Public-interest broadcasting

Public-interest broadcasting

Don’t get me started about the CBC. I don’t like what they have done to much of English television, especially crude right-wing programs like Dragons’ Den. Let the privates do that stuff. As for CBC Radio, everyone has a bone to pick with it, especially the local version. But at the same time, I cannot imagine a Canada without the CBC, in English and French.

There’s an axe about to fall on the corporation with a new Tory budget coming down. Everyone expects extremely bad news. Last week CBC/Radio-Canada president and CEO Hubert Lacroix was on the ramparts defending the corporation, giving a spirited defence in front of about 500 at a chamber of commerce luncheon.

Lacroix started his speech to the pillars of Montreal business with an image from the Bill Murray film Groundhog Day. For the CBC it feels like same shit, different day.

In 2009, 800 jobs were eliminated.

This time it’s a rumoured 10 percent cut to the grant of $1.1-billion. That means $110-million or so gone. Lacroix told The Globe and Mail that these cuts will be noticeable to viewers and listeners.

Lacroix defended the work the CBC/Radio-Canada does: It delivers information and programming to the 6 million Canadians in underserved regions, it brings French and English closer together, it collaborates on projects like the Oscar-nominated Quebec film Monsieur Lazhar, it plays a key role in the media ecosystem and it employs hundreds of skilled people who pay taxes and contribute to the Montreal and Quebec economy.

He also took a few shots at private broadcasters, who constantly mock and attack Radio-Canada. "There is no such thing as a private broadcaster in Canada," he said in his speech. "All Canadian broadcasters are hybrids."

All of the so-called private media get huge tax breaks and subsidies from various levels of government. Quebecor, the media monolith headed by Pierre Karl Péladeau, a frequent critic of Radio-Canada, gets $500-million in various advantages. The privates also get breaks from the regulator, allowing them to broadcast huge amounts of U.S. programming in prime time. Lacroix showed the crowd a grid of what is broadcast in prime time by private broadcasters – very little was Canadian or Quebec content.

Privatization? Bad idea, he said. Quoting from a study done by Deloitte he told the crowd that for every dollar invested in Radio-Canada, $3.70 is generated. The public broadcaster spends $675-million a year producing and broadcasting Canadian programming – more than all the private broadcasters combined.

The federal government now in power doesn’t like Radio-Canada much, and neither did the Liberal government before it. A sign that it is doing its job. A public broadcaster is supposed to reflect the diversity of the country and create a public space to enable us all to better know our neighbours. It is also supposed to foster an open and diverse discussion about what is going on. CBC/Radio-Canada was founded in the 1930s to do what the private broadcasters won’t do.

Quebecor has made it a cottage industry to attack the CBC and Radio-Canada. It has been reported that they have hired a person who does nothing but apply through Access to Information for material that could be used to embarrass the corporation.

The latest controversy blew up over a TV program that Radio-Canada bought from France called Hard. It’s an HBO-like series, a bit like Weeds, about a woman whose husband dies and suddenly she is informed that the family fortune was derived from a vast pornographic empire. The federal government wasn’t happy. This may not be the first attempt by government to interfere with programming, but it is one of the most obvious.

The country is too vast and too complex to allow the public broadcaster to fall too far.

The most telling clip of Lacroix’s speech was that the CBC/Radio-Canada costs Canadian taxpayers $34 per person per year. Much less than the BBC or other public broadcasters in Europe. Thirty-four dollars is less than a traffic ticket, less than a Valentine’s Day dinner at a restaurant – the price of an ill-fitting sweater at the after-Christmas sales.

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