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Presentation to the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics House of Commons

Oct 27, 2011

Ian Morrison, Spokesperson Friends of Canadian Broadcasting

Thanks for the invitation to appear today!

Friends of Canadian Broadcasting is an independent watchdog for Canadian programming on radio, television and new media. We are supported by 150,000 Canadians and are not affiliated with any broadcaster or political party.

Your Committee is studying a matter close to our hearts, the transparency and accountability of our national public broadcaster. Canadians share with citizens of other western democracies profound respect for public broadcasting. A recent POLLARA poll commissioned by Friends indicates that:

  • 83% of Canadians use CBC each week,
  • 83% believe that CBC is important in protecting Canadian identity and culture,
  • 76% rate CBC's performance as excellent, very good or good, and
  • 78% would advise their MP to maintain or increase CBC's funding.

Before commenting on the CBC's performance under the Access to Information Act, I thought you might welcome an external reference. On Tuesday, the Information Commissioner provided you with an outline of the access regimes in a few countries, among them the United Kingdom.

Through the Clerk, I wish to provide you with some links which document the British Broadcasting Corporation's performance under the United Kingdom's Freedom of Information Act.

The main BBC freedom of information website is http://www.bbc.co.uk/foi/, which indicates that "as a publicly funded organization, the BBC is fully committed to meeting both the spirit and the letter of the Act", and contains a series of helpful links, such as "Disclosure Logs":

http://www.bbc.co.uk/foi/publication_scheme/classes/disclosure_logs/

This link includes files on bonuses paid in 2010/11 and tenders awarded in 2010. Members of the Committee might consider surfing through the various links to gain insight into the compliance policies and practices of another national public broadcaster - information that we find both instructive and impressive.

I would like to share with you a few examples from our own direct experience. In November 2009, Friends submitted a series of questions to the CBC under the Access to Information Act. These included a request for all correspondence among CBC's senior management mentioning "Friends of Canadian Broadcasting" or "Ian Morrison" as well as the dollar value of all contracts in recent years between CBC and a United States company known as "Frank R. Magid Associates". Eleven weeks later we received a response refusing to disclose the financial information, claiming exemption under Section 68.1. And after six months, in response to our other access questions, we received a series of blanked out files containing almost no useful information.

We would like to provide your Committee with our take on the root problem and to offer a policy suggestion to address it.

Unlike the BBC and national public broadcasters in most other western democracies, CBC's governance and senior management structure suffers from an accountability deficit which is built into Section 36 of the Broadcasting Act. The Governor-in-council appoints CBC's President, Chair and ten other members of the Corporation's Board of Directors. As a result, unlike the standard practice in the private sector, or that of most national public broadcasters in democratic countries, CBC's Chief Executive Officer is effectively accountable to no one. Section 52 of the Act correctly requires the Corporation to program independently from governmental interference, and CBC's Board lacks the authority that other Boards enjoy - to hire and fire the CEO.

In common with his immediate predecessors, the current CBC President was appointed without previous broadcasting management, production, or scheduling experience. He is a mergers and acquisitions lawyer, whose previous broadcasting governance experience was confined to the board of Telemedia as its legal adviser at a time when that family-controlled corporation was actively seeking to sell its broadcasting properties. As a practicing lawyer, however, he entered his present job with a sophisticated understanding of legislation and therefore able to comprehend the requirements of the Access to Information Act, and to evaluate the advice of subordinates thereon. We therefore find it shocking that he, has endorsed and continued the disclosure avoidance practice inherited from his predecessor, presumably with the approval of CBC's Board of Directors. [1]

The CBC access to information issue as subsidiary to a larger CBC accountability issue. The solution is to be found in a suggestion of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage eight years ago:

"In the interest of fuller accountability and arm's-length from government, nominations to the CBC Board should be made by a number of sources, and the CBC President should be hired by and be responsible to the Board". [2]A CBC Board of Directors, chosen at arms-length from patronage and mandated to represent the public interest, with the power to recruit, evaluate and if necessary terminate its President, would introduce accountability on the part of the national public broadcaster's most senior management. One of its duties, on behalf of its 34 million shareholders, would be to ensure compliance with relevant statutes, including the Access to Information Act.

This would bring the standard of governance of Canada's national public broadcaster up to par with the standard of governance of public broadcasters in other democratic countries, while addressing the issue of compliance with the Access to Information Act.

This reform proposal is popular with Canadians. POLLARA found that 86% of Canadians favour a non-political appointment process for CBC's Board of Directors, and 87% favour a non-political appointment of CBC's President.

I would like to conclude with the following brief comment. On the morning following the recent general election, Canada's Heritage Minister, James Moore said:

"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."

Yet, just ten weeks later, in conversation with Jian Ghomeshi on CBC Radio One's talk-show "Q", Moore changed his tune:

"The CBC has to do its part. The idea that CBC can't find 5% within the CBC to give back to the broader economic framework, I think, is silly. Of course the CBC will be part of this overall process."

I want to draw the Committee's attention to the following fact. In 1996, CBC's annual appropriation from the Government of Canada represented 92 cents out of every $100 of federal program spending (net of debt servicing). This year the federal government's investment in our national public broadcaster is 51 cents out of every $100 of federal program spending. CBC has more than pre-paid its contribution to deficit reduction:

 

As a watchdog for Canadian programming, Friends is often critical of broadcasters - certainly including CBC's senior management. We also critique the performance of cable monopolies and satellite television distributors, the CRTC and sometimes the federal government. But, in keeping with the vast majority of Canadians, including a substantial majority of supporters of each federal political party, Friends strongly supports CBC's talented employees who actually make the programming that Canadians enjoy daily.

We wish you well in your deliberations.

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For information: Jim Thompson 613-567-9592


[1] Page 104 of CBC/Radio Canada's Annual Report for 2010/11 states that: "CBC/Radio Canada's Board of Directors is responsible for oversight of the management of the Corporation. In conjunction with the Corporation's senior executive team, the Board also ensures regulatory requirements, policies related to public accountability and access to information, and our Journalistic Standards and Practices, are followed."

[2] Our Cultural Sovereignty, Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage, June 2003, page 567.

Related Documents:

Oct 27, 2011 — News Release: PM’s appointees responsible for CBC’s disclosure woes
FRIENDS says the current debate about the CBC's access to information practices lays bare a broader accountability issue.

Oct 26, 2011 — Winnipeg Free Press: Tory government's handpicked CBC board oversees access-to-info file by Jennifer Ditchburn
FRIENDS calls for an arm's-length process for CBC board appointments and wants CBC president to be hired by and answerable to the board.