When he was running for the leadership of the Conservative Party of Canada, Andrew Scheer said he’d get rid of CBC’s public affairs department. For many years, people in the rank and file of the Conservatives, and its predecessor parties, the Reform Party and the Progressive Conservatives, had been advocating for big cuts to the public broadcaster. At most, many said, it should be like TVOntario and the Public Broadcast Service in the U.S.
But there was always a group in the conservative movement who believed CBC should be shut down altogether. The Alberta government, during the Ralph Klein years, had closed the provincial broadcaster, with very little lasting backlash. Couldn’t the same be done nationally? Can’t Canada’s private broadcasters — the regional networks in Atlantic Canada and Quebec, CITY-TV in Ontario, CTV and Global across the country, give us all the Canadian broadcasting we need?
And now we have all kinds of pay channels. We are also waiting to hear from the CRTC on a new national ethnic television network. (Some disclosure: I was outside counsel to a public interest group that intervened in these hearings.)
Plus Netflix and similar services from Canada. And more to come from big outfits like Disney.
I am of two minds: I think CBC does a dismal job of covering Ottawa. It has some shining lights: Murray Brewster is one of the (two) best military writers in the country. Until he retired a few weeks ago, Dean Beeby was the go-to person for Access to Information. A few other journalists, almost all of them outside the CBC, were starting to catch up. (I expect the Ottawa bureau of the online National Observer to try to fill that vacuum.)
CBC also has an online presence that could use a lot of work. Not to put too fine a point on it, but CBC’s web site’s opinion columns are a collection of dreary tomes and wonky rants edited by Robyn Urback, whose previous job was writing editorials for the National Post. It’s online local news coverage is valuable in communities that have no other serious media, but is problematic in cities where newspapers are trying to survive behind paywalls. For instance, in Ottawa, where the Citizen is barely alive, a reader can scan the newspaper’s site for hard news and skip to the CBC’s web page to find a matching story. I am not sure Canada is better off for that. And it’s the same in Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg, Calgary, Vancouver — any place where there is still serious effort to keep private sector journalism alive.
But in smaller communities and the North, the CBC provides a service that no others do. But is that part of its mandate as a broadcaster, or is it mission creep?
Here’s where the CBC is really valuable: in radio. The CBC provides local coverage in under-served communities and in places like Ottawa where commercial radio is a wasteland of canned and pre-programmed content. CBC Radio’s afternoon and morning drive shows have the highest ratings in the city because they provide information that commercial radio stations can’t or won’t broadcast. In places like Thunder Bay, CBC journalists have been miles ahead of their private-sector competitors on cutting-edge environmental and social issue stories.
And CBC’s long-form radio journalism can compete with anything in the world. Shows like The Current, As it Happens and Ideas provide the intellectual heft that, frankly, make the CBC defensible.
And, whether Andrew Scheer likes them or not, people listen to these shows. In fact, their biggest fans are intelligent people spread like pearls across the nation. I can tell you that these shows sell books. Any time I have been on one of them, the sales numbers of my books have jumped. Twenty minutes on The Current was enough to put my book Kill the Messengers on the Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star’s bestseller lists.
So, despite misgivings about shows like Power and Politics and the disastrous, unwatchable new version of The National, CBC’s nightly newscast, I’ll defend the CBC against cuts by a future Tory or Liberal government. And if we have a conversation about remaking the CBC, I’ll argue that we should be looking at things to make better, not for things to cut. Because, as we have seen in Ontario, cuts are too often made with an axe than with a scalpel.