Opinion

There's Sitcom Potential in those CBC Missteps

Or, to quote Elvis Costello: 'I used to be disgusted, now I try to be amused.'

By Shannon Rupp 17 Jan 2015 | TheTyee.ca

Shannon Rupp is a Tyee contributing editor. Find her previous Tyee pieces here.

As the latest news story about CBC hijinks breaks, I'm beginning to wonder if we shouldn't just rename it the Corrupt Broadcasting Corporation. (Ba-dum-cha!)

Here's the story trending. Apparently, Amanda Lang, one half of the amateurish Lang and O'Leary Exchange, is in bed with the Royal Bank of Canada. Literally. (Ba-dum-cha!)

Lang, who is in a relationship with RBC board member Geoffrey Beattie, is accused of trying to suppress the 2013 story about RBC abusing the temporary foreign workers program. They were using it to replace Canadian workers on the cheap in a year when their profits were $8 billion.

Kathy Tomlinson, the investigative reporter behind CBC’s Go Public, broke the story on The National, with pick-ups on other CBC shows. The story led to an apology from the company and changes in legislation.

So no harm done? Maybe. But I want to know how many stories Lang successfully derailed.

That's because the Lang kerfuffle is further complicated with news that the business reporter has been interviewing some of the people for whom she also does paid speaking gigs.

It's outrageous. Which is why it's also reached the point of high comedy. While there was nothing funny about the Jian Ghomeshi scandal, the way CBC managers attempt to justify the unethical habits of their stars has sitcom potential. Well, if you like those cynical sitcoms that feature sex, money, and backroom capers.

I'm thinking a sort of House of Cards meets Veep. I'd pitch it to the CBC, but ironically they seem to have no sense of the absurd.

CBC management's own journalists have now turned on them. Tomlinson, in defiance of a CBC policy against speaking to other media, told the story of how her RBC story nearly got scuttled to reporter Sean Craig, who broke the Lang conflict-of-interest story at the media criticism outlet Canadaland.

Tomlinson gives a good quote: ''This is not about Amanda Lang,'' she tells Canadaland. ''It's about the long-standing belief most journalists have -- that conflicts should be avoided at all costs or explicitly declared up front. I come from the ranks of reporters who would go to a news conference and not even take a muffin or a cup of coffee.''

She exaggerates for effect, I think, but it will be good in the sitcom script that I'm now itching to write. The rule, as I recall it, is that you don't take anything outside of what can be consumed in the moment -- coffee at a presser -- and you don't let them buy you lunch, personally.

It just sounds so quaint in light of what the CBC hosts are getting up to, doesn't it?

By the way, you may want to lobby your MP to reroute some of the roughly $1 billion in tax dollars from CBC to Canadaland. It's run by independent podcaster Jesse Brown, who seems to be making CBC oversight his full-time job. Good thing somebody is.

Supplementing salaries

Earlier in 2014, Brown also revealed that Peter Mansbridge was supplementing his salary with speaking gigs for the likes of the oil industry. As was another CBC celeb, Rex Murphy. (CBC reveals that top earners make an average of $485,000, but they won't say who makes what.)

CBC management denies the allegations against Lang, of course, and that has led to more comedy all over social media.

Now, I expect my fellow hacks to treat social media as the virtual newsroom. Everyone lobs quips, fires zingers, and questions the other guy's stories. That's just what we do for sport. But for the most part, it's also individual writers, often columnists, who are in the business of making provocative gags airing their opinions.

So I think it's telling that HuffPo's social media team was having a go at CBC on Facebook on Jan. 12 after the story broke.

Over one of the stories about Lang's alleged wrongdoing, the HuffPo poster wrote: ''A CBC spokesperson is denying it. Of course the same person denied Jian Ghomeshi had been suspended.''

I laughed. They're referring to CBC's Head of Public Affairs, Chuck Thompson, who tweeted that the allegations against Lang were ''categorically untrue.''

Although, personally, I feel for Thompson. Whatever we may think of CBC management, there's little doubt that Thompson earns his coin. He may well be the hardest working person in PR and he certainly has one of the toughest gigs. Imagine being the flak-catcher for that crew.

Which is why I would make a Chuck Thompson-inspired flack-in-chief the star of my future sitcom.

Sadly, Thompson has already had to backpedal on the Lang thing. He boldly claimed that the Globe and Mail asked Lang to write an op-ed defending RBC's misuse of the temporary foreign workers program. The newspaper found that she volunteered to give them an opinion piece. Critics infer that she did so after her own alleged efforts to derail CBC's RBC story failed.

Incidentally, it's against CBC policy for employees to talk to, or work for, other media without permission. It's unclear if CBC management knew she was opining for the Globe.

And how does the public feel about paying top dollar for a TV host who allegedly misleads them on behalf of her pals in the corporate world? Here I bow to Maclean's magazine's observation: ''The giant head shots that decorate the CBC's Toronto Broadcast Centre are starting to feel like 'Wanted' posters."

See: it's a quip fest. Obviously, everyone thinks this is a sitcom in the making.

But as I considered the narrative, I realized that we need a major incident to set the plot in motion -- a maguffin, if you will. And let's face it: another shilling host at CBC is starting to look like business as usual.

Public inquiry into CBC?

So may I suggest that it's time to demand government launch an independent public inquiry into the CBC?

That's a billion or so of our bucks they're misusing, folks. I don't know about you, but I'd like to see a little accountability.

Managers over at CBC seem to have lost their grip on the purpose of public broadcasting in a democracy, which is to provide an independent source of information for voters. And by independent, we mean uninfluenced by adverting or the self-serving hosts and their corporate pals.

As the Canadaland exposés mount, it's beginning to look like more than a few of the CBCers at the top of the food chain have the idea the public broadcaster exists as their personal plaything.

CBC management's casual contempt for the public that funds it is breathtaking.

Just consider that a third-party consultant brought in to ''investigate'' the Jian Ghomeshi incident is not allowed to actively interview staff. Staffers have to volunteer information. And their interviews are not confidential.

How does this even qualify as an ''investigation'' if the inquiry can't follow the information and ask what needs to be asked? Or protect the witnesses from management reprisals?

The union has advised staff not to talk to the investigators. So, in effect, management has created a chill that will shut down discussion of Ghomeshi's on-the-job antics and (presumably) their own complicity.

That so-called investigation is nothing but window-dressing. And very clever PR. (Kudos, Chuck!) CBC management has created an illusion they're doing something to correct the Ghomeshi problem, all the while bullying the staff into silence.

I doubt that's how taxpayers want their money spent. Just as I doubt anyone across the political spectrum wants to see the likes of Lang, Murphy, and Mansbridge being publicly subsidized.

Still, it's unlikely the government will grant an independent public inquiry into CBC. All you have to do is look at one of Mansbridge's fawning interviews with the Prime Minister to assume this regime likes the CBC just as it is.

So it appears there's next to nothing citizens who support public broadcasting can do about the CBC but make jokes (see Twitter). Which is why I'm just going to laugh at the latest exposé, work on my sitcom script, and invoke the wisdom of Elvis Costello: ''I used to be disgusted, now I try to be amused.''  [Tyee]

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