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Harper Brings CBC to Heel

Squeezed by the throat, our public broadcaster is beginning to resemble a state-controlled network.

By Antonia Zerbisias 20 Apr 2015 |

Antonia Zerbisias is an award-winning critic and journalist formerly with CBC-TV and the Toronto Star.

This coverage of Canadian national issues is made possible because of generous financial support from our Tyee Builders.

The thing about public broadcasters is that governments too often get confused between "publicly-owned" and "state-owned."

Technically, of course, there is no difference. Both are funded with tax dollars.

But the former suggests that citizens get a public good like, say, when they fund public transit or public roads. Public broadcasting should, as a result, serve the public interest. That translates to journalism and programming of social and cultural benefit, with as much good as possible for as many people as possible.

Unlike private broadcasting, which essentially sells eyeballs to advertisers -- and the more eyeballs the better -- public broadcasting should venture where private broadcasters are reluctant to tread, out of fear of offending. Hence, private broadcasters will more often go along to get along, producing if-it-bleeds-it-leads newscasts and primetime schedules of Procter & Gamble-approved programming.

As for "state-owned" broadcasters, at worst they conjure up images of dictators hijacking the airwaves to deliver lengthy self-aggrandizing speeches and, at best, they simply never present any programming that may rile the powers that be, be that government, military or corporate.

It would appear that Stephen Harper's government not only sees the CBC as "state-owned," it is also attempting to make it "state-controlled," bringing it to heel by stacking the board with Conservative bagmen who would never bite the hand that appointed them as well as by squeezing it by the budgetary throat.

Recall that, on the day after the Conservatives won the 2011 election, then-heritage minister James Moore told CBC News Vancouver, "We believe in the national public broadcaster. We have said that we will maintain or increase support for the CBC. That is our platform and we have said that before and we will commit to that."

Just 10 months later, CBC's budget was whacked by 10 per cent, some $115 million over three years.

On Thursday, another 241 people were cut, most of them in news, many of them videographers. These are people who are just as journalistic as the people who look into their lenses. Losing them will make it that much harder for reporters to get to locations, set up, get their images and interviews and put together coherent and comprehensive stories that go beyond the quick and easy.

Might as well shoot traffic pile-ups instead.

And how clever to slip the announcement of those cuts under the Jian Ghomeshi rug, when most media would be focused on the release that day of the heavily redacted report on the abusive behaviour of the fallen CBC radio star.

With this latest cut, the job losses since 2012 total just under 1400, with local TV newscasts hardest hit -- and local TV news is what CBC is mandated by law to produce. But, this coming fall, the supper hour shows across Canada will be slashed down to as few as 30 minutes in most markets.

Slow, steady slide

Admittedly, the biggest cuts to CBC were wielded in the mid-1990s by the deficit-slaying duo of former Liberal prime minister Jean Chrétien and finance minister Paul Martin. But CBC was relatively fat then and could withstand to lose a few hundred, even a couple of thousand, employees. That said, the budget cuts meant less foreign travel, bureaux closings, fewer in-depth documentaries, shorter seasons for programs such as The Nature of Things and The Fifth Estate. But all that was somewhat offset by the independent production sector and the CRTC-created cable fund, which were helping to support dramatic programming on both CBC and private networks.

Still, the slide was slow but steady, and it didn't much help that a series of heads of CBC-TV were at the top of the ladder pushing the programming down into the lowest common denominator dumps.

Politically aware Canadians -- and many of them watch or listen to CBC programming -- know that Harper's economic management style has been to rob Peter to pay Paul. Cuts to science and safety inspection programs, for example, have been channelled to bribe taxpayers with their own money with beefed-up childcare cheques and the like. Meanwhile, the recent sale of the publicly owned GM stocks cost taxpayers, as the Globe and Mail reported, $3.5 billion.

But that's peanuts compared with the $7 billion combined haul the government made with the sale, last year and last month, of public spectrum -- public spectrum -- to wireless providers. That public spectrum is made up of the airwaves freed up as broadcasters shifted to digital transmitting. So you'd think that some of it would be reinvested in CBC, a public broadcaster or the public airwaves. 
But no, it has been channelled into the government's "Consolidated Revenue Fund." In short, it will help the Conservatives look good when they present their pre-election budget on Tuesday.

How convenient for them that CBC's ability to report on how the Harper government came up with its numbers, and who will benefit, is increasingly being compromised.

In Canada, the line between state broadcasting and public broadcasting is getter thinner all the time.  [Tyee]

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