The only way to purify the CBC is to ban it — once and for all — from collecting advertising revenue from domestic consumption of its product, writes Peter Menzies in The Line. 

By Peter Menzies, October 28, 2020

In a recent piece here at The Line, I lamented the current status of the CBC. That’s easy enough to do, but it’s fair to ask what can actually be done to fix it. These ideas don't provide all the answers but, implemented with conviction and speed, here's where to start. Because there are some things that can be done, and relatively quickly, to revitalize the institution: the CBC may well be hell-bent on its own destructive dualism but clarifying its role and purifying its soul are still possible by getting it out of the advertising business and turning it into a proper public media.

Right now, the CBC is neither fish nor fowl. Sometimes, as with radio, it is a popular public broadcaster. At others, with its television channels, it fancies itself a commercial broadcaster, albeit a publicly-funded and relatively unpopular one. It plows both of those personalities into its commercial online operations and supplements them with reportage of the kind traditionally associated with newspapers. Like a creature of mythology, it shape-shifts through all of these roles as best suits its needs and moods.

On top of that, its OMG obsession with Trump’s America has drawn it far away from its content mandate to ensure Canadians learn about each other wherever they live in this vast and beautiful country. While its performance indicates otherwise, CBC’s purpose is not to secure a large audience share in the GTA or, in French, in Montreal, in order to earn more revenue. Nor is CBC News Network’s mandate to compete with CNN. The Corp’s raison d’etre, as defined in legislation, is to tell Canadians each other’s stories — even if the GTA and Montreal don’t care.

The only way to purify the CBC then, is to ban it — once and for all — from collecting advertising revenue from domestic consumption of its product. As its radio operations are already advertising-free this means no more ads on its TV or websites. Done. Finished.

The commercial side of CBC’s persona would no doubt tremble at the prospect of losing hundreds of millions (close to $200 million, if that, these days) in revenue. Cue the hand wringing. Bring on the vapours. Fine, says I, calculate the net loss after the shutdown of its advertising division and write the cheque to increase the Corp’s annual funding by the lost net amount and cover the cost of the layoffs from the now-obsolete advertising staff. I mean, what’s a couple of hundred million bucks in this day and age, and would the last fiscal conservative please turn out the lights? We’re all big spenders now.

I get that some, including Opposition and Conservative leader Erin O’Toole, may find this approach intolerable. They prefer to shut down or privatize CBC’s television operations. And I get that lots of Conservatives are convinced — and for some very legitimate reasons — that large numbers of CBC personnel not only hold a strong bias against them but are willing to apply that prejudice to their work. Critics on the right would argue without much contention, for instance, that the views of the Fraser Institute are sought out much less frequently than are those of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. Who knew?!

But killing something just because it’s behaving badly and you’re mad at it is unlikely to be the best move and, given that shutting down CBC/Radio-Canada would leave separatist Pierre Karl Peladeau’s TVA as pretty much the sole source of TV news in Quebec, I’d recommend against it. Further, I think Canadians would strongly oppose privatization, but would tend to rally around the concept of full publicization, particularly as there is little evidence private-sector newsrooms are all that different ideologically from the CBC’s. Just get rid of the Corps’s advertising distortion and get to work on presenting its news in a respectable, unbiased fashion, beginning with banning the lot of them from Twitter.

Both CPAC and TVO, Ontario’s public broadcaster, present pretty good professional models to follow and linking management pay and operational funding to performance in this area would provide the appropriate incentives for competent supervision of good behaviour. Funny how that works. And who knows? This might even provide Quebecois et Quebecoise with news about places other than Montreal.

By this point, every true-blue Conservative in the country has set their hair on fire, but here’s the quid, the pro and the quo that go along with another $200 million for the Corp: in exchange, it gives up domestic copyright protection on its news and public-affairs content.

That’s right, as CBC/Radio-Canada would be entirely funded by individual and corporate taxes, the product created by that money would be available in whole or in part to anyone in Canada, including CTV, Global, TVA, the Toronto StarLa Presse, the Globe and Mail, your local Postmedia product, etc. That would not only relieve legacy media of its need for the Canadian Press but would also allow a sensible future government to bring an end to the appalling and indefensible practice of subsidizing only “trusted” news sources.

This entire process could take place over four years, would be close to revenue neutral, would detach subjectivity from subsidy and would be well-received by both the public and commercial news producers. Oh, and there would be no more suing the Conservative party while one of your more controversial presenters is moderating an election debate.

Every country needs a public broadcaster, none more than Canada. It’s time we had one.

Peter Menzies is a senior fellow with the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, past vice-chair of the CRTC and a former newspaper publisher.

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