National Newswatch
National Opinion Centre

The English-language service of the CBC made the surprise announcement this week that during a pandemic, they were going to cancel local dinner time newscasts across Canada. However, the French-language wing of the CBC decided to continue their country wide evening newscast. In Prince Edward Island, this has created a major problem as in the absence of any standalone CTV/ATV, or Global News programming, there is no other local English news broadcast serving Islanders.

The local CBC TV newscast, Compass, has done an outstanding job in the last few weeks informing Prince Edward Islanders about the decisions their provincial government has made to address the pandemic, and the advice from Dr. Heather Morrison, Chief Public Health Officer for Prince Edward Island, who has often been interviewed in the CBC Charlottetown studio.

As a province with some of the worst internet connections in the country and a high proportion of the population identified as seniors, the information provided by Compass has been essential for Islanders to prepare for and cope with the pandemic.

As an independent organization, the CBC does not take direction from the federal government or the Canadian Heritage Minister, but they are required to operate under the guidelines set out by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) for their licencing renewal.

I believe this decision by the CBC English-language service is in direct violation with the letter and the spirit of the CRTC licence renewal given the CBC committed to “at least 7 hours of local programming per week”. The only exceptions the CBC identified were during sporting events such as NHL playoff games or statutory holidays.

Moreover, the CRTC also considered “that a condition of licence requiring the broadcast of at least seven hours of local programming per week constitutes a better mechanism to measure compliance than the current commitments, since the CBC cannot reduce the level of local programming under seven hours without Commission approval following a public process.”

It appears that the CBC English-language service is in violation of the 2013 CRTC licence requirements because they cancelled the 7 hours of local programming without the CRTC’s approval and there was no public process prior to the cancellation. I have therefore written the Commissioner of the CRTC to ask him to enforce the commitment the CBC made at the time of its licence renewal and immediately restore Compass suppertime programming originating from Charlottetown.

After her appointment in 2018, current President and Chief Executive Officer of the CBC Catherine Tait was effusive in her praise for local news, and rightly so. Calling it “the heart of the organization”, she declared that “there is nothing more important than local stories and local news.” Going further, she declared that “if we (in the CBC) don’t reflect Canadians where they are, wherever they are, we are not doing our job.” It seems passing strange, to say the least, that two years later the organization would be willing to abandon such an important job so readily. That “promise” didn’t last long.

The CBC’s licence is due to expire this summer, and the CRTC has scheduled hearings to solicit testimony from Canadians on how the CBC is fulfilling its mandate under the Broadcasting Act, which among other things requires the CBC to “reflect Canada and its regions to national and regional audiences, while serving the special needs of those regions.” Those hearings are currently scheduled for May, but in today’s environment, who knows when they may actually occur? But that is beside the point. This is a problem that needs to be addressed now.

As the CBC French-language TV service decided, local news is not some frill to be eliminated when the going gets tough. Nor are Islanders upset that they will miss out on reports about county fairs and local hockey games. We are in the middle of a public health emergency of a scale not seen in a century. We need to know what’s going on here. What’s safe here. What we need to do here. The journalists, producers and technicians in Toronto are all dedicated professionals, but of necessity they are focused on wider issues, on the big picture. Our picture isn’t big, but it’s ours, and we need to see it.

Percy Downe is a Senator from Charlottetown

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