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Watching the Watchdog: Bill C-60 Does Canadians a Disservice

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

I'm celebrating spring on the roof of Scallywag's, my local oasis, and drinking a toast to an old CBC friend and colleague.

His name is Hugh Doherty. He's a splendid journalist and a fine and decent man who's done lots of good stuff for Canada, particularly as producer of CBC's flagship news program, The National, and executive producer of TV News, CBC Edmonton.

Now, I'm told, Hugh is dying in an Ottawa hospital.

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As is the custom at such watering holes, when two old news hands who I know vaguely (call them "A" and "B" on account of they fear being blackballed if identified) climb up the stairs and look around for a table, I invite them to join me.

Once we order a round, the conversation concentrates, as it does so often these days, on politics. And specifically on one Stephen Joseph Harper, 22nd and current prime minister of Canada.

Why the hell is he so arrogant, ruthless, brutish, mean, petty and vindictive?

"A," a TV producer, blames Harper's religious affiliation, a Protestant evangelical group called the Christian and Missionary Alliance. It holds that the Bible is without error, and that the second coming of Christ is imminent.

"A" thinks Harper's evangelical beliefs are behind the long list of peculiar decisions he's made since he got that parliamentary majority.

"That explains why the man's pathologically opposed to Canadians knowing what his government is doing, why he never holds real news conferences, why he's slashed scientific research and why he's muzzled all those scientists," he says.

"Harper believes that only God and he know the truth and everyone who disagrees with him, or even questions him, is guilty of blasphemy and will end up burning in hell fire."

Maybe so, admits "B," a very experienced former CBC reporter who slithered to the dark side to commit public relations. But she thinks Harper's behavior is much more effected by the fact that he's a multi-millionaire, right-wing Conservative prime minister who quite naturally sets Canadian corporate tax rates at around the lowest in the world and loathes being questioned.

She's also curious about how, after a lifetime in politics, Harper is worth around $5 million today.

"He must have really saved those pennies", she says dryly. "Either that or Jim Flaherty gives him better advice than the rest of us."

I agree with them both. To me there's something deeply nervous-making about a multi-millionaire prime minister who believes the Bible is fact and that Christ is heading this way even as we speak (which, of course, explains Harper's slavish devotion to Israel).

But I think there's more. Much more. I believe Harper told the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth when he promised a right-wing American think tank a few years back:

"You won't recognize Canada when I get through with it."

I believe that he's drunk the Kool-Aid. That he's on a crusade to turn Canada's messy liberal, participatory, parliamentary democracy into a rigid neo-feudal, semi-fascist triumph of state capitalism.

That for the advancement of savage capitalism and the greater glory of his god, he intends Canada to become his very own Garden of Eden, an unholy mixture of Singapore, Cuba and China.

This I believe because he's just made the one classic, vital move that potential tyrants always take. He's decided to turn Canada's public broadcaster -- the only national broadcaster we have that's into public service rather than profit -- into a state broadcaster.

Let's be clear about this. By definition, state broadcasters serve the state. Not the people. And in this country, the state has become just a polite word for the party in power. So for the foreseeable future, a state broadcaster would be pressured to serve the Conservative Party, not the people.

How do I know? Buried deep inside Harper's latest omnibus Budget legislation, Bill C-60, are a few bland words that would make him, in effect, boss of the CBC.

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Which means he would control working conditions for such eminent and independently-bloody-minded CBC journalists as Linden MacIntyre, Bob McKeown, Nahlah Ayed, Neil Macdonald, Susan Ormiston, Rex Murphy, Carol Off, Peter Mansbridge, Anna Maria Tremonti, Rick Macinnes-Rae, Alison Smith and Terry Milewski.

So what? you say. Everyone has a boss. Even Harper. His boss is the old Queen across the water.

But she doesn't interfere.

Harper, who is a notorious Type A, micromanaging control freak, would interfere. He'd likely promise that the only reason he wants to control the CBC would be to ensure that it's delivering public value for public money. But then he wouldn't be able to control himself.

He'd interfere. Which would undermine the CBC's cherished editorial independence and thus seriously harm Canada's already-fragile democracy.

That's because the CBC (like Britain's BBC on which it's based) is deliberately designed to be independent, to operate at arm's length from the government of the day.

To be in public -- not government -- service.

The CBC's independence is an absolutely essential part of our cherished democracy. Canada's Broadcasting Act is very clear about all this.

"The Corporation shall ... enjoy freedom of expression and journalistic, creative and programming independence."

But how will it do these things if it's an arm of the state?

It won't.

Instead, he who pays the piper will call the tune.
The Canadian Media Guild which represents around six thousand media folk (CBC, Global TV, History, Showcase, The Canadian Press, Reuters, APTN etc. etc.) pulls no punches:

The Bill, it says, "undermines nearly 80 years of public broadcasting in Canada by meddling with the essential arms-length relationship between the CBC and the government of the day ... it has all the markings of an attempt to turn the CBC into a state broadcaster."

Friends of Canadian Broadcasting has just delivered a 130,000-signature petition to parliament deploring Harper's plan to undermine the CBC's editorial independence:

"CBC must operate at arms length from government. Even the perception that CBC journalists are pulling punches or program decisions are made in favour of political masters would be disastrous for the CBC and Canadian democracy."

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The next evening I get a message that Hugh Doherty has died.

I drink a toast to a man who believed passionately that journalism -- all journalism, but particularly journalism committed at a crown corporation like the CBC -- isn't just a job.

That instead, it's public service. And that it's an honour to be a journalist -- particularly a CBC journalist -- and serve the people.

RIP Hugh, old friend.