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Releasing records would ‘undermine’ competitive position, CBC says by Joanna Smith

Nov 24, 2011

Source: Toronto Star

OTTAWA—The secrecy surrounding the salary of Peter Mansbridge helps the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. stay competitive, its president told a parliamentary committee Thursday.

“The law draws a line at those things that would undermine our independence or prejudice our competitive position,” Hubert Lacroix told the Commons ethics committee investigating how CBC/Radio-Canada deals with requests for internal records made under the federal law governing access to information.

That means no finding out how much money the national news anchor makes, how much the public broadcaster spent on a party at the Toronto International Film Festival or the budget for developing a hit show, Lacroix said, later explaining that information would allow competitors to swoop in on CBC talent or ideas.

It does not mean the public cannot find out how much executives spend on travel and hospitality, Lacroix said, walking MPs through his own recent expenses and pointing out that information is available on the CBC website along with 27,000 pages of documents responding to access-to-information requests.

The CBC came under the Access to Information and Privacy Act in 2007, but can block the release of information related to journalistic, programming and creative activities — a power the public broadcaster has used to reject requests without even examining the related documents.

The ethics committee is looking at whether Parliament should redraft the section of the Act that allows the CBC to exclude that information.

That investigation had Conservative MPs pass a motion at a Nov. 1 meeting boycotted by the New Democrats and Liberals ordering the CBC to produce the uncensored and censored versions of documents that were at the heart of a court battle over access-to-information requests earlier this month.

The CBC had responded to the motion from the committee by providing the documents but keeping some in a sealed envelope.

A Federal Court of Appeal decision released Wednesday said that had the committee read them and commented on them, the matter would have been rendered moot.

Conservative MP Dean Del Mastro, the parliamentary secretary to the Prime Minister who had put forward the motion, told the committee Thursday that he no longer saw the need to read those documents and so agreed to return them to the CBC.

That had opposition MPs saying the government had climbed down from the brink of interference with the judicial system.

“We were at a point, potentially, of constitutional crisis,” NDP MP Charlie Angus (Timmins–James Bay) told reporters after the meeting. “I’m glad the Conservatives have backed down on this because what they were doing was very dangerous.”

Some of the disputed requests were made by media outlets owned by Quebecor Inc., whose newspapers and television network have been running an ongoing series of negative stories on the spending habits of what they call the “state broadcaster.”

“Quebecor’s strategy is clear,” Lacroix told MPs on Thursday. “Their properties will continue with their campaign. They believe they can benefit from diminishing the role of the public broadcaster. They have a self-interested agenda and they will continue to use Access to Information and do stories in their newspapers and on their television stations to pursue it.”

Lacroix said the CBC will take a couple of days to decide whether to appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada.

© Toronto Star