2 Dec 2014

What needs to happen to
save and rebuild the CBC

The CBC, and particularly CBC Radio, is easily Canada’s most important cultural and public interest institution.

I say this not so much as someone who worked at the Corporation during the glory days of the 1970s and '80s but, like so many other people, a kid who was brought up in a home that was always watching and listening to the CBC.

Residing in a small village in Nova Scotia, we greatly appreciated the voices and images, ranging from Clyde Gilmour’s 40-year run of Gilmour’s Albums  on radio to the hard-nosed journalism of Norman DePoe on TV.

But after decades of serving and educating Canadians, Stephen Harper’s vicious cuts have brought the organization to its knees.

Can the CBC be saved and restored? Probably. But it will take some time and some good luck, as well as some heavy duty political lobbying.

It is important that CBC supporters, including those who have fallen by the wayside during the destructive Harper years, unite behind some common goals and pressure the two opposition leaders to commit themselves to restoring the Corporation to its proper role in the country.

There has been much discussion about the kind of content the CBC should carry in the future. I believe that Radio should be more or less similar to what it was like 10 or 20 years ago. However, TV should be changed dramatically. Instead of copying private broadcasters, such as CTV, CBC TV should move toward the European broadcasting model, focusing more than it currently does on the cultural, public interest, and social needs of Canadians, as well as guaranteeing media pluralism.

Audience ratings, which would not match private Canadian network ratings, should not be the major factor when determining the level of CBC funding.

What will NDP, Liberals promise? 

More important for now, with an election coming in less than a year, we have to find out what the NDP and the Liberals would do with the CBC if elected.

If either the NDP or Liberals win, rebuilding Mother Corp. would require a lot of work.

Internally, there would be a number of to-do items. First, a new government would have to get rid of the Tory boosters on the CBC Board of Directors – 10 of 12 have donated to the Conservative Party. Board President Herbert Lacroix, also a Conservative donor, has done the most to damage the CBC. In his new book, Here Was Radio-Canada, Alain Saulnier, who was head of French language news at Radio Canada for many years, documents several occasions when Lacroix pushed hard to make CBC journalism favourable to the government.

Lacroix’s term expires at the end of 2017. Perhaps a new government could pressure him to resign sooner or simply “put him on ice.”

Terms of the majority of Board members also expire by the end of 2017, so it wouldn’t be long before a new Board could be in place.

The government would need to create a new process for selecting CBC Board members so that future governments will not be able to influence the body for its own gain. A new model could have Members of Parliament appoint half the Board members while the other half would be appointed, one each, by leading groups from the cultural and private sectors.

Once in place, a new Board would return the CBC to its rightful role of public service, not chasing ratings.

Finding right people crucial 

A new government would need to find people who know how to return the CBC to its rightful role of serving the public interest. I’m thinking of someone like Peter Herrndorf,  the best boss the CBC never had. Herrndorf, a long-time CBC executive, was denied the opportunity to run the Corporation, but instead did a marvelous job first heading up TV Ontario and then revitalizing The National Arts Centre. This could be accomplished within a couple of years.

Then they would have to see whether Heather Conway, who has been executive vice-president of English services for 14 months, can get it right with the wind blowing in a different direction. Hopefully, even though she has no experience in truly public interest broadcasting -- she is a former marketing executive -- she would possess the skills and instincts to fit into a new mold.

Once the CBC is in competent hands, Lacroix’s five-year plan to expand service on the Internet will have to be evaluated. In view of the fact that many young people have turned away from radio and TV, the Corporation does have to change. But given Lacroix’s allegiances to a government that would like to destroy the CBC, I’m doubtful that he has done the right thing.

The day after Lacroix announced the new plan – along with dropping a few hundred more job cuts on the CBC – the Friends of Canadian Broadcasting demanded Lacroix’s resignation.

“CBC’s plan to privilege digital and mobile delivery over its radio and television broadcast platforms is a retreat driven by the federal government’s deep budget cuts that will leave the national public broadcaster smaller and weaker,” said Friends.

Policies must be specific and detailed 

Now, the external politics: Both the NDP and Liberals have to be pushed to spell out their specific plans for the CBC.

The NDP has made its position somewhat clear. In April, responding to the Conservatives’ $130-million budget cut to the CBC, NDP leader Thomas Mulcair said in an email: “I assure you that an NDP-led government will support the CBC with stable and secure funding. We believe in CBC’s unifying role in a country as vast as Canada; especially in rural areas and minority-language communities.”

The party circulated a petition  opposing the CBC cuts.

That’s pretty good, but too general.

What of the Liberals? Asked about the future of the CBC in an interview on Q in October, leader Trudeau said: "Where do we continue to fund it and how do we continue to fund it? All I know is the funding has to be substantial and significant... How much and exactly how depends on how we create a vision that is relevant for the 21st century."

It was a typical Trudeau sit-on-the-fence moment. Because he is ahead in the polls, he plays it safe. 

To make sure that both leaders have firm and detailed plans for the CBC, we in English-speaking Canada must put on a campaign that matches what is happening in Quebec, where 20,000 people marched in support of Radio-Canada.

Mulcair and the NDP have historically expressed their unwavering support for cultural institutions such as the CBC. The Liberals, not so. Moreover, Justin’s overall performance since becoming Liberal leader show he is not a small-l liberal like his father. In addition, he is leading a party during highly conservative times. Most important, Trudeau has a much better chance of becoming Prime Minister than Mulcair. We can’t assume he would funnel more money to the CBC.

Here are five important questions for the two leaders: 

If they plan to change how the CBC is funded, what will that method be?

The right answer: Folks such as Barry Kiefl say the CBC would be better off if funded by an annual licence fee or a dedicated communications tax.

If they continue the current system, what level of funding will they provide?

The right answer: About $1.6-billion per year, the amount proposed by the Canadian Media Guild, which would be a 50 per cent increase in funding. 

Will they provide funding through automatically repeated five-year terms with no option for cuts?

The right answer: Yes.

Will they change the current systems under which the government directly appoints all Board members?
The right answer: Yes. The government will consult with other parties in the House of Commons to appoint half of the members of the Board. The other half will be named, one each, by leading groups from the cultural and private sectors.

Will they repeal Division 17 of Bill C-60, which went before the House and allows the government to be present at the bargaining table when CBC/Radio-Canada and its employees’ unions are discussing what constitutes news, etc.?

The right answer: Yes

Many thousands of us who love the CBC – and love to hate some parts of it – spend a lot of time discussing its future and not doing enough to help save it. But now, with the election only a few months away, we can do something constructive.

We can, as members of public interest groups and NGOs, contact our groups and tell them we want to be involved in helping to save the Corporation. Offer to get directly involved and see if you can help rebuild a coalition of groups to save Mother Corp.

If you care about saving the CBC, please - in a kind way - contact these and other groups and ask if you can get involved in helping them with their CBC campaign, and see if they will set up a coalition of groups to push this issue. No one group can be successful working alone. Only a coalition of co-operative groups will have real impact.

The Friends of Canadian Broadcasting launched its campaign, and should be joined by many other groups. Contact email: friends@friends.ca
Council of Canadians -  bpatterson@canadians.org
Leadnow -  leadnow@leadnow.ca
OpenMedia - contact@openmedia.com
Canadian Media Guild - karen@cmg.ca
Canadian Labour Congress - bbyers@clc-cta.ca
Ontario Federation of Labour - sstaples@ofl.ca
Academy of Canadian Cinema and TV - hstephenson@academy.ca
Writers' Union of Caanada - jdegen@writersunion.ca
......and other groups.

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  1. I had belonged to Friends of Canadian Broadcasting for years an suggested they hook up with other groups but that was ignored, so I support council of Canadians and others. I* have loved CBC all my life too. It has informed me and entertained me for years. I have always lived in fairly isolated places and it has been a life saver. It gave us on the farm in the middle of Alberta news when my brothers were serving during WW11. Maybe everybody who loves CBC should send their stories to Mulcair and Trudeau. .

  2. I'd argue for a point-of-first-purchase CBC levy on anything capable of receiving, storing and re-sending CBC content: radios, TVs, PVRs, computers, hard drives, flash drives, chip drives, blank cassette tapes (which seem to be back in fashion in some music shops) and so on. Leave the garage sales, eBay, second-hand shops, etc. alone for the time being. Also, an annual license fee for radios and TVs seems too intrusive to me.

  3. In the 1970s my Philosophy Prof. told our first year class that, in his opinion, if you listened to the CBC radio every day - and only the CBC radio - after a number of years (I don't remember how many he said) you would have the equivalent of a university degree. Not so today. Still the best radio but doesn't provide the breadth or depth of information as in the good old days. Recycled and repeats of other media. Too bad. Radio is so much cheaper and the hosts don't have to dress up or wear make-up! Stupid government doesn't know the gem that radio can be.

  4. An excellent column by Nick Fillmore, and three smart comments so far. I'm in the States, not Canadian. But like Anne Peterson and many Canadians I've been listening to CBC Radio since I was young--my first visit was at age 13, during the summer of Expo '67. I continued cultivating this enjoyable habit on many subsequent trips over the years, often on long solo car drives, when I came to appreciate the tremendous mix of strong national and local programs. With the Internet, and the arrival of universal streaming, I've actually become a daily listener to many CBC shows from NYC where I live, on all three main CBC Radio channels. I believe Canada has a great national resource that it should continue to cultivate, I hope it can be made into an election year issue, resulting in more support for the service, along the lines proposed in Nick Fillmore's column. Thank you for this, sir.

  5. Nick - the problem with restoring the CBC the full funding is that it rewards the management team to brought the public broadcaster to this point. The CBC needs to be reinvented before it can be restored to its former glory.

  6. Boy, the problems as outlined are daunting, especially since the cons have done such a hatchet job throughout the entire system of laws and people. CBC News is so intimated that even the 2009 cons bailout has been taboo, as is any real and cited demand on trade agreement analysis of investor-state dispute settlement clauses or the latest FIPA. It may be unorthodox but I am hoping that each and every journalists and employee on CBC is using their vast contact to mobilize 'during' the up and coming election, on their own time of course. One almost feels as though there are no longer connection to this government on or at any level. The one thing I am sure of is that getting as many as possible out to vote is absolutely essential. As disappointed as I have been, some of the things clearly stated here have helped a bit. Thank you and take care.

  7. As an aside, I am curious as to the current status of the court case pending in the Hague against the cons actions in directing Afghanistan prisoners to be turned over to prison official known to torture same, during Canada's involvement in the US war on the Taliban, etc. If I am correct this case was brought by a ex-GI possibly involved in the Vietnam era, now living in B.C. Hoping for a timely news exposure in Canada.

  8. Dear Mr. Filmore,

    on behalf of the Hon. Stéphane Dion, LPC critic for Heritage, I am pleased to direct you to the speech on the Liberal vision for the CBC he made on November 15 at the annual convention of the Fédération professionnelle des journalistes du Québec. He participated in a workshop along Mr. Mulcair and Mr. Alain Saulnier. I think you will find in this document answers to the important questions you raise in your column. The speech can be found here: http://stephanedion.liberal.ca/en/news/cbc-liberal-vision/ Your comments and suggestions are most welcome.

    Alain Pineau
    Special Adviser to the Hon. Stéphane Dion
    Cultural Policies

    1. Thank you very much. I will read it, and may include some of the information in a follow up blog.

    2. BTW trying to subscribe to your blog, but never getting the email message to vet my request!


      P.S so that you know, I'm a 34 year veteran with the CBC.

  9. Dear Mr Filmore, Thanks for this excellent article. You might be interested in the small contribution that our group is adding : www.radiocanadajytiens-cbcicare.org. It seems to be very difficult to find English Canadians to defend CBC. The people from Quebec are much more vocals about the dismantling of this fundamental institution!

  10. I have been a loyal listener of CBC, however, I am very disappointed about the program it has morphed into. On the T.V. I am sick of listening to "and we are the number 1 news station in Canada" You seem to focus on a few news items and just keep adding to them bit by bit as the day goes on, or on the radio you are caught in an endless loop. I have become a great fan of CTV for television. Sadly some of my favourite radio shows are simply disappearing.

  11. there are few women on CBC TV that i can tolerate and they are so gooped up with makeup to the point of ridiculousness
    now on radio too there are women getting key places and they have boring voices,such as BC Almanac and Q
    Wendy Mesley has mascara gobbed on profusely and Amanda Lang is a loser for me with or without makeup

    1. And this matters for what reason exactly, given the context at hand?

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