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What Needs to Happen to Save and Rebuild the CBC

12/09/2014 06:03 EST | Updated 02/08/2015 05:59 EST

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, 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 Clyde Gilmour'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, Stephen Harper's vicious cuts have brought the organization to its knees.

Can the CBC be saved and restored? Probably. But it will take some time and some good luck, as well as some heavy duty political lobbying.

It is important that CBC supporters, including those who have fallen by the wayside during the destructive Harper years, unite behind our top community groups and pressure the two opposition leaders to commit themselves in detail to restoring the Corporation 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 should be more or less similar to what it was like 10 or 20 years ago. However, TV should be changed dramatically. Instead of copying private broadcasters, such as CTV, CBC TV should move toward the European broadcasting model, focusing more than it currently does on the cultural, public interest, and social needs of Canadians, as well as guaranteeing media pluralism.

Audience ratings, which would not match private Canadian network ratings, should not be the main factor when determining the level of CBC funding.

What will NDP, Liberals promise?

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.

If either the NDP or Liberals win, rebuilding Mother Corp. would require a lot of work.

Internally, there would be a number of to-do items. First, a new government would have to get rid of the Tory boosters on the CBC Board of Directors -- 10 of 12 have donated to the Conservative Party. Board Chair Herbert Lacroix, also a Conservative donor, has done the most to damage the CBC. 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 Lacroix pushed hard to make CBC journalism favourable to the government.

Lacroix's term expires at the end of 2017. Perhaps a new government could pressure him to resign sooner or simply "put him on ice."

Terms of the majority of Board members also expire by the end of 2017, so it wouldn't be long before a new Board could be in place.

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. A new 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.

Finding right people crucial

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 marvelous 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 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. In view of the fact that many young people have turned away from radio and TV, the Corporation does have to change. But given Lacroix's allegiances to a government that would like to destroy the CBC, I'm doubtful that he has done the right thing.

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 Lacroix's 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 Friends.

Policies must be specific and detailed

Now, the external politics: Both the NDP and Liberals have to be pushed to spell out their specific plans 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.

That's 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.

'Friends', other groups should unite

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. Mulcair and Trudeau both 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. Moreover, Justin's overall performance since becoming Liberal leader show he is not a small-l liberal like his father. In addition, he is leading a 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 for the two leaders:

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 systems under which the government directly appoints all Board members?

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 a lot of 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 Corporation. Offer to get directly involved and see if you can help build a coalition of groups to save Mother Corp.

Nick Fillmore was a reporter, producer, senior editor, and investigative journalist over close to 30 years with the CBC. He is now a part-time freelance journalist in Toronto and posts for many online media outlets .His blog is A Different Point of View.

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