After the recent budget cuts, the annual lament about the future of the CBC was further discussed with the same urgency and likely the same results. Last year, Shlomo Schwartzberg went beyond the simple plea that the CBC should survive, into why it should and how.
Is there any point or value in having a public broadcaster? I ask this a few days after Canada’s latest national election, where once again I was riveted to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) as my only source for election coverage on television. The Mother Corp, as it’s known, did not disappoint, offering comprehensive coverage of all 308 ridings, well-chosen interviews and a crack team of analysts and pundits commenting on an historic election. It was an election that saw Canada’s perennial third national party, the left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP), score a record 102 seats, thus moving it into second place and becoming the country’s official opposition for the first time since its inception in 1961.
The election also had me musing about why I only notice the CBC, which I otherwise take for granted, when something momentous or significant occurs, be it an election, an Olympics games, or even a Royal Wedding. Does it matter, in a country with two other major TV networks, Global and CTV, if we also have a CBC to bring us our daily news? I think it does – even if ironically, as I write this column, the CBC may be in its last days, at least in the form we’ve always known it to be.
For our American readers, but not our European ones, the idea of needing a public broadcasting institution to bind one’s countrymen and women together, may seem quaint. That’s because Americans don’t spend a lot of time pondering what it means to be an American. They already know. When something like the killing of Osama Bin Laden happens, they spontaneously get together to celebrate who they are. It’s different for Canadians. As our election showed, with the majority of seats going to our Conservative party, a right-wing leading party very much the opposite of the NDP, Canada is a pretty polarized country. Of course, the U.S. has its Democrat/Republican divide, but it’s not as geographically spread out; nor does it contain a French-speaking entity that alternately is alienated or complaining. The United States also doesn’t possess three or more political parties to further split the national vote. (The Green party just gained its first seat; the separatist Bloc Quebecois was nearly decimated, losing all but four of its 48 seats. The long-lasting Liberal party, the most centrist of them all and which as been around since the founding of the country in 1867, dropped to a historic low of 34 seats.)
|Blue is Conservative, Orange is NDP, Red is Liberal|
Add the various permutations of Canadian rivalries, French-English, the West versus the East, Newfoundland and Labradors’ quixotic tilting at the Federal windmill, the ethnic votes, and the urban-rural split and it’s clear that linking the disparate parts of Canada together is no easy feat. To a large degree, the CBC does that, especially on election nights and the like.
|The At Issue panel, on CBC's The National|
Admittedly, the CBC has become more superficial in recent years, certainly compared to the halcyon days of the 1980s and early 90s, when its show The Journal, helmed by the late, great broadcaster Barbara Frum, made up the bulk of the networks’ hour long newscast and delved deeply into the headline making stories of the day. Nowadays, The National, its hour-long nightly newscast, is fluffier with more and shorter news items, but it’s also still capable of great journalism, as in its recent outstanding report conclusively linking the terrorist group Hezbollah to the 2005 murder of Lebanese politician Rafik Hariri. That news investigation garnered international headlines. It was a feat that Canada’s private networks wouldn’t have even attempted to perform, and when they do venture into investigative journalism they prefer to stick to exposés of consumer fraud or misleading advertising, something the CBC devotes a whole show, Marketplace, to exposing.
Similarly, whether it's in covering the 2010 World Cup, or the death of Osama Bin Laden, the CBC, which also encompasses an all news network, CBC News Network, offers a reflective and generous view of the world, recognizing, most of the time, that there are shades of grey inherent in what they’re showing. That complexity, or nuance, doesn’t sit well with many Canadians. Over the years, there’s been a steadily increasing drumbeat of criticism of the CBC, for its taxpayer-supported billion dollar budget, its left-wing bias (only partially true, since you could never refer to At Issue panelist Andrew Coyne, or the acerbic commentator Rex Murphy as doctrinaire lefties. In any case, they're likely representatives of the populace’s political bent as a whole), and its general existence. Too many Canadians, seduced by the American way of doing things, somehow, myopically, see the CBC as different from other valued and respected Canadian institutions, such as our government-run health care and our social safety net. But that's what makes us who we are. It distinguishes us from the often overly capitalist giant U.S. monolith next door. (As an aside, I’ve never understood why it's such a scandal for Americans, including many Republican politicians, that a mere pittance of dollars flow to such non-commercial entities as PBS television, National Public Radio and The National Endowment for the Arts. But, of course, all artistic endeavours in the United States are expected to pay for themselves and never to be helped along by the government. That’s baffling for a Canadian to understand. )
Unfortunately, one Canadian who's most ill-disposed towards the CBC is our Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, who finally, after three elections, achieved a majority of the vote. (The vagaries of the Canadian voting system, which is not based on proportional representation, means he could so with only 40 per cent or so of the total vote.) Now he's free to begin the process of starving the CBC of its funding (which has happened before and one reason why the network has to make do with running commercials is because of past cuts – not all by Conservative governments, incidentally) and, possibly, starting the process of dismantling it altogether. There was a telling and disturbing moment before the election when CBC reporter Terry Milewski was asking a tough question of the PM, who was taking very few questions form the media during the whole 35 day campaign. The PM refused to answer the query and one could clearly hear, as Milewski doggedly pressed on to try to extract an answer from the PM, a shout of ‘Shut down the CBC’ from someone in the audience. (At least, I hope it was someone in the audience, it could have been one of Harper’s contingent, too.)
|Prime Minister Stephen Harper|
That attitude, coupled with a sitting Prime Minister who makes no bone of his animus towards the public network, will likely receive much consideration in the nation's capital. If it does, Monday's election may be the last one where the CBC will shine. By October 2015, the date of the next election, if it’s still around, the CBC will likely be a shell of its former shelf. And considering that we're now saddled with a newly powerful PM, who doesn't broach much criticism at the best of times and has displayed more than his fair share of contempt for democratic Canadian values the last few years, losing the CBC as it is now would be a tragedy. The negative effect may only have its true impact felt when it’s not around to cover the next election as decisively as it did the last one. I hope I’m wrong about this state of affairs coming to fruition. But, given the current climate, I fear the worst.