Let Parliament write the CBC’s script by Jeffrey Simpson

Aug 5, 2014

Source: Globe and Mail

The future of the Canadian Broadcasting Corp./Radio-Canada is backward, in more ways than one.

Technologies change; the mission of the CBC does not. As the Broadcasting Act says, the CBC exists to inform, enlighten and entertain in that order. What the act says in lay person’s language is “aim high.” Consider the audience as adults. Forget chasing the maximum number of eyeballs. It’s a losing game.

No more late-night gabfests with the latest pop artist. The “star” of that show having mercifully moved on to hockey, presenting a fabulous opportunity. No more incessant who’s up-who’s down in politics, since who cares apart from political groupies?

Let’s be fair. Charting a course for CBC has been a national pastime for decades. Everybody who watches, and many who don’t, has an opinion. But ironically, those with the hands on the public money apparently don’t have an opinion. Here is where the future is backward in another way.

The Conservative government has cut the CBC’s budget (again), as Liberal governments did before, and said: You decide what to do with what you’ve got left. That’s an abnegation of responsibility, because the CBC quite simply cannot do with what it has left to do what it used to do.

Squeeze more efficiencies. Sell more buildings. Lay off more staff. Don’t do any more in-house programming. Aim for audiences watching on phones and other devices. It’s a recipe for further marginalization, and it’s based on a convenient lie of the kind that has taken hold in Ottawa in recent years – that the government can save us (the “hard-working taxpayer”) money by doing more with less, whereas the truth is that more with less will go only so far, after which less means less.

Less means that government programs disappear, in whole or in part. Things don’t get repaired. Science gets neglected. Military kit isn’t built. Foreign aid goes down. Prisons become more crowded. Diplomatic postings are hollowed out. Veterans’ services get neglected.

More-means-less will morph, if it hasn’t already, into less-means-less at the CBC. It is up to the government, and to Parliament, to signal what should go. The onus, in other words, should not be on the CBC management and board to decide how to do less-means-less, but to hear from Parliament about what it, as the authorizing agent for public money, wishes the CBC to stop doing, or do less.

For example, French-language broadcasting outside areas with large concentrations of French-language speakers. How about cutting there? Or the aboriginal programming, in whole or in part, now that there is an aboriginal television network? Just try.

How about cutting a bunch of foreign bureaus? They cost a lot, after all. How about regional programming? That costs a small bundle, too. Forget broadcasting the Giller Prize and artsy stuff like that. Who watches anyway? The list goes on and on, for CBC/Radio-Canada is an organization on which Parliament through the Broadcasting Act imposes many obligations. If Parliament is going to chop and chop again, then it should give a sense of direction of what it wishes CBC/Radio-Canada to stop doing, because that is what less-means-less entails.

It’s too bad the board and management didn’t throw the ball back to the government and say: Tell us, which means telling Canadians, what you no longer want us to do. We’re not going to take any decisions until you, the elected people who vote on our budget, offer direction, not about specific programming but about how the Broadcasting Act should be applied. And if you don’t, well, we’re out of here.

CBC management structure has always been wrong. The government appoints the CEO, not the board. So he or she owes the job to the government, as do the board members. The courage to quit is therefore not easily found, even when the government, which controls Parliament, gives the CBC what Americans call an “unfunded mandate.”

An “unfunded mandate” occurs when Washington passes some law or regulation imposing on states implementation obligations without turning over any or sufficient funds. That is what the government and Parliament have done repeatedly with CBC/Radio-Canada. Management then copes with responsibility that by rights lies elsewhere. That’s backward.

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