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Tories demand CBC explain its lengthy access-to-information battle by Jennifer Ditchburn

Sep 26, 2011

Source: Globe and Mail

The Conservatives are hauling the CBC onto the carpet this fall to explain why it is fighting the access-to-information law in the courts, part of increased scrutiny of the public broadcaster's spending and practices by the new majority government.

The move comes at the same time as the Conservative Party surveys its members on whether CBC funding is good value for the taxpayer.

One Tory MP has a website petition to defund the broadcaster, and the party's spokesman recently referred to “extravagant spending” by the CBC in an Ottawa newspaper.

The Opposition New Democrats say this is just the beginning of a full-scale attack the Conservatives are planning against the CBC.

A motion to call the corporation to testify before MPs was the first item of business this fall for the Tories on the access-to-information, privacy and ethics committee. It is expected to discuss Tuesday which witnesses to call.

The CBC is scheduled to present arguments before the Federal Court of Appeals on Oct. 18 about why the information commissioner should not be allowed to view certain records.

The battle centres around the interpretation of a section of the Access to Information Act that exempts the CBC from having to divulge material involving its journalistic, creative or programming activities.

Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault last week predicted the matter would be before the courts for years – something that does not sit well with Conservatives, who say constituents are concerned about the issue.

Committee member Dean Del Mastro, parliamentary secretary to the Prime Minister, said MPs will need to examine whether the sticky clauses in the Act need to be amended or even abolished.

“The argument is around the legislation that has been established by Parliament, and what we need to determine is whether that legislation is appropriate,” Mr. Del Mastro said in an interview.

“If the intention of the Accountability Act was to provide transparency and instead what we have is litigation, then we may need to take a look at it, and say, well does Parliament need to act?”

The CBC’s record on access-to-information requests has been flagged by Ms. Legault, who has said much of the problem with the response rate centres around the corporation's interpretation of what is exempted.

She also noted last week that the CBC was inundated with requests when the corporation first became subject to the Act in 2007, and struggled to keep up with a backlog.

Nearly 400 of those first requests had been initiated by a law firm working with Sun Media, a division of Quebecor. Quebecor's French-language television networks compete directly with the CBC for viewers in Quebec. Quebecor's English-language media holdings, including Sun TV and the Sun Media newspapers, have featured regular criticism of the CBC and have called for it to be defunded.

New Democrat MP Charlie Angus said the study of the CBC access case feeds into a Conservative narrative that is against public broadcasting. He said it was significant that Prime Minister Stephen Harper's own parliamentary secretary initiated the motion at committee.

“It'll be a chance for them to play to the base and try and seed the ground for what I think will be a further attack on the CBC, probably within the coming year,” Mr. Angus said.

Heritage Minister James Moore said publicly after the May 2 election that the government would stand by its commitment to maintain funding for the CBC.

However, he has also noted that the broadcaster would not be exempt from the belt-tightening exercises that are underway across government.

© Globe and Mail