03/19/2020 13:35 EDT | Updated 03/19/2020 13:42 EDT

CBC Under Pressure To Restore Local TV Newscasts During Pandemic

A P.E.I. MP blasted the decision as "reckless and inappropriate."

Mark Blinch/REUTERS
The foyer of the CBC's Canadian Broadcasting Centre in downtown Toronto is seen here in May 2014. The public broadcaster says it isn't business as usual during the COVID-19 pandemic.

TORONTO — The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) is facing backlash for its decision to temporarily slash most of its local news broadcasts in an effort to combine its resources amid the COVID-19 pandemic. 

In a news release, the public broadcaster said effective Wednesday, it will focus on providing “core live breaking news service” in response to the novel coronavirus sweeping the country. Across Canada, CBC News Network programming has replaced local supper-hour and late-night newscasts, except for CBC North. Local CBC stations will still provide content through local radio, websites and social media accounts.

The CBC is also temporarily suspending its “Power & Politics” program so the Ottawa production team can be redeployed to CBC News Network.

Susan Marjetti, the CBC’s general manager of news, current affairs and local, said these measures are meant to “ensure the very best of our local and national journalism” during the pandemic. 

“Simply stated, extraordinary times require extraordinary measures,” Marjetti said in a statement. 

While there was some support for the move online, there was also criticism, especially on the East Coast where many people rely on the CBC as one of their few sources of local news coverage. 

On Thursday morning, Charlottetown MP Sean Casey revealed that he had reached out to Canadian Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault to address the cancellation, which he said has left residents “extremely upset.”

“I reinforced to him that ‘Compass’ is a veritable institution here,” Casey said in a video posted on Twitter, referencing the long-running local Prince Edward Island news program. “The pressure is being applied.”

Also on Thursday, former federal minister Steven Blaney said he was “disappointed” in the decision.

“The COVID-19 pandemic is a rapidly evolving situation, and people need accurate, local information to help make decisions around keeping themselves and their loved ones safe,” Blaney wrote on Twitter. 

P.E.I. MP Wayne Easter wrote an open letter Wednesday to Catherine Tait, the CBC’s president and CEO, calling the move “reckless and inappropriate,” while urging her to reverse the “dangerous and short-sighted decision.” 

“On Prince Edward Island there is a very large elderly population, one that is not permanently connected to the grid with smart phones at their disposal and often limited access to reliable networks,” Easter wrote, adding that residents rely on local broadcasts for the latest news on the coronavirus.

“Islanders need to have access to local reporting to make informed decisions for the sake of our public health, now and into the future,” he added.

P.E.I. Premier Dennis King said he was “incredibly disappointed” in the move, and planned to speak with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and formally ask the heritage minister to intervene and reverse the decision.

“Many Island seniors do not use the internet, have social media or pay attention to digital news platforms,” King said in a statement. “They are our most vulnerable Islanders and need the most up-to-date information to properly protect themselves from COVID-19.” 

Part of the CBC’s mandate as Canada’s public broadcaster is to “reflect Canada and its regions to national and regional audiences, while serving the special needs of those regions.” 

The CBC has vowed to share information that impacts local communities, but Canadians are still urging them to reverse course.

The Canadian Media Guild (CMG) — the union representing CBC employees — said Wednesday it was also “disappointed” with the broadcaster’s decision and asked them to reconsider.

“CMG shares Canadians’ surprise that the public broadcaster would decrease its service during an unprecedented health crisis, at a time when Canadians need reliable, trusted information more than ever,” wrote Kim Trynacity, the union’s CBC branch president.

Friends of Canadian Broadcasting, an advocacy group, urged the federal government Wednesday to boost funding for the CBC to ensure local broadcasts can continue. 

“Ottawa has a responsibility to make sure that the CBC has the resources it needs to restore these services,” executive director Daniel Bernhard said. 

We recognize that we are an essential service at this time, but this is not business as usual.Brodie Fenlon, CBC editor-in-chief

CBC News editor-in-chief Brodie Fenlon tried to explain the reasoning behind the decision in a blog post on Wednesday, calling it a difficult but necessary move.

“We recognize that we are an essential service at this time, but this is not business as usual,” Fenlon wrote.

“A story of this magnitude — one that changes by the hour — places incredible demands on our staff and our infrastructure in order to get the most accurate and up-to-date information to audiences,” he continued. “Television is especially resource-intensive, and many jobs are difficult to do at home. Our systems are overtaxed, and we had to make adjustments as a result.”

The CBC added it hopes to revert back to normal as soon as possible, but gave no timeline for when that might be. 

As of Thursday at noon, more than 750 confirmed cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed across Canada, including reports of infections in every province.

With files from The Canadian Press

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