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Public service broadcasting essentials: Editorial independence and Public accountability – an uneasy relationship?

May 28, 2006

Thanks to the organizers for the invitation to participate today. First, to answer the question: of course it is an uneasy relationship. To highlight the tensions between accountability and editorial independence in public service broadcasting, I want to relate a comment by Joseph Sobran, an American, writing about the impeachment of his president: "All in all, the framers (of the American Constitution) would probably agree that it's better to impeach too often than too seldom. If presidents can't be virtuous, they should at least be nervous." [1]

Coming as we do from so many different cultures and political traditions, we nonetheless share common values about the importance of public service broadcasting to democratic participation, social development and international understanding. So the issues we are discussing here are cogent.

I am spokesperson for a citizens' watchdog group called Friends of Canadian Broadcasting. It's mission is to defend and enhance Canadian programs on radio and television. It is financed through the voluntary contributions of 100,000 Canadians. [2]

As my experience is rooted in Canada, a Pacific, but not an Asian country, I would like to offer a case study from that perspective and invite you to consider whether there are implications for elsewhere.

Where I come from we have several public service broadcasters. But the best known, the most important, and the only Canada-wide PSB is the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, the CBC, founded in 1936. It broadcasts on radio, television and the Internet in English, French and several aboriginal languages and it also operates a multilingual international service. The principal guarantee of its editorial independence is to be found in a clause in Canada's Broadcasting Act, which states that the Act "shall be interpreted and applied so as to protect and enhance the freedom of expression and the journalistic, creative and programming independence enjoyed by the (Canadian Broadcasting) Corporation in the pursuit of its objects and in the exercise of its powers". [3]

That's pretty clear, is it not? However, the government of the day exercises substantial influence – too substantial an influence, in the view of many – through other powers under the same Act. For example, the government appoints the members of the CBC's board of directors, including its president and chief executive officer. That board does not have the power to hire and fire its president. It's effectively an appointment under the control of the Canadian prime minister, moderated somewhat by parliamentary opinion, at least, as is currently the case, when the government has a minority of seats in our House of Commons.

This creates a situation where the president and CEO might feel beholden somewhat to the prime minister who appointed him or her. Whether or not that may be the case, it creates a public perception of affiliation, which undermines the independence, or the perception of independence, guaranteed under the statute. Indeed, a Canadian parliamentary committee which recently conducted a thorough study of broadcasting policy, recommended unanimously that "in the interests of fuller accountability and arm's-length from government, nominations to the CBC Board should be made by a number of sources, and the CBC President should be hired by and be responsible to the Board of Directors". [4]

Shortly after the current incumbent was appointed by former prime minister Chrétien, a story in the Globe and Mail reported the following comments from an official of the Canadian broadcast regulator, the CRTC. The CBC president "says he's got a special mandate from the prime minister…. He was a bit cocky… he seemed to feel that he could change things however he wants, even if the Broadcasting Act says otherwise". [5]

Six years later this same CBC president was called before a parliamentary committee to explain his actions in locking out CBC's employees for seven weeks. A member of parliament asked him: "Who is your boss?" and he replied: "The people of Canada". The MP then asked him: "And how are you accountable to the people of Canada?" He replied: "Through you." To which the MP responded: "Through me?" And the president then clarified: "Through parliament. It says explicitly in the Act that we report through the minister to parliament."

This is not a screenplay. I am not making up this dialogue. It can be found in the Hansard of the Canadian House of Commons. [6] Of course, the other way in which the government of the day can exercise a measure of control is through the CBC's dependency on annual parliamentary appropriations. We have no licence fee system in Canada. Although there are periodic public discussions of alternate means of funding, the most popular suggestion is for assuring the public broadcaster stable multi-year funding. For example, the same parliamentary committee recently recommended "that parliament provide the CBC with increased and stable multi-year funding (3 to 5 years) so that it may adequately fulfill its mandate as expressed in the Broadcasting Act". [7]

In our country, there appears to be little or no interference by government with day-to-day news operations. This reflects a seven-decade tradition, backed up by public opinion. However, the choice of topics in non-news public affairs programming is more difficult to evaluate, as are decisions regarding fiction programs. And we all know that questions of tone, coverage decisions and nuance are notoriously difficult to measure. So vigilance is required. In the words of an anonymous quotation: "The most serious threat to democracy is the notion that it has already been achieved".

One check and balance in the Canadian system is that the same statute that mandates the CBC also mandates the broadcast regulator. [8] The CBC is required to apply for its broadcast licences on a seven-year cycle. And while the regulator is not empowered to take away those licences, it can attach conditions to them and hold public hearings, which encourage interested citizens to express their expectations for the CBC's future priorities.

Another is a culture of professional journalism which has developed over seven decades within the CBC. At the journalistic level there exists an intense skepticism towards directives emanating from the politically-appointed senior management. If an inappropriate politically-inspired suggestion were to emerge, it would be outed instantly by the professional journalists. And the public would side with the journalists. As the late Edward Abbey once said: "a patriot must always be willing to defend his country from his government".

Thank you.

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Ian Morrison is Spokesperson for the Friends of Canadian Broadcasting







[1] The Washington Times, January 8, 1999.

[2] www.friends.ca

[3] Statutes of Canada, The Broadcasting Act (1991), Section 35. http://www.crtc.gc.ca/eng/LEGAL/BROAD.htm

[4] Our Cultural Sovereignty: the Second Century of Canadian Broadcasting, Standing Committee of Canadian Heritage, House of Commons, June 11, 2003. http://friends.ca/News/Friends_News/archives/articles06110311.asp

[5] Globe and Mail, December 23, 1999. http://209.47.161.50/articles/GlobeandMail/globe991223.htm

[6] Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage, House of Commons, October 27, 2005. http://friends.ca/files/PDF/Heritage_Committee-05Oct27.pdf

[7] Our Cultural Sovereignty, op. cit., Recommendation 6:1.

[8] The Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission