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Watching the Watchdog: Will the CBC Follow in the BBC's Footsteps?

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Tim Knight writes the regular media column, Watching the Watchdog, for HuffPost Canada.

Across the Atlantic Ocean, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), world's oldest, largest and most respected broadcaster of journalism, is busy destroying itself. The ripples could stretch all the way across the pond to affect Canadian broadcast journalism too. As soon as this Monday.

Here's the scenario:

Over the past few weeks we've learned that:

  • For decades one of the BBC's biggest entertainment stars, a knight of the realm no less, was a serial abuser of hundreds of young people.
  • One of the BBC's journalistic programs was prevented from exposing that abuse.
  • Two hagiographies of the now-dead star were broadcast instead.
  • The corporation's journalists wrongly accused a senior politician of child abuse.
  • Because of the above, the BBC's director general/editor-in-chief was forced to resign after only two months on the job.
  • At least two other senior news executives have "stepped aside" from their posts.

And so it goes.

Want to know why the BBC's agonies are getting such big play internationally?

It's very simple. For the past 90 years the BBC has set the journalistic standard for all the world's public broadcasters. Including our very own CBC which is based on exactly the same public service principles as the venerable Brit.

The BBC's Royal Charter states flatly: "The BBC exists to serve the public interest." It goes on to explain that its main object "is sustaining citizenship and civil society."

In turn, the CBC's mandate says it should provide: "a wide range of programming that informs, enlightens and entertains" (note the order of events).

But the BBC's present agonies would warrant no more than a few paragraphs over a couple of days if its influence was confined to the world's public (as in tax-supported public service) broadcasters.

It's not. When it comes to journalism, the BBC -- and other public broadcasters around the world, like CBC -- still sets the standard for all broadcast newsrooms, whether public or private.

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As a result, the public broadcasters force the privates to stay reasonably honest. Whether they wish to stay reasonably honest or not.

You don't really think, for instance, that here in Canada the owners of CTV, Global, Rogers and the rest of the privates care about the quality of the journalism they broadcast, do you? That they see themselves as public servants dedicated to broadcasting the very finest news and current affairs to the people? That they give a rat's ass for honest, free, public service journalism as an essential cornerstone of democracy?

You're right. In fact, our privates only commit journalism because they have to. It's a condition of their hugely profitable licenses.

So they very resultantly put out the fewest hours of often second-rate journalism they can get away with. All the while, competing to cut newsroom costs (read: fire journalists) and fatten the already obscene profits earned from broadcasting relatively cheap American programming. (A fairly recent survey of one evening's prime time programming by the public broadcaster CBC showed 94 per cent Canadian content. The biggest and richest of our privates, CTV, had exactly zero Canadian content.)

But back to the world's oldest, largest and most prestigious broadcaster, the BBC. Auntie, or the Beeb, as its been lovingly known in Britain until now.

Things are so bad there that one of its veteran journalists, David Dimbleby, publicly talks of bloated management and a culture of "gobbledegook."

He's so angry he even forgets his grammar which is most unlike a BBC grandee: "Any editor, any head of department spends their lives filling in forms and answering questions about things that are not really necessary, using language that is so arcane, about platforms and genres and goodness knows what."

It's the equivalent of such distinguished CBC veterans as Hana Gartner, Terry Milewski or Neil Macdonald publicly criticizing CBC management.

Even the corporation's chairman, Lord Patten of Barnes, says the BBC's handling of the scandal has been "unacceptably shoddy journalism" and calls the organization "a ghastly mess" in need of a "thorough structural overhaul."

Not surprisingly, there have been calls for his resignation too.

Sadly, all this sounds a bit like our very own CBC with its own bloated management, gobbledegook, filling in of forms, and platforms and genres, and need of structural overhaul "and goodness knows what."

So I asked CBC for its reaction to the BBC disasters. In return, I got a memo that Kirstine Stewart, executive vice-president CBC English services, sent to staff under the rather odd heading "Why I am not editor-in-chief."

It goes on for some time about the CBC structure which, it seems, is different from BBC's and explains "I am kept fully briefed on our CBC News activities but I do not make editorial decisions..."

Stewart's memo continues: "I watch with interest and concern the events over in the U.K. The back and forth from phone hacking to the present BBC issues risk the debate devolving to 'payback' and attacks not just on a structure or an institution, but as attacks on the values public broadcasting (sic)."

To which CBC's head of media relations, Chuck Thompson, adds: "we have no further comment on what has transpired at the BBC." So I have nothing to report on the BBC's journalistic problems from anyone actually in charge of -- and thus responsible for -- CBC journalism.

But this Monday, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), which oversees Canada's broadcasters, starts hearings on the CBC's application for a license renewal.

This will likely be a very different hearing from the bureaucratic blandness of the past. That's because the CRTC has a brand new sheriff, one Jean-Pierre Blais, who's already proved he's no Establishment flunky. All hell broke loose among the more savage of our broadcast capitalists when he refused to let BCE Inc. (owner of CTV and numerous specialty TV stations) take over Astral Media -- because it would place too much power in the hands of one company.

Blais will have followed the British public broadcaster's travails, disasters and failures across the pond with great interest. Which doubtless means he'll be looking at Canada's public broadcaster with a newly skeptical eye this week.

If all this happened at the Beeb, could it happen here too? CBC should be afraid. Very afraid.