Dear BBC, you are not alone

As the great and the good flog dead horses in front of the Commons Culture, Media and Sport select committee, the Corporation is nevertheless far from being in as parlous a state as its children – public service broadcasters established in its image in the ‘white dominions’ of Australia, New Zealand, and Canada.

Seth Feldman
13 February 2014

Right wing populist governments are seldom on good terms with the public broadcaster. The Canadian experience is no exception. Since winning its minority government in 2006 and a majority in 2011, Stephen Harper’s government has surprised no one with its persistent attacks on the CBC. Conservative backbenchers have risen in the House with resolutions demanding the defunding of the Corporation. As government funding comprises two thirds of the Corporation’s budget, this is synonymous with closing the place down. On his part, the Prime Minister has made his contribution to the decades long cutting of the CBC’s budget. Under his watch, government contributions to that budget have declined by ten percent. 

Small comfort can be taken in the fact that none of this is new. Since its establishment in 1936, there has been a long tradition of calling for the CBC (as well as the National Film Board) to be shuttered. The rationale, beyond the usual small-government rhetoric, has been that a public broadcaster has impeded the growth of the private industry. Neither the success of private broadcasters nor the realization that they make their money on American content has changed that argument.

Cutting the CBC’s budget has also become a predictable event in Canadian political life. A Crown Corporation, the CBC receives its government funding from general revenues on a year-to-year basis. Intermittent government promises of stable, long term funding for the Corporation have not earned much credibility. Dramatic, often traumatic, budget cuts have happened more regularly. Particularly harsh cuts came under the Conservatives in the 1980s and the Liberals in the 1990s. All told, between 1991 and 2009, Government funding of the CBC grew by all of eight per cent, well below the rate of inflation. Entire careers spent at the Corporation have been lived in an atmosphere of continual fiscal crisis.

The result is that, among industrial nations, Canada is third from the bottom in terms of dollars per capita spent on public broadcasting. (More realistically, it is second from the bottom, slightly ahead of New Zealand. The United States barely registers on the chart.) Britain, in contrast, sits nicely nestled in the low end of the Scandinavian cluster.

Until recently, then, the consensus has been that the Harper Government was content to further the CBC’s decline in the customary genteel manner. It would threaten the Corporation and cut the budget but do so with the realization that the Corporation would still outlive it and thus would still have to be dealt with. One indication of this is the current Government’s positioning itself to influence its arms length broadcaster – another fine Canadian tradition. As of October, nine of twelve people appointed by Harper to the CBC's Board of Directors are or have been financial contributors to the Conservative Party of Canada. Surely, they could be counted on to make the Corporation aware of the Government’s perspective. 

More recently, though, it seems that Harper may actually want to kill what he has long perceived to be one of his many nemeses. At the Conservative Party’s November Convention, tightly orchestrated by the Prime Minister’s Office, the Party faithful passed a resolution to support those backbencher resolutions. Not exactly a cabinet decision, it does give some greater legitimacy to movement for ending the CBC’s public funding. Of course, it might also be said that the Conservative Party convention also passed far right resolutions attacking the rights of workers to organize and cutting compensation packages to civil servants. One can only reply that these extreme positions are also serious government objectives already well underway.

Can the same be said for the demise of the CBC? If that is Harper’s objective, he has in fact given himself a powerful tool with which to achieve it. In June, the Conservative majority passed an act that put the Government in direct control of labour negotiations between crown corporations and their unions. It (or more precisely, the Treasury Board) can dictate terms of a negotiating mandate and decide, if need be, to take a strike in order to stay within that mandate. In the case of a crown corporation the Government doesn’t particularly value, there might well be little incentive for the Treasury Board to allow any settlement acceptable to labor. The outcome might well be a long, if not permanent shut down.

At the same time – with the extent of government involvement yet to be determined – CBC has been dealt one of the most severe financial blows in its history. The source of this distress is ice hockey, Canada’s state religion. Approximately half of CBC’s advertising revenue (which accounts for a third of its total income) has come from broadcasting National Hockey League games. In 2012-2013, the NHL locked out its players resulting in the cancellation of a large portion of its season. The CBC suffered accordingly.

Despite predictions of audience disillusionment, the NHL’s audience and hockey’s ability to produce advertising revenue for the CBC did rebound. During the truncated hockey season, the interminable playoffs and the Stanley Cup finals, the cash cow was happily milked. Although it never fully recovered its losses from the playoffs, hockey seemed more than ever to a dependable source of revenue for the CBC.

Until it wasn’t. On November 26, the NHL announced that it had sold the Canadian broadcast rights to all of its games to Rogers Communications, Canada’s largest cable (and internet and cellphone) company. For the next four years, Rogers will allow the CBC to broadcast its flagship program, Hockey Night in Canada, on a no-charge/no-revenue basis. Rogers will also have complete editorial control of the program. In the long run, Rogers will develop hockey across its various platforms, selling broadcasts on pay-tv, computer and mobile devices. And the CBC will be left without hockey revenue and with many hours to fill with less profitable programming.

The result of Rogers’ five billion dollar purchase (a sum that the CBC, with its 1.1 billion dollar annual budget, could not hope to match) is that Canadians will be paying for something their public broadcaster has brought them gratis since radio days (or at least since Canada gave up on its British style radio/television set licensing). One might think that Canada’s broadcast regulator and protector of the public interest, the Canadian Radio Television Commission, would take some notice. To date, it has not. This is particularly curious as the Harper Government has gone out of its way to criticize Rogers and Canada’s other two communications companies (Bell and Fido) for their technologically backward and overpriced services. It even bent the Canadian ownership rules so as to invite foreign competitors – none of whom came forward to take on these well-ensconced communications companies. Certainly, Rogers’ new windfall could be leveraged by regulators into better service and prices across its domain. Again, this announcement has yet to be made.

The CRTC did make an announcement its capacity as regulator of cable services in the most cabled nation on earth. It ruled that Rogers and the other cable companies must provide all Canadian news channels as part of their basic packages. For the most part, they already do. The one exception is Sun News, a two-year old Fox News wannabe attracting little interest from either viewers or the cable companies. There had been something of a battle over licensing it at all, with many commentators wondering why Canada needed highly biased reporting, right wing demagogues and the various other embarrassments provided on a regular basis by the Fox News model. Having since provided those embellishments to the ether, Sun News may now look forward to a greater exposure that will make it a more effective ideological complement to the Tories’ endless stream of American style-attack ads.

This victory for Sun News has a particular impact on the CBC. It comes at a moment when the disappearance of hockey will leave Public Affairs as the CBC’s most conspicuous service. Radio news and documentary, the nightly one-hour television news program, the CBC news channel and CBC’s windows for in-house and independent documentaries are what remain of serious mass-market journalism on the Canadian airwaves. Nowhere else does one find satirical news programming or personalities known for their independent and well-informed views on public affairs. In comparison, news programing on the commercial networks is indistinguishable from the American product. Sometimes it is the American product, as the private broadcasters are not above buying news items from US networks and running American public affairs shows.

Because of its importance and its unique nature, English Public Affairs will be the CBC’s next battleground – and perhaps its last stand. The CBC’s French service, Radio Canada, has a long list of familiar personalities and cherished programs. But it is of little interest to the Government as the Tories have written off the Quebec electorate. Radio Canada International, which the Tories tried to shut down, exists on life support. English drama has produced a handful of credible programs that do what they can against the American prime time onslaught. Radio drama, that all but lost art, is even better. But none of these shows attract sufficient audiences to make any sort of difference in the political arena.

Public Affairs can make that difference. To date, despite the cutbacks and whatever pressure has been put on it, CBC news has been anything but intimidated. During the fall, it played a leading role in covering the emerging Senate scandal. Like Watergate, the scandal began with some small time crimes, in this case the (technically legal) abuses of expense accounts by three of the Senators Harper appointed to Canada’s Upper House. Thanks largely to CBC’s masterful reporting of the many complex issues raised (and to skillful questioning by the Leader of the Opposition) Harper has been painted into a Nixonesque corner. For the first time since becoming its Leader, he is seen as vulnerable within his own party.

The scandal comes at a time when the Tories are trying to dump various bad news items in order to concentrate on the run-up to the 2015 election. The day after Parliament adjourned for Christmas recess, Canada Post announced it would no longer be making home deliveries. A few days later, the Finance Minister refused – despite pleas from all ten provinces – to address the underfunding of the national pension scheme. The Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade has made it official – it will prioritize the International Trade aspect of its mandate – perhaps just as well, given Canada’s rapidly dwindling reputation in international diplomacy. Even a seeming victory – Harper’s carefully engineered approval of an oil pipeline by yet another ostensibly independent agency – has only served to reinvigorate the aboriginal and environmental groups (not to mention both opposition parties) who are deeply committed to fighting the project.

None of this will help Harper close the growing lead that Justin Trudeau, the new Liberal Party leader, is enjoying in the polls. A man of few accomplishments since his propitious birth (his father was a charismatic prime-minister from 1968-1979), Mr. Trudeau nevertheless does have the ability to make the current government look old and tired. His presence suits the endless campaign, another recent political import from the States. Under his leadership the Liberals are raising the money needed to match the Tories attack ad for attack ad (Parenthetically, the New Democratic Party, whose performance in opposition provides strong evidence of an ability to govern, has no such resources). Canada’s two-year presidential style campaign will be based on image over substance, personality over politics – in other words, television.

Under these circumstances, if Harper is indeed committed to CBC’s demise he may well have outsmarted himself. Its mind thus concentrated, CBC news could go to its reward doing what it does best: demonstrating the antidote to political superficiality. Alternatively, we could just wake up one morning and find it gone. And as of this moment that is looking likelier: on February 6, Hubert Lacroix, President of the CBC circulated a memo to his employees.  He recounted the year's various financial disasters including disappointing interest on the part of demographics the broadcaster had targeted.  With this and future challenges in mind, he announced that "there are dark clouds on the horizon."  The message would have lowered morale were there any morale left.

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