22 recommendations for the CBC in its report , including:
- calling on the public broadcaster to disclose employees’ salaries and to ensure that non-executives aren’t being paid more than their private sector peers;
- recommending that the public broadcaster divest itself of its real estate holdings and lease facilities and office space instead;
- urging the CBC/Radio-Canada to explore new funding models, including examining the costs and the benefits of commercial advertising on both the English and French services.
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