The Friends of Canadian Broadcasting watchdog group this week released another of their periodic polls showing overwhelming public support for the notion of independent public broadcasting in general and CBC/Radio-Canada in particular.
The poll was taken in response to the passage of Bill C-60, which Friends interprets as, in part, a deliberate scheme to muzzle the public broadcaster and bring it to heel. In giving the Federal Cabinet the power (via the Treasury Board) to demand a place at the table in wage and salary negotiations for all CBC employees, including journalists, Friends insists that the Bill threatens to turn the public broadcaster into a state mouthpiece, subservient to political authority.
The Harper government defends the new rules as necessary to ensure the CBC is more "accountable" in spending its $1 billion taxpayer-funded annual subsidy. Shelly Glover, the newly-appointed Heritage Minister, whose responsibilities include the CBC, seems to be on board with that. In a post-appointment interview with the Globe and Mail she had this to say:
"Although I am a big supporter of a strong, national, public broadcaster, I am concerned about accountability within the CBC and I continue to monitor that situation with great interest."
(She also said that, "we need a [public] broadcaster that is fair and that is balanced." We can perhaps forgive her so early in her tenure, for apparently not realizing that "Fair and Balanced" is the trademark slogan of Fox News, which, notoriously, is anything but.)
The allegation of profligate spending at the CBC has been a theme of both Conservative and Liberal governments for many decades, and occasionally there has been some merit in the charges, especially where senior administrators and their sometimes naïve and ill-informed decisions are concerned. However the charge has most often been used as a weapon; an excuse for cutting the Parliamentary appropriation, a stick to beat the corporation with when it gets too far out of line politically.
Private broadcasters and their lobbyists in Ottawa use the accusation to try to hobble the CBC's ability to compete with them for audiences and advertisers--Sun Media's cynical attempt to get CBC to open its books on contract fees and salaries is just the latest skirmish in a long-running war.
There is, however, a real issue of accountability at the CBC, one that more vigilant accountants and more stringent fiscal safeguards will not resolve. It concerns the corporation's accountability to its audience.
Time and again, CBC managers spring major programming decisions on Canadians without any public consultation beyond their own in-house polling and focus groups. Both of these tools are highly susceptible to manipulation and are frequently used to provide justification for decisions already taken. A classic example was the decision in 2008 to convert Radio 2 from a predominantly classical music format to "adult alternative." Another is the continuing, very substantial shift of funding from radio to television. A third is the decision to ask the CRTC for permission to re-introduce advertising to Radio 2 and Éspace Musique. And then there was former V.P. Richard Stursberg's decision to banish arts programming from television, and introduce product placement in CBC productions. There have been many others.
But true public consultation would expose managers to public criticism, an aversion to which has long been a suffocating feature of CBC corporate culture. Aversion, in fact, is too mild a term: "paranoia" is closer to the true state of affairs. And it is perhaps understandable (though not excusable), given the fact that the broadcaster has been living under a state of siege for decades. When there's constant "incoming," you learn to keep your head down.
The excuse used by CBC for its obsessive secrecy about programming and financial issues of direct interest to its audiences is that it needs to keep information under wraps for business reasons. That is, it doesn't want to give its competitors in private broadcasting information they could use to compete more effectively and thereby lower the CBC's audience numbers and advertising revenue. It's just good business practice, goes the argument, and so it is.
Except that the CBC isn't supposed to be just a business. Its responsibilities are not to shareholders, but to its audience -- the citizens of this country. Its mandate is not related to competitiveness and profit, but to cultural enrichment and national consensus-building. And it's supposed to be a democratic institution.
If the CBC were to become an advertising-free service on both radio and television, as its supporters are demanding in ever-growing numbers, this fig-leaf rationale for unwarranted secrecy and arbitrary decision-making would be stripped away. A more truly accountable public broadcaster would be the result. Minister Glover may wish to consider this.