Peter Menzies: Is it time for the CBC to call it a day?
The Corp in this guise has wandered so far from its core purpose that there is no longer a visible path to redemption.
By: Peter Menzies
Now that its national newscasts are dominated by events in the United States — from whose influence the CBC was created to shield Canadians — it’s probably time to call it a day for the Mother Corp.
This isn’t a conclusion I want to come to. I wake up to CBC Saskatchewan radio each morning at 5 a.m. for the news, followed by BBC programming until The Morning Edition begins at 6 a.m. As it is in most cities, the local Radio One morning show is a market leader. It is bright, cheery, informative, ad-free, apolitical and, when it comes to traffic (there isn't any) reports in the Queen City, hilarious. I like it so much I shrug off the fact that Winnipeg, Regina, Saskatoon and Calgary morning shows are half an hour shorter than those in Edmonton, Ottawa and Toronto — and a full hour less than in Vancouver. What I hear is almost entirely about what is real to me; local news and events.
And then The Current weighs in with its Toronto-based Donald Trump addiction.
I used to spend two or three evenings a week listening to As It Happens (I swear Chris Howden is Alan Maitland reincarnated) followed by the intellectual kookery that defines Ideas. (Hey, a guy’s got to keep an open mind.)
Lately, I’ve dropped the habit because I don’t care about U.S. hearings and debates that make no difference to my life. If these debates do make a difference, no one is bothering to tell me how. I barely care who wins the U.S. presidential election because it seems neither outcome is good for Canada and I long ago made up my mind about Donald Trump and really don’t require lessons morning, noon and night on Why I Need To Understand He Is a Bad Person.
I do, however, want to know about the elections in British Columbia and Saskatchewan, COVID in Kanata and the Maritimes where I have elderly relatives; the Alaska-to-Alberta rail proposal and all the other stuff that the CBC is licenced to do but subordinates to its OMG Trump and other All America All The Time instincts.
Licensed broadcasters in Canada are, according to the Broadcasting Act, supposed to:
Safeguard, enrich and strengthen the cultural, political, social and economic fabric of Canada,
Encourage the development of Canadian expression by providing a wide range of programming that reflects Canadian attitudes, opinions, ideas, values and artistic creativity, by displaying Canadian talent in entertainment programming and by offering information and analysis concerning Canada and other countries from a Canadian point of view,
And the CBC, specifically, should by law:
Be predominantly and distinctively Canadian,
Reflect Canada and its regions to national and regional audiences, while serving the special needs of those regions,
Actively contribute to the flow and exchange of cultural expression, and
Contribute to shared national consciousness and identity,
Not a word in there, you will note, about a fly getting stuck in Mike Pence’s hair or the risk posed should a “conservative Christian” woman (of all things) be appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation was created in the mid-1930s after, among other events, NBC opened a station in Toronto and it was feared Canadian culture would be swept away by a tsunami of American news. Almost 100 years later, the entity created to protect Canada from that cultural denouement appears to be using its $1.2 billion in annual federal funding not to hold back the wave of Americana but to surf it.
An acquaintance in the media monitoring business insists that an average evening TV newscast carries about 42 per cent U.S. news with the other 58 per cent going to the rest of the world and Canada. And if you think that constitutes a betrayal of mandate, here’s what you can do about it:
As reported recently in Blacklocks, Konrad von Fickenstein, former chair of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), said as much when he testified at 2014 Senate hearings.
“There is very little the CRTC can do vis-à-vis the CBC,” he said. “In effect, the only means you have to deal with them is you cannot renew their licence. That’s not going to happen, and we know it. So essentially, the regulation and supervision of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation by the CRTC is a certain ritual, but there is very little you can put into effect if the CBC doesn’t want to do it.”
In other words, the CBC does what it wants.
I used to dismiss Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole’s pledge to dismantle it as silly red meat for the base, and I still believe a country as vast as Canada needs a good public broadcaster to connect it, as the CBC was originally conceived to do. Maybe radio is the answer. Or CBC North. But the fact of the matter is that not even the CBC believes it is a public broadcaster. It is a hybrid publicly-funded commercial broadcaster — a condition that has left it, its audience and stakeholders confused and bewildered. The Corp in this guise has wandered so far from its core purpose that there is no longer a visible path to redemption.
O’Toole may be right.
The CBC is no longer, after all, saving us from NBC News in Toronto. It has become NBC News in Toronto. And we don’t need to spend $1.2 billion for that.
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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