If neither the government nor the CRTC is willing to enforce the laws that govern the CBC, it will continue to self-define as a publicly funded commercial broadcaster with increasing disinterest in adherence to its public-service mandate, writes Peter Menzies in the Toronto Star.
By Peter Menzies, February 24, 2021
The CBC’s unrestrained transition from a public broadcaster into a disruptive, taxpayer-funded commercial operator was laid bare again this month.
This time, the issue is the dismantling by CBC executives of Radio Canada International (RCI), the Corp’s once vaunted short wave service that took Canada to the world in numerous languages. A group called the RCI Action Committee has released a multi-signature (full disclosure, one of them is mine) letter calling on senior government officials to get CBC executives to put their latest plans on hold and give RCI employees a few weeks to come up with an alternative restructuring plan.
“In an interconnected world in search of truth, facts and honest journalism, countries like Canada cannot abdicate their role on the world stage,” states the letter addressed to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault, Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland and Foriegn Affairs Minister Marc Garneau. “It’s not a question of whether we can afford to have a strong Radio Canada International. It’s whether we can afford not to have it.”
According to group spokesman Wojtek Gwiazda, a former RCI host-producer, CBC executives have been trying to shut down RCI since the 1990s. Initially, the downsizings were ostensibly to minimize budget cuts for domestic services. The next move was in 2012 to convert RCI from a shortwave service to a Internet-based web service only and now — in a stunning in-your-face to the Broadcasting Act — CBC/Radio-Canada plans to switch RCI’s focus on reaching external audiences, its raison d’être for three quarters of a century, to serving unofficial language minorities within Canada.
Once that transition occurs and despite its promise to offer free content, RCI will be competing for listeners — and perhaps even advertisers — with Canada’s private ethnic radio operators, many of whom survive on shoestring budgets. At the same time, CBC will be in clear violation of the Broadcasting Act, which reads:
“46 (2) The Corporation shall, within the conditions of any licence or licences issued to it ... provide an international service in accordance with such directions as the Governor in Council may issue.”
Remarkably, when this point was raised at the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications (CRTC) licensing hearing for the CBC last month, not a single commissioner could be bothered to inquire into the matter. If nothing else, such disinterest only adds to the perception that the hearing was little more than a short-run theatrical production.
RCI was born in the final months of the Second World War in order to bring Canada’s voice to the world and assist with the de-nazification of Germany. It grew from there, launching and then discontinuing broadcasts in various languages and at one time had as many as 200 employees connected to its Sackville, N.B. headquarters. In 2012, the CBC implemented an 80 per cent cut to RCI’s budget, two-thirds of staff were laid off and RCI ceased shortwave and satellite transmission, becoming internet only.
Despite an infusion of operating cash to the CBC when the Trudeau government was first elected in 2015 and numerous declarations on the international stage that “Canada is back” in the months that followed, there is no evidence that the CBC under new management had any interest at all in investing in RCI.
There is a reasonable argument to be made in favour of the conversion of a short wave service into one based on the internet. The latter may not be ubiquitously accessible globally but is certainly more so than shortwave radio. Yes, countries such as China effectively block internet sites its government disapproves (Canada is moving in that direction itself) but it is also possible to block radio transmissions as the Soviet Union did to RCI’s Russian service in the 1960s.
That stated, the point at the moment isn’t about which platform is best for an international service. The issue is that the CBC is non-compliant with the expressed wish of Parliament that it operate one.
If neither the government nor the CRTC is willing to enforce the laws that govern the CBC, it will continue to self-define as a publicly funded commercial broadcaster with increasing disinterest in adherence to its public-service mandate. Its primary purpose appears to be the acquisition — at the expense of public broadcasting and struggling private broadcasters — of audiences, influence and money.
There is an elephant in the broadcasting room. And it’s rogue.
Peter Menzies is a senior fellow with the Macdonald-Laurier Institute and a past CRTC vice-chair of telecommunications.