OTTAWA - The CBC's top boss says one of its major competitors is determined to damage the reputation of the public broadcaster in order to weaken it and he's determined to set the record straight on Parliament Hill.
MPs will be examining the CBC's current court battle with the Information Commissioner over access to information beginning Thursday. The Conservatives pushed for the study this fall, saying Canadians were concerned that the taxpayer was funding both sides of a case that hits the Federal Court of Appeals on Oct. 18.
At the same time, the Conservative Party of Canada is polling its members on the value of the CBC, the National Citizens Coalition has mounted a campaign to defund the CBC, and the Sun Media chain has published a months-long series of articles and editorials targeting the Crown Corporation for its refusal to provide expense information requested under access to information.
Asked what he thought was behind the campaign, CBC president Hubert Lacroix said:
"It depends on what kind of interest you have in putting the broadcaster in what kind of light."
"That's why I'm actually kind of looking forward to this hearing of the ethics committee on Nov. 1st," Lacroix said in an interview.
The Official Opposition has accused the Conservative government of seeding the ground for future cuts to the CBC with the work of the committee. Lacroix says he hopes there's no such link, but has already submitted proposals to the Treasury Board Secretariat of cuts totalling both five per cent and 10 per cent. He has no inkling yet on how much cutting the broadcaster will be requested to undertake.
Lacroix, meanwhile, is highly critical of the Sun Media articles and television coverage from its French and English-language networks run by parent company Quebecor. He accuses the company of attacking the CBC out of bald commercial interest — its TV stations in Quebec compete directly with French-language Radio-Canada for eyeballs.
"Every time they weaken us, every time they create doubt about us, every time they take dollars away from us or influence people to do that, they weaken the broadcaster to their advantage," Lacroix said.
He adds that he's known Quebecor President Pierre Karl Peladeau since the 1980s and respects him, but can't figure out his attitude towards the CBC. Peladeau is scheduled to appear at the Commons committee later this month.
"I'm disappointed that Pierre Karl would use the position that he has and the companies that he has to have less than factual information reported about us," Lacroix said. "I think he's better than that."
The CBC is facing criticism on access to information on two fronts.
One is the current fight before the courts on the records the CBC withholds from release under its exemptions for journalistic, creative or programming activities. Sun Media and the National Citizens Coalition say those activities were funded publicly and taxpayers have the right to know what they're paying for. The CBC argues that only a judge, not the information commissioner, has the right to look at those records to determine whether the corporation made the right call.
The other controversy is over the CBC's responsiveness to access to information requests. Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault gave the Crown Corporation an 'F' in her 2009-10 report card, saying 10 per cent of all complaints to her office in that period involved the CBC and Canada Post.
But Lacroix says he'll come to the Commons committee armed with new numbers on how the CBC is doing on access, showing among other things that its response time has fallen from a high of 187 days to an average now of 33. The Crown Corporation often points to the pile of requests an Ottawa law firm, working directly with Sun Media, filed in the months immediately after the CBC came under the Access to Information Act.
"If you want the public broadcaster to look bad and make a headline about it, you're going to send out 1,000 requests in a row on trying to disclose our journalistic sources...," Lacroix said. "You're going to get 1,000 "No's" in a row, and you can put it in your headline "CBC says No to 1,000 requests."'
The law firm actually filed 400 requests between September and December 2007. Since then, many of the Sun's stories about their difficulties with access to information have been on corporate or commercial issues, rather than journalistic ones, such as how many vehicles the CBC has in its fleet or how much it is spending to celebrate its 75th anniversary.
“To end up in a situation where an officer of Parliament has got to go to court to fight another Crown Corporation whose subsidy comes from Parliament...it's the taxpayer spending on both sides, this is really totally ridiculous,” Quebecor spokesman Luc Lavoie told The Canadian Press last week.
“What have they got to hide exactly, why don't they just reply to the requests that are made?"
Lacroix is now spending time meeting with ministers, and the CBC is publishing materials to counter the arguments from its critics. A new "Transparency and Accountability Bulletin" lists statistics on access to information files, and recent initiatives within the corporation.
"We think that if MPs want to know or committees want to know about our transparency record and our accountability record and how much better we are, we're willing to have that conversation at any time," he said.