“‘Well, first we’re going to get them on their knees and then we’re going to restructure them,” Prime Minister Stephen Harper is reported to have said recently about the future of the CBC.
Ian Morrison of Friends of Canadian Broadcasting warns Canadians that “his (Harper’s) idea of restructuring…would be something along the lines of American Public Broadcasting (PBS) and National Public Radio (NPR.)
“The Harper government has cut $115 million from CBC’s budget since 2012 after promising during the last election to maintain or increase support for the CBC,” continues a Friends Briefing Note. “As a result, CBC is being forced to shed 2,000 of its creative staff – the heart and soul of our national broadcaster…and cancel or diminish radio and TV programs.”
An extensive poll commissioned by Friends in August 2014 conducted by Nanos Research found strong support for the CBC and public broadcasting generally. Over half of Canadians, 52 per cent, think the CBC is doing an excellent (22 per cent) or very good (32 per cent) job of fulfilling its mandate. Eight in ten feel the CBC plays a very important (50 per cent) or somewhat important (29 per cent) role in protecting culture and identity. Support for the Conservatives’ original promise to maintain or increase funding for the CBC has risen from 60 per cent in 2012 to 74 per cent in 2013. Six in ten Conservative supporters (60 per cent) agree or somewhat agree (26 per cent) with this position.
None of these figures should be surprising, despite the longstanding anti-CBC mantra maintained by Canada’s right wing and its media.
Canadians are only too familiar with the hours of online begging that PBS and NPR must conduct just to stay on the air. Few would want Canada, as one of the first democratic nations to recognize the importance and value of non-partisan publicly financed news and public affairs in the early 1930s, to follow the American PBS model.
There are probably at least 30 public broadcasters around the world, of which 18 are the most recognized. State broadcasters are arms of the government, propagandists for the party in power, such as Radio Moscow. Public broadcasters, by contrast, are funded, in whole or in part, by public money, but not public money as dispensed by the state, but through a variety of non-political mechanisms such as licence fees, small taxes on radio and television purchases and in much of Europe and in Japan, fees paid to sub-national governments such as provinces and states.
While Canada is one of a very few where the public money comes directly from the government, the Broadcast Act has given CBC some insulation from political interference by guaranteeing CBC’s editorial independence.
But last year, for the first time in its near 90-year history, the CBC was pushed into state broadcaster territory. The Harper Government’s 2013 Omnibus Budget Implementation Legislation placed the CBC under the purview of the Financial Administration Act. Now, Treasury Board is authorized to supervise, manage and actually sit in on CBC’s labour relations and negotiations, moving it along the grid from public to state broadcaster.
As it now stands, the CBC is a hybrid broadcaster– half public and half state. It is not a propaganda arm of the state, but neither is it totally free from political interference, as becomes clear in a review of its relationship with a succession of Canadian prime ministers.
Among the world’s public broadcasters, eighteen stand out. The most generously funded public broadcasters are found in the nations of Europe and Scandinavia. Norway leads the world, investing $180 per capita for its public broadcaster. Following in descending order are Switzerland, $164; Germany, $124; Sweden, $117; Denmark, $116; Finland, $108; the United Kingdom, $97; Austria, $92; France, $68; Belgium, $68; Spain, $68; Japan, $67; Australia, $53; Ireland, $53; Italy, $38; Canada, $29, New Zealand, $21 and the U.S., $3.
PBS ‘s meager $3 per capita speaks volumes about its heavy reliance on on-air fundraising. New Zealand had a major flirtation with extreme free enterprise conservatism a decade ago and is still entrapped in some of its mantras.
The average across the 18 nations with public broadcasters stands at $82 per capita.
“There used to be a time when public broadcasting was popular with Canadian prime ministers,” Morrison said in an interview. “R.B. Bennett founded the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Commission in 1932…John Diefenbaker was the first prime minister, to my knowledge, to have quite a bit of antipathy toward the CBC. He identified it as having been born and raised under Mackenzie King’s Liberals.”
Not surprisingly, therefore, it was under Diefenbaker that the first private broadcasting licences were granted. “There was that hostility (to public broadcasting),” Morrison says. The first private television licence went to prominent Toronto Progressive Conservative John Bassett, owner of the right-leaning Toronto Telegram.
Things swung back when Lester Pearson became prime minister. “Pearson was very sympathetic to public broadcasting. He was the last friendly prime minister,” Morrison continues.
Pierre Elliott Trudeau was not an opponent of public broadcasting because he disagreed with the concept. He opposed the CBC because “his primordial reason for being in politics was national unity, keeping the country together,” continues Morrison. “He believed – and he was correct – that Société Radio-Canada (SRC) was a kind of hotbed of separatism and somewhere near 50 per cent of the population of Quebec was independantiste at the time and probably about half the people working for SRC Radio and Television were as well.”
Brian Mulroney had no particular bone to pick with the CBC until after he left office and the Karl Heinz Schreiber Air Bus affair besmirched his legacy. According to sources, Mulroney then had “four-letter words for the CBC,” Morrison says.
Jean Chretien brought direct antipathy to his relationship to the CBC-Radio Canada both because it was under his watch that Canada came close to disintegration during the 1995 Quebec Referendum and because “in Quebec, among the educated class, there was kind of a looking down their noses on him and he was delighted to take it out on the CBC under the guise of deficit reduction,” Morrison says.
Paul Martin’s austerity brought Canada back to surplus and the CBC budget stabilized in real dollars.
But then Canada’s broadcast universe was turned upside down under Stephen Harper’s Conservatives.
Harper’s antipathy is ideological, Morrison continues. He recounts attending a meeting where Harper was present and the person introducing him noted that Harper’s favourite former prime minister was R.B. Bennett. Harper got up and said “he (Bennett) created the CBC but we’ve long forgiven him for that.”
The Friends of Canadian Broadcasting has a dramatic chart on its website. In 2007, one year after the Harper Conservatives took office, the House of Commons Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage recommended CBC funding be increased to one-half the average invested in public broadcasting by the 26 countries who are members of the Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development.
Just three cents a day would have achieved the Heritage Committee’s goal. It never happened.
The Friends of Canadian Broadcasting has two striking – and shocking – graphs on its main page. They track the drastic cuts to CBC funding since the Mulroney government.
The top blue graph shows the CBC’s total grant (operating, capital and working capital) has plunged from $1.733.5 billion annually in 1990-91 to 1.020.5 billion a year in 2014-15, a loss of $713 million dollars annually when expressed in 2014 dollars.
The second red graph starting in the same 1990-91 year shows the CBC’s operating (capital) grant has plummeted from $1.583.7 billion to $674.9 million, a loss of $673.3 million annually.
In the last 24 years from 1990 to 2014, therefore, the CBC has lost $1,674.9 billion dollars in annual funding and is in a virtual frenzy of staff downsizing.
Last April, it cut 657 positions, about 10 per cent of CBC’s staff. Three months later, last summer, the corporation announced further cuts of 2,000 employees to be implemented over the next few years.
Morrison tries to sound optimistic that the CBC is not headed to oblivion.
“It’s always possible for people to do something with less money. It’s just that it just becomes more fragile and the production values go down and there’s a pressure to reduce the local services for national services because it’s always cheaper to do one program across the country,” he says.
“It’s not quite like closing it down and throwing away the key. It’s just the death of a thousand cuts and it’s becoming more pronounced, stronger, under Harper.”
Morrison has a disturbing anecdote that buttresses his worry the CBC could be headed into state broadcaster territory where the government decides what and who goes on air and what and who doesn’t.
When Societe Radio Canada invited former Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe to take part in its political panel show, CBC President Hubert Lacroix received an indignant tweet from then-Heritage Minister James Moore.
It was just one word: “Duceppe?”
Frances Russell was born in Winnipeg and graduated from the University of Manitoba with a Bachelor of Arts degree in history and political science. A journalist since 1962, she has covered and commented on politics in Manitoba, Ontario, B.C. and Ottawa, working for The Winnipeg Tribune, United Press International, The Globe and Mail, The Vancouver Sun and The Winnipeg Free Press as well as freelanced for The Toronto Star, The Edmonton Journal, CBC Radio and TV and Time Magazine.
She is the author of two award-winning books on Manitoba history: Mistehay Sakahegan – The Great Lake: The Beauty and the Treachery of Lake Winnipeg and The Canadian Crucible – Manitoba’s Role in Canada’s Great Divide. Both won the Manitoba Historical Society Award for popular history.
She is married with one son and two grandsons and lives in Winnipeg.