Source : Ottawa Citizen
by Tony Atherton
In late May, the CBC announced that it would reduce regional news on its English-language TV network to half an hour a day, five days a week, beginning in October.
Incidentally, that's the same amount of regional news that Radio-Canada delivers to its handful of francophone viewers in Western Canada, and less than a third the amount of regional news that the French-language network offers in major francophone markets like Ottawa.
This month, many English-language regional stations, including CBC Ottawa, bowed to the inevitable. They decided to implement the planned program reductions immediately so they could save money and reallocate resources in the meantime.
This week, the CBC announced the elimination of 235 jobs as a result of the program reductions, 27 positions in Ottawa alone, including 16 out of the 40 jobs at Newsday.
This was not a vague or theoretical exercise. Redundancy notices were handed out to real people like late-news anchor Lynn Douris, reporters Chris Goldrick and Sean Upton, and sports anchor Moby Chaudhari.
In other words, the CBC's evisceration of its regional news, controversial as it may be, is now a fait accompli.
Apparently not, in the minds of the 16 MPs from all parties who make up the heritage committee, the House of Commons watchdog on all matters cultural. A month ago, the committee wrote to the federal cabinet and CRTC chairwoman Françoise Bertrand saying they opposed reductions, and calling on both to intervene.
The fact that the heritage committee's opposition is unanimous is quite breathtaking, given that three of its number (including vice-chairman Inky Marks) are members of Reform, which has until now called for the privatization of CBC TV. But it isn't merely this remarkable show of support that gives the lobby group, Friends of Canadian Broadcasting, reason to hope that the cuts may yet be averted. Rather, it's the distinct glow of an election on the horizon.
Friends spokesman Ian Morrison points out that the regions where the populace is most incensed by the cuts are also key regions in the Liberals' re-election strategy. In Manitoba, the CBC regional news is still watched and cherished by a hefty portion of viewers (including Reformer Marks, apparently). Incidentally, the province is also almost the only Liberal stronghold in Western Canada.
The cuts are even more likely to become a political issue in Prince Edward Island, where the Liberals hold four seats. The CBC regional news program in Charlottetown, called Compass, is not only the most popular news program in the province, it may be the most popular program of any kind in North America, based on share of local audience. About 70 per cent of P.E.I. TV viewers tune in to the program nightly. Already, a group called Save Compass is stirring up trouble for incumbent Liberals, and Friends plans to make things even hotter.
In any other election, a vague threat to four seats wouldn't raise a sweat on the brows of Liberal strategists.
But with Stockwell Day's Canadian Alliance looking alarmingly vigorous, things are different this time. If there is even a hint that the cuts could become a voting issue in P.E.I., then the Liberal cabinet will be forced to at least consider what could be done about CBC.
The government's first line of defence is the position it regularly adopts whenever a CBC issue becomes controversial – that of an innocent bystander. The CBC is an arms-length agency that must be left to make its own decisions, the government will say. By this point, however, the pose is wearing thin; too many people know that the reason the CBC is forced to restructure is because of deep cuts in federal support over the course of 15 years.
What's more, the CBC's reduction in regional programming contravenes the express instructions of another arms-length federal agency, the CRTC. Under the terms of a broadcast licence that comes into effect in September, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission requires the CBC to increase, rather than decrease, regional programming, reinstating regional news on the weekend, and adding a half-hour per week of non-news programming.
Normally, CBC blithely ignores licence requirements that don't suit it, at least until the CRTC makes an issue of them. For its part, the CRTC wants to avoid another spitting match like that between Bertrand and CBC president Robert Rabinovitch last winter; it is not inclined to raise a stink before it absolutely has to. The next formal review of CBC's progress isn't scheduled until the fall of 2001.
However, the letter from the heritage committee forces the CRTC's hand. Bertrand will have no choice but to comment quickly, and likely quite harshly, given the strength of the commission's previous stand on the CBC's regional responsibilities.
Any irreconcilable dispute between the CBC and the CRTC would automatically be referred to cabinet, which would have to hand down a policy decision. It seems highly unlikely that the cabinet would adopt cuts to CBC news as a government policy on the eve of an election.
On the other hand, the cabinet knows that it's not a simple matter of instructing the CBC to live up to its licence requirements. Such policy would have to be backed up with cash if it were to have any credibility. It could cost as much as $100 million a year to maintain and enhance regional programming.
So the question becomes, are those four seats in P.E.I. worth $25 million apiece to the Liberal party?
© Ottawa Citizen