A real conservative government would reform the CBC by Andrew Coyne
May 30, 2014
Source: Vancouver Sun
Did you know that the Conservative government lives in fear of a broadcaster whose budget it controls, whose chairman and chief executive it appoints, and on whom it spends more than $1 billion annually?
It’s true. According to the director of political operations for the Conservative Party of Canada, the CBC “tried to prevent the Conservative Party from writing and emailing to Canadians about CBC bias.” Fortunately, Fred DeLorey tells Conservative supporters in a fundraising letter, “we refused to be strong-armed,” which perhaps explains why he was still able to put fingers to keyboard. “The CBC cannot dictate what we as Conservatives can say or do,” he vows — but just to be sure it would help if you “donate $5 today.”
How did the CBC try to “strong-arm” the governing party? How did it seek to “dictate” what “Conservatives can say or do”? It wrote a letter to the prime minister. That is, its chairman, Tim Casgrain, did. DeLorey does not mention that Casgrain was a Conservative appointee (and Conservative donor).
Neither does he mention, when he says the letter “attacks all Conservatives” — it does no such thing — that it was written four years ago.
DeLorey does not mention the subject of that campaign, which was not a generalized complaint of bias but a specific demand that the CBC fire a pollster, Ekos Research president Frank Graves, because of a single ill-advised remark in an interview — not on the CBC but in an interview with a newspaper columnist — in which he had suggested the Liberal party ought to launch a “culture war” on the Conservatives.
Graves, one of four pollsters in the CBC’s employ, had apologized for his remark. No evidence was produced of bias in his polling work — indeed, he was a sometime supplier of polls to the Conservative government. And yet the campaign had continued. So far as it seeks “to influence the content of programming or determine whose views will or will not be represented on its airwaves.” Casgrain wrote, the government “comes dangerously close to intruding on the independence of the broadcaster.”
That’s it. That’s the “strong-arming” the Conservative party is now asking donors to help it “stand up against.” Mind you, the state broadcaster is not the only media organization that apparently menaces the party. In a previous fundraising letter, DeLorey had warned that “over 80 per cent of Canadian media is owned by a cartel of just five corporations.” The newspaper industry, in particular, is “largely controlled by a small number of individual or corporate owners, which often own the television networks.” This media convergence, DeLorey goes on, “has greatly complicated our Conservative Party efforts to present the unfiltered facts and foundations behind our policies.”
Quite why the privately-owned media should be united in hostility to the Conservatives and their policies DeLorey does not explain. Neither does he go into why, if this is the case, virtually every newspaper in the country should have endorsed the Conservatives in the last election.
But never mind. If I were the recipient of one of these letters, my first response would be: So what do you propose to do about it? Why is a Conservative government funding a public broadcaster anyway? When are you going to stop complaining about the CBC and start fixing it?
As I’ve noted on other occasions, whatever once may have been true, the case for public broadcasting has collapsed, along with the rest of the broadcast regulatory apparatus. The spectrum scarcity and other technical limitations that in the past made broadcasting a textbook example of market failure have disappeared, as in time will much of what we now know as broadcasting. It serves no one’s interests — viewers, taxpayers, or the CBC itself — to carry on as before.
A real conservative government would be seeking to reform the CBC in line with these realities: at a minimum, to get it off public subsidy and onto a viewer-pay model; beyond that, to break it up into a constellation of specialty channels; in time to migrate out of conventional broadcasting altogether, following the rest of the industry as it moves online.
Or if your tastes run to something more red-meat, privatize it, shut it down, whatever. That is what a real conservative government would have done. But as this is not a real conservative government, it has instead simply left the CBC as it is, adrift, purposeless, yet still consuming $1 billion of scarce public funds every year. It does so, for all its pretensions of concern for the taxpayer, because the CBC is more useful to it in its present state: not as a problem to be fixed, but as a platform on which to raise funds, a scapegoat for the party’s failures, a diversion for the base’s wrath.
As indeed it has done on a number of fronts. If media concentration is a concern, why has it not torn down the protectionist barriers to foreign ownership that are responsible for it? If wireless fees are an issue, why has it not opened the market to foreign competition, rather than take out ads attacking the industry? Why is a conservative government still in the monopoly mail business, in 2014? Why hasn’t Via Rail been reformed? Why, eight years later, does the federal government look pretty much the same as it did when the Conservatives took power?
Why? Because they are not interested in changing government, but in occupying it. The Conservatives are the “Ottawa elites” they decry, only they hope to dupe their supporters, for whose intelligence they evidently have abiding contempt, by keeping an army of convenient whipping boys on hand. And why not? It’s worked so far.
© Vancouver Sun