A meaningful assessment of the CBC’s impact on the nation’s journalism is long past due. Just don’t expect the regulator to be of any help to those floating on icebergs, writes Peter Menzies in the Globe and Mail. 

By Peter Menzies, February 1, 2021

Private-sector news organizations and others hoping for changes at the CBC resulting from this month’s licensing hearing are likely to be disappointed.

The Canadian Association of Broadcasters (CAB) and Quebecor’s Pierre-Karl Péladeau both exposed the huge problems created by the Mother Corp’s iffy adherence to its mandate, its negative impact on private-sector news organizations and its multiple-personality existence as a pseudo-public broadcaster that repurposes subsidized radio and TV content into a dominant online news platform.

Calling for an end to the CBC’s ability to earn advertising revenue, the CAB’s Kevin Desjardins pointed out that despite the CBC receiving more than $1.2-billion in federal subsidy, private broadcasters pour far more resources into local news.

“Private local TV stations outspent CBC/Radio-Canada conventional TV stations three to one – $374-million to CBC/Radio-Canada’s $122-million,” Mr. Desjardins told the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission’s (CRTC) panel midway through the 14-day hearing, which wound up Thursday.

“The crux of our concern ... is a growing emphasis on the public broadcaster being market-driven rather than mandate-driven.”

Mr. Péladeau, focusing on French-language Radio-Canada, described its pursuit of advertising as a misuse of mandate and detailed the numerous ways a publicly funded commercial broadcaster such as CBC/Radio-Canada harms the industry’s ecosystems. This is a view commonly shared within the online news industry, which has watched, bemused, while CBC pours money into its online platforms and sells, as Mr. Péladeau put it, advertising at rates well below “market standard.”

The problem is that despite the merits of these points, CBC licensing hearings are, according to former CRTC chair Konrad von Finckenstein, pretty much a matter of ritual. The regulator has no authority over how the CBC deploys its resources. Any failure to live up to conditions of license can be excused due to a lack of resources, and there isn’t the slightest hint that the government is remotely concerned with any of this.

“Without clear direction from the government as to its vision for the CBC,” Mr. von Finckenstein told me last week, “any hearing on CBC’s license is an exercise in futility.”

That’s what the hearing appeared to confirm. CBC’s primary ask was for more flexibility. In other words, fewer “conditions” of license and more “expectations.”

CBC president Catherine Tait, displaying a flair for metaphor, put it this way:

“If the public broadcaster is to remain relevant, we ... must imagine what a digital future will look like and make sure we are there. Our public-service media colleagues like the BBC, France Télévisions, the ABC in Australia, NHK in Japan, ZDF in Germany, are all grappling with the same issues. And we all agree that if we do not move with our audiences, we risk becoming dinosaurs on a melting icecap.”

This is what media executives have been saying – minus the ice-borne dinosaur – for years, although Ms. Tait not surprisingly didn’t mention that of the networks she listed, BBC, ABC and NHK don’t sell domestic advertising, and it’s being phased out in France.

No doubt they all also face accusations of bias. But while nothing as aggressive as BBC chair Richard Sharp’s recently declared war on “liberal groupthink” was expected, CBC editor-in-chief Brodie Fenlon’s dismissal of 2,000 interventions as fuelled by “misinformation” was disappointing. Other than that, the hearing generally consisted of debilitating regulatory nit-picking, whether the CRTC should insist that the CBC track its employees’ sexual orientations and conversations on minority representation.

The latter were all the more earnest given that the CBC executive panel was notable for its own lack of diversity as was, with the exception of B.C.-Yukon Commissioner Claire Anderson (of Taku River Tlingit First Nation), the case with the CRTC panel. Indeed, Whitehorse-based Ms. Anderson was also the only member of the panel from west of Toronto or east of Montreal – a cruel snub by CRTC chair Ian Scott on a matter of national impact. As a result, inquiry into CBC/Radio-Canada’s Montreal-, Ottawa- and Toronto-centricity was almost entirely limited to discussion between people from Montreal, Toronto and Ottawa.

Let’s be clear: CBC is a public broadcaster only in terms of its radio operations and access to the treasury. Otherwise, it is a commercial media company subsidized by the government and unrestrained by the regulator or shareholders. Structurally, it remains opaque. According to its website, for instance, its chair, board and president are all accountable for its management, and yet none are responsible for its programming or news content. Which poses the question: then who is?

The government speaks fondly and frequently these days of its desire to sustain a healthy industrial landscape for the news media. A meaningful assessment of the CBC’s impact on that and the nation’s journalism is long past due. Just don’t expect the regulator to be of any help to those floating on icebergs.

Peter Menzies is a senior fellow with the MacDonald-Laurier Institute, a former CRTC vice-chair of telecommunications and an adviser to tech companies.

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