Media watchdog says CBC at risk of being turned into a ‘state broadcaster’

With its back to the wall, will Canada’s public broadcaster stand up to a government that is tightening its grip on the network’s freedom? Or should ‘friends’ intervene?

A Canadian media watchdog says the recent rejection of one of its ads by CBC/Radio-Canada is evidence the public broadcaster’s independence is being undermined by increased government control, and that in light of a recent controversial move by the Tories to seize management of its finances, the CBC is at risk of becoming a state broadcaster.

Last Monday Friends of Canadian Broadcasting (FRIENDS) announced in a press release that the CBC “refused to air television ads that challenge the Conservative government’s takeover of the national public broadcaster.”

The 30 and 60 second ads are part of the organization’s ‘Free the CBC’ campaign, which it launched in response to new provisions in the Tories’ omnibus budget bill – Bill C-60, which received royal assent last month – that effectively give the federal government a firm grip on the CBC’s financial administration, including the ability to sit in and impose requirements on the broadcaster’s collective bargaining negotiations with its unionized and non-unionized employees.

The ads depict a journalist interviewing a Prime Minister who resembles Stephen Harper:

Mister Prime Minister, when you came to power you promised accountability, transparency and clean ethics. Now that we’ve had the robocalls, the In and Out scandal, the G20 abuses, the F-35 boondoggle, the shuttering of parliament, the cancelling of the long form census, muzzling of scientists, the Duffy-Wallin scandal, losing track of $3.1 billion in security funding, stonewalling on digital spying, the military police investigation of CTV for breaking stories that embarrassed the government, and now turning CBC into a state broadcaster – how do you respond to that?

The journalist is then accosted by two security guards and put in the trunk of a car. “There goes my Senate appointment,” he laments as the ad finishes with the car driving away and a narrator’s voice asking viewers to support the campaign to “free the CBC from political interference.”

Though approved by Telecaster, an arm of the Television Bureau of Canada, FRIENDS said the English and French versions of the ad were rejected by CBC and its French counterpart SRC. In an email to the non-profit organization, CBC’s Chief of Media Relations and Issues Management France Belisle said the ad was refused because it “targets CBC/Radio-Canada and could imply an endorsement on our part of the [group’s] campaign.”

On Monday, in response to Belisle’s statement, FRIENDS spokesperson Ian Morrison told The Independent the organization complied with Telecaster’s requirement that a large Friends of Canadian Broadcasting logo be shown for five seconds at the end of the ad, preceded by the words “Sponsored by” in large print, before the ad was approved.

“No reasonable person could see it as a CBC message,” he said. “They would no more be ‘endorsing’ the content of our ad than they would ‘endorse’ Prius by running a Toyota ad. [Belisle’s] words are cover for the real reason: not annoying the government.”

Belisle responded on Tuesday in an email to The Independent. “The advertisement was refused in accordance with [CBC’s] Advocacy Advertising Policy 1.3.9,” she said.

The policy states that “[m]essages reviewed under this policy must not imply an endorsement on the part of the CBC/Radio-Canada,” essentially reiterating Belisle’s initial explanation to FRIENDS as to why their ad was rejected. Belisle did not address questions posed in a follow-up email asking her to comment on whether or not the inclusion of the “Sponsored by Friends of Canadian Broadcasting” message at the end of the ad made clear that the position implicit in the ad was that of FRIENDS, not the CBC. Nor did she address a request to respond to Morrison’s suggestion that the ad was treated differently than others, based on the Prius-Toyota analogy.

While the CBC claims it rejected the ad based on the possibility that airing it “could imply an endorsement” by the CBC of FRIENDS’ campaign to protect the CBC from further government takeover, FRIENDS says the very act of rejecting the ad serves as proof the CBC is already operating under some degree of government control.

Public broadcaster, state broadcaster, or something else?

The government hand picks CBC’s president, chair, and entire Board of Directors, a condition some see as already compromising the Corporation’s autonomy.

In 1991, following recommendations made by Parliament’s Standing Committee on Communication and Culture four years earlier, and in an effort to safeguard a degree of the corporation’s autonomy sufficient to protect its editorial integrity, Parliament amended the Broadcasting Act to exempt the CBC from some of the provisions within the Financial Administration Act (FAA) that give the government financial control and direction over Crown agencies.

Responding to a request by FRIENDS to clarify the legality of Bill C-60’s legislative amendments as they would affect the CBC, attorney and Ryerson media law professor Brian Rogers outlined in a letter to the organization that provisions in Part III of the Broadcasting Act explicitly protect the CBC from government control of the Corporation’s financial management, but that FAA amendments in Bill C-60 do not include or make reference to those special protections.

Section 52.2 of the Broadcasting Act exempts the Corporation from submitting to the Treasury Board or to the Minister of Finance “any information the provision of which could reasonably be expected to compromise or constrain the journalistic, creative or programming independence of the Corporation,” or from including “in any corporate plan or summary thereof provided to the Minister pursuant to s. 54 or 55 any information the provision of which could reasonably be expected to limit the ability of the Corporation to exercise its journalistic, creative or programming independence.”

“[T]here appears to be a clear conflict between the carefully protected special status of the CBC under the Broadcasting Act and these new proposed provisions of the FAA that seek to impose direct control by the Treasury Board on all aspects of the CBC’s employment relations, both unionized and non-unionized,” Rogers said.

“There is a risk that the CBC will be seen as an arm of government, rather than at arm’s length from it. After all, it is all too possible that government’s levers of power, particularly its exercise of financial control, could be used in future to shape, diminish or even threaten the CBC’s role as public broadcaster. Certainly, that perception by the public may be difficult to avoid, and CBC management and employees may find themselves affected in myriad and subtle ways in order to curry the government’s favour or avoid its displeasure.”

“There is a risk that the CBC will be seen as an arm of government, rather than at arm’s length from it. – Media lawyer Brian Rogers

He goes on to say it “seems inescapable that resort will have to be made to the courts for a judicial determination to reconcile the apparent conflict” between the Broadcasting Act’s provisions which protect the CBC from government takeover and the Bill C-60 amendments which ignore those protections and give the government financial control of the Corporation.”

Morrison said the presently blurred line between public and state broadcaster will quickly come into focus once the Corporation’s finances are administered by the government.

“It will not take long for CBC employees and their unions to recognize that the government, not the CEO and Board, is really in charge. This turns CBC journalists and other employees into civil servants, and not employees of an arm’s-length, independent public broadcaster,” he said. “This distinguishes CBC from other public broadcasters in democratic countries and will ultimately, unless repealed or set aside by judicial review, turn CBC into a ‘state’ broadcaster.”

In a May 22 letter to Standing Committee on Finance Chair James Rajotte, prior to Bill C-60’s implementation, CBC President Hubert Lacroix asked the government to reconsider its proposed amendments.

“Legislation which could require the Corporation to seek a ‘negotiating mandate’ from Treasury Board Ministers, or allow Treasury Board Ministers to ‘determine the terms and conditions of employment’ of journalists, anchors or senior executives, or require a Treasury Board employee to attend negotiations, may give rise to conflicts with the Broadcasting Act and the Charter and compromise the Corporation’s independence,” he wrote.

“This could potentially embroil the government, our Corporation, and its unions in litigation, a result that could be avoided with an amendment that protects that independence.”

Federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty responded to the letter, read to him by Liberal MP Scott Brison in the House of Commons, by asserting the CBC was to be governed by the same laws as other Crown Corporations.

“The CBC may think it is a special, independent Crown agency. This is wrong,” he said.

“All Crown agencies have a responsibility through ministers, back to Parliament, to the people of Canada. They can’t do whatever they want, particularly with taxpayers’ money. They can’t just go off and pay their executives and pay everybody else whatever they want to pay them.”

In his letter, Lacroix’s said the Corporation agrees “that compensation and benefits of Crown corporations should be aligned with the private sector,” and that the CBC’s salary increases have averaged 1.9 per cent over the past seven years while salaries in the private sector have increased by three per cent in the same period.

“If the goal of this legislation is accountability, the Broadcasting Act already ensures that our Corporation is accountable to taxpayers in its reports to Parliament and Canadians, the CRTC, and the Auditor General of Canada,” Lacroix continued. “In February 2013, the Auditor General’s special examination gave CBC/Radio-Canada a clean audit opinion; the best result that a federal agency can obtain. This confirms that our Corporation manages its assets efficiently and economically.”

Financial autonomy, editorial integrity, and the role of CBC in NL

In a May 8 press release announcing FRIENDS had delivered a petition with 120,000 signatures calling for a “FREE CBC” to Parliament Hill, Morrison said government control of the salaries and working conditions of CBC employees would force the CBC “at a minimum…to contend with the perception that its editorial decisions may be politically motivated.”

The following day CBC anchor Peter Mansbridge Tweeted: “Insulted by suggestions by so called ‘Friends’ that CBC journalists’ day to day integrity is negotiable. Pathetic.”

Memorial University Dean of Graduate Studies Noreen Golfman chairs Friends of Canadian Broadcasting’s steering committee. She says the connection between the CBC’s independence and it’s ability to produce a high standard of programming as an independent public broadcaster are inextricable.

“You can go back (to the) 60s, 70s, 80s, and it’s been cuts, cuts, cuts – not just (by) Conservative governments,” she said in a recent interview with The Independent. “There’s been this kind of steady and relentless undermining of the budget and the capacity to create either current affairs or creative programming … It’s really quite amazing that a show like ‘Here and Now’ still even exists.”

Golfman believes CBC’s loss of financial autonomy would “chill the climate” at the network’s regional and local levels. “Increasingly there is a sense of anxiety and fear,” she said.

Last year the federal government cut $115 million from the CBC’s funding, forcing it to close down studios across the country, including in Newfoundland, and sell off valuable assets.

The loss of CBC’s Studio F and mobile truck in St. John’s prompted backlash from the music and arts community, with members and organizations arguing the network’s ability to record and broadcast cultural events in the province was invaluable in allowing individuals and groups to launch careers in the arts industry and share with residents of the province and country important messages about Newfoundland and Labrador’s cultural values and identities.

“(The CBC) has had an absolutely vital role in representing the province (and) telling the stories in Newfoundland and Labrador to residents here,” said Golfman. “And it’s been over the years, certainly in its golden days, the most intelligent, the most thorough, the most extensive investigator of stories that needed research and reporting. And it’s also been the source of an enormous amount of creativity.”

In the eyes of Canadians (during the Cup finals)

Last Monday, FRIENDS released the results of a new Nanos poll that surveyed 1,000 Canadians about their perception of the CBC and its role in Canada. According to the results, 80 per cent believe the CBC “plays an important role in strengthening Canadian culture and identity, a view shared by…57 per cent of Conservative supporters.”

Eighty-one per cent of respondents think the CBC should remain independent from government, while 12 per cent think the government should control the wages and working conditions of CBC’s employees. “Among Conservative Party supporters, 55 per cent think the CBC should remain independent while 29 per cent favour direct control,” the report concluded.

Moreover, 80 per cent of those surveyed said they would “increase CBC funding or maintain it at current levels,” while 16 per cent would decrease it. Fifty-seven per cent of Conservative Party supporters said they would increase or maintain CBC funding, while 37 per cent would decrease it.

According to the report the survey was conducted between July 16-19, including two evenings when the Stanley Cup Finals were on television. Participants were randomly recruited by phone and then administered the survey online.

The question remains…unanswered

Will Lacroix lead the CBC into a lawsuit against the federal government for undermining the Corporation’s rights under the Broadcasting Act?

In an email on Tuesday Belisle did not provide a direct answer to that question. She only said, “As stated in our letter to Committee, the Broadcasting Act sets out CBC/Radio-Canada’s mandate as well as its structure and reporting relationship with Government. The Act ensures that the Corporation has a number of mechanisms (reports to Parliament and Canadians, the CRTC and the Auditor General of Canada) requiring that it be accountable to taxpayers and show that it manages its assets efficiently and economically.”

She did not respond to a subsequent voicemail message requesting clarification of her response.

Since Lacroix’s May 22 letter to Parliament, the CBC president and Board of Directors have remained silent on where they stand in their deliberations over whether or not to take legal action.

Morrison said FRIENDS “would consider taking legal action as an option,” and that, should the CBC take action, “one option for Friends would be to seek leave to intervene in that action.”

Watch the ad:

The Man Behind The Desk EN – 60 sec from Friends of Canadian Broadcasting on Vimeo.

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