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How Should the CBC be Governed?

Jan 28, 2001

Finding Focus Forum, Chateau Laurier Hotel, Ottawa

Remarks by Ian Morrison
Spokesperson
Friends of Canadian Broadcasting

On Friends' behalf, thanks for the invitation. This is an important initiative, at a propitious time. We congratulate Carleton and the [Canadian Media] Guild for sponsoring Finding Focus. And, as you know, it's not the first time that people have gathered in this hotel to advance the cause of public broadcasting – nor, for that matter, can I think of a place where more plotting has gone on to thwart the best interests of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

I am going to focus on governance. Currently, the Broadcasting Act provides that the Governor-in-Council appoints members of CBC's Board of Directors, including the President and the Chairperson. The appointments are "during good behaviour for a term of not exceeding five years". Appointees must be free of several specified conflicts of interest. As you may know, the government decided to reduce the independence of CBC's Board a few years ago, but then thought better of it.

Notably, the Broadcasting Act is silent on desirable qualities of CBC directors. However, many of the skills, experience, and characteristics desirable in appointees are stated in, or can readily be inferred from, government policy statements, advisory committee reports, and even the comments of informed observers in the media.

These implicit criteria are as good a place to start as any in setting the framework for appropriate appointments to the CBC Board.

In its 1996 report, the Mandate Review Committee, chaired by Pierre Juneau and including Peter Herrndorf and Catherine Murray, advocated vocational and educational diversity, some appointees coming from "business, labour, science or the academic world", others from "broadcasting, journalism or the arts".  

The 1982 Federal Cultural Policy Review Committee recommended that appointments be made with an "overriding concern for the appointees’ experience in the fields of concern of the agency" and a "broad-ranging interest in cultural matters". 

Our esteemed colleague Knowlton Nash has said that it has been a "great sin" not to let "the creative person into the upper councils". [That sounds a lot like members of the Guild to me.]

The 1966 White Paper on Broadcasting underlined the importance of "knowledge and experience of management matters;” while the Mandate Review Committee advocated including members "with high-level corporate management skills".

Doesn't this just sound like Robert Lantos' CV?

Emphasis has also been placed on the value of diverse perspectives. The 1965 Fowler Committee on Broadcasting stressed knowing Canada "extensively, its present problems, and its future possibilities as a nation”. The Friends of Canadian Broadcasting has advocated international knowledge and experience. Given the high proportion of appointees who have been "white, mostly male and largely upper middle-class", it has been common to encourage appointments that represent with greater fidelity the ethnic, gender, and socio-economic diversity of Canadian society.

Mindful of the politics inherent in government appointments, the Mandate Review Committee also urged that "directors with known political affiliations [ought to represent] the full political spectrum and not just that of the governing party". I’ll return to this latter point in a few minutes.

In 1997/98 Friends commissioned research on CBC Board appointments since 1936 by ten Prime Ministers [Appointments to the CBC & CRTC: Criteria & Process]. From our study, you can even learn, for example, that more of Diefenbaker's appointments than Chrétien’s had university degrees.

But the nub of our conclusion is that, ever since the 1930s, successive governments have loaded CBC's Board with partisan appointments, many of them relatively obscure individuals, not prominent in public records nationally or in their own communities – among them quite a few fund raisers for the governing party. We see no evidence that this tendency has moderated over time. Who can say that the present CBC Board of Directors is any different?

This raises serious doubts among fair-minded observers as to whether such Boards are weakening the arms-length relationship which ought to exist between the government and the national public broadcaster in a democracy, pushing the de-facto arms length struggle down onto the shoulders of senior management.

There are other models. Let me quote more fully from the comments of the 1996 Mandate Review Committee – about the BBC:

"We believe that Board members with a strong political background can provide some clear benefits. We want to stress, however, that the integrity of the Board and the independence of the Corporation would be enhanced if directors with known political affiliations represented the full political spectrum, and not just the governing party. We note that this pattern has been followed by successive British governments and has, in our view, helped to preserve the BBC's independence and prestige."

Elsewhere, the ability of the American Congress to scrutinize  Presidential appointments to the Board of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the South African parliament's demonstrated ability to bring the appointment of South African Broadcasting Corporation directors into full, and very public, scrutiny have raised the multi-partisan and non-partisan status of their respective boards.

If Canadians had more confidence that the Board of Directors of the CBC was there, first and foremost, to ensure the best interests of the Corporation, and that the Board was constituted from among the best and brightest Canadians, well placed to guide a billion dollar premier cultural institution, then several other governance options, currently impractical, would become feasible.

For example, as recommended by the Caplan/Sauvageau Task Force and more recently by the Juneau Committee, the President of the CBC could be chosen by its Board:

"The Broadcasting Act should be amended to specify that the President be chosen by the CBC's Board of Directors and not the Governor-in-Council, or alternatively, by the Governor-in-Council on the recommendation of the CBC Board."

As you know, boards picking CEOs is the universal corporate model in the private sector. I can recall Guylaine Saucier telling me how surprised her Bank of Montreal colleague Matt Barrett was to learn from her that the CBC’s Board did not appoint its President.

I remind you of another valuable recommendation from the Mandate Review Committee:

"The Broadcasting Act should be amended to clarify the respective roles of the Board of Directors and of the President. The Board should be responsible for approving the goals, policies and long-range plans of the CBC, as well as evaluating their implementation. The President should be Chief Executive Officer and be responsible for general management and supervision of the staff. The President should develop long-term strategies for recommendation to the Board."

These proposals would work only if Canadians had full confidence in the independence, the capacity and the integrity of the Board.

So, I conclude that there is no shortage of good ideas about how to reform the governance of the CBC. What is lacking is a will to act on these ideas. Of course such action is unlikely under the present Prime Minister, whom I consider to be too entrenched in his ways, and too biased against an independent CBC to espouse genuine reform.

However, he's appointed Rabinovitch, and he's appointing Lantos, so perhaps an epiphany is possible. But I take more encouragement from a 1999 column in the Ottawa Citizen where Lawrence Martin reported on an interview with Allan Rock. Rock told Martin that the Prime Minister in the Canadian system has too much power. Martin says that Rock's musings included the following statement: "Why don’t the people have some say in who their new governor general is, or the CBC President…." Now, there's an idea!

So my counsel is that we develop the case for reform. Explain the stakes. Place the issue on the public agenda. And wait for the right time to pounce. That time may not be too far away. And the CBC deserves no less.

– 30 –

For information:

Jim Thompson (613) 567-9592

Related Articles

Read Friends' research report, Appointments to the CBC & CRTC: Criteria and Process