Lack of transparency, barriers to accessing proceedings, holes in house editorial guide cited as structural complaints as CBC/Radio-Canada faces hearings amid growing reports of workplace discrimination

A nonprofit advocacy group is calling for CBC/Radio-Canada’s journalistic standards and practices to be evaluated through a public consultation and for the corporation’s executives to be “terminated with due cause” for failing to meet their legal mandate to represent protected groups in programming and employment.

The Community Media Advocacy Centre delivered its presentation on the fifth day of interventions at the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission hearing of CBC’s license renewal Friday, citing recent accounts of systemic racism at the broadcaster, from labour conditions to the problematic elements of CBC’s editorial conventions, and outlined their own data analysis of representation in programming.

“The CBC had since 1991 to deliver on [its] obligation under the Broadcasting Act,” said CMAC policy consultant Laith Marouf, adding that it had another nine years since the last license renewal in 2013.  Given its failure to meet those obligations, CMAC is calling for the broadcaster’s leadership to be fired. 

“This is the least that can be done because it will open the door,” Marouf said. “Not only would it hold somebody responsible for the failures to deliver on the obligations under the law, but it will also open the door for the CBC to hire a reflective executive management team, including editors in the news and so forth, that can start making the change by being on the table.”

CMAC, which was founded in 2015 and works to advance the “self-determination of Indigenous, racialized and disabled people in media,” has submitted four procedural requests to the CRTC in CBC’s license-renewal-application process over the past year. The organization was represented in its intervention before the CRTC by Marouf, vice-president Kristiana Clemens and founding member Omme-Salma Rahemtullah.

The first request sent in February 2020 asked the regulator to ensure a representative panel, compel the release of information about activities surrounding the broadcaster’s diversity and inclusion plan and of employment equity data.  

CBC/Radio-Canada argued in response that CMAC’s request had no grounds, falling under the purview of the Employment Equity Act, rather than the Broadcasting Act.

Section 3(1)(d)(iii) of the act requires a broadcaster to:

“through its programming and the employment opportunities arising out of its operations, serve the needs and interests, and reflect the circumstances and aspirations, of Canadian men, women and children, including equal rights, the linguistic duality and multicultural and multiracial nature of Canadian society and the special place of aboriginal peoples within that society.”

In July 2020, CMAC entered another procedural request, which included employment data it had obtained through a leak. The organization requested the CRTC compel the CBC to provide detailed breakdowns reflecting the number of employees in each rank by gender, race, Indigeneity and disability. (The cultural census submitted by CBC did not reveal gender by protected group, for example.)

 “And from that data it’s also clear that if you just merge women all together then you can hide the fact that you are not representing Indigenous women and/or visible minority women and so forth,” said Marouf. 

The CRTC rejected the request for employment equity data but issued a request to CBC for data about representation in programming. 

CBC refused to share this data, citing confidentiality concerns, so CMAC started to compile some information itself, using information that is publicly available through online credits on IMDB, Wikipedia and the CBC’s website. The group itemized the number of white, visible minority, Indigenous and disabled men and women in leadership roles, submitted in a Jan. 4 procedural request.

From a sample of 24 reality, game, news, documentary, children and sports programs, they found that more than 90 per cent were white-centred, or largely helmed by white crew.  

On the first day of the public hearing, Jan. 11, 2021, CBC/Radio-Canada president and CEO Catherine Tait said “we are ready to commit to more comprehensive tracking and reporting on representation and leadership across all our activities.”

Tait touted CBC’s progress on “gender parity,” but acknowledged those gains have not extended to non-white women at the broadcaster, and discussed the diversity and inclusion plan, including the intention to double promotion and retention rates, its employee whistleblower hotline, which was announced in July, and the requirement that managers undergo unconscious bias training. 

“For the corporation to come in 2021 and claim that it’s working on it, meaning basically 30 years after the fact where they should have come into compliance with this and claim that they still need time to do it, and/or they’re doing great, on the way to it — which they are not — is shocking that they’re allowed to actually pretend that that’s acceptable,” Marouf told J-Source in an interview. 

“And, one wonders, how does the CRTC enforce this, if it is this lenient with not only the CBC, but the whole broadcasting sector in its failures to deliver on the requirements of reflection [in programming and employment].”

During the hearing, Marouf described CBC’s refusal to submit employment equity data, “and at times presented incomplete or misleading information that cast their shortcomings in a better light,” including by omitting information about the most recent season’s programming.

“Looking at how the CBC has been presenting around these issues, it felt like they are speaking about some imaginary CBC that I wasn’t looking at,” Marouf told J-Source after the first week of hearings in which the commission heard from the broadcaster.

 “They were bragging about diversity when in reality, the station, the whole CBC as a corporation, its English and French arms, are failing in terms of providing employment equity and similarly with their programming. It’s overwhelmingly white-centred.” 

The data obtained by CMAC include employment information up to the 2019/2020 season. The cultural census submitted by CBC ends in the 2018/2019 season, explained CMAC. Marouf posited during the hearing that by not disclosing 2020 data, their numbers wouldn’t reflect the approximately 10 Indigenous employees CMAC said the corporation lost that year.

“We’re worried that actually the CBC is not providing the commission with the correct information or the latest information in a manner of obstructing again,” said Marouf.

“The information requested by CMAC is in the public interest and the corporation’s refusal to provide it is indicative of barrier to equity in itself, as well as hindering the ability of CMAC and the public to verify the equity and diversity claims made by the corporation,” said CMAC vice-president Clemens, data which Marouf said “could have probably been a push of a button” for the CBC to generate. 

The first week of the hearing explored at length CBC’s fulfillment of conditions of license surrounding geographic and linguistic representation, as well as its requests surrounding its digital content strategies.

Tait discussed the corporation’s request for “flexibility” to meet its mandate online, entailing less financial oversight of digital platforms.

Digital programming, explained CMAC in its presentation, is less expensive to produce.

“This argument means that the corporation is intentionally choosing to spend less on reflective programming,” CMAC’s Rahemtullah said at the hearing. “The majority of reflective content is concentrated in locally or regionally broadcasted programming or online. This means audiences accessing the linear content of the corporation see an image of Canada centring whiteness.”

The shift to digital, explained Clemens, has compounded accessibility barriers. When reflective content can only be found online, rather than traditional broadcast channels, that means that only residents who choose to seek it out and those with broadband internet — sparsely available through some regions of Canada — can access it.

And when the majority of content that reflects diverse populations is only available online or locally, the result is a relatively homogeneous linear channel that “skews audience perceptions of the society of the state of Canada, diminishes chances of cross-cultural understanding, deteriorates social cohesion, and ultimately contradicts the CRTC’s goal of ensuring the corporation ‘contributes to democratic life in Canada,’” said Clemens.

In the months preceding the hearings, a range of internal decisions have made headlines, from the controversial sponsored content platform Tandem (which prompted over 500 current and former CBC workers to petition against it and has been a subject of hearing interventions) to the firing of journalist Ahmar Khan, who an arbitrator said in a decision released on Jan. 13 during the first week of hearings had his privacy violated after a colleague and manager collected personal messages from a shared computer, revealing he had leaked the demand he delete a tweet about Don Cherry’s xenophobic on-air rant to media. 

CBC has since defended the employees for what arbitrator Lorne Slotnick determined was a “breach of his privacy.” 

Tait, executive vice-president English services Barb Williams and executive vice-president of French services Michel Bissonnette responded to the decision in a Jan. 25 memo to CBC staff in which they referenced “a lack of trust and palpable hurt” raised in internal meetings. “While we do not agree with some aspects of the decision, we will not pursue it further,” they wrote.

A letter signed by more than 100 CBC workers, reported Vice News senior editor Manisha Krishnan on Jan. 26, is calling on the broadcaster’s director of journalistic standards role, currently occupied by Paul Hambleton, to be taken over by a committee.

The arbitration report describes Khan’s manager contacting Hambleton for counsel regarding the Cherry tweet. The JSP director responded to affirm that the post violated CBC standards and “that if Mr. Khan ‘wants to be an activist he should step down.’”  

“As Mr. Khan rightly pointed out in the decision, it’s impossible for him to set aside his brown skin for the sake of his job: ‘It’s what I am first before I’m a journalist.’ Suggesting that criticizing racism is some sort of journalistic shortcoming is not only wrong, it is dehumanizing for people of colour and our journalists of colour. It is an attack on their very Person,” reads the letter.

Staff are calling Hambleton to:

  • Move to make the directorship of journalistic standards a panel position rather than a position controlled by a single person.
  • Ensure that future applications of the JSP do not discriminate against journalists of colour.
  • Clarify that the public critique of racism is acceptable.
  • Address [his] comments and take questions from CBC employees in an all-staff meeting

Hambleton responded to the letter Tuesday, saying he regrets the “hurt, anger and frustration” caused by his words included in the arbitrator’s report, and indicated that amid the ongoing review of CBC’s guidelines, the broadcaster is “committed to appointing a small cabinet of Black, Indigenous and journalists of colour who can advise [his] office on difficult JSP calls around race.”

In response to a request for comment about CMAC’s intervention and concerns about editorial guidelines, CBC spokesperson Leon Mar told J-Source that they would respond to issues outlined during the hearings in the upcoming reply phases and reiterated their plan to review how the JSPs are interpreted. “A working group of journalists, many of whom are Black, Indigenous or people of colour, is addressing several key areas; their considerations will undoubtedly impact the way we work, going forward. In fairness to that process, we need to see it through before commenting further,” said Mar.

Part of the criticism of the CBC since Khan’s arbitration decision was published hinges on the double standard reflected by a news organization mandated to investigate matters of public interest, but that punishes whistleblowers in its own ranks.

In an interview, Marouf described a slew of documents CMAC was pointed to in lieu of fulfilling its information requests. He described a trove of largely redacted documents, up to 1,700 pages long in unsearchable, image PDF format.

“So it was actually just adding to the burden on the public interest groups. For us to engage, it was becoming more and more expensive with [this] data dump that is irrelevant and impossible to help anybody, but then that data dump is claimed as access to information,” Marouf told J-Source.

“The CRTC not being much more aggressive with noncompliant broadcasters, like the CBC, emboldens them to throw all this burden on the public to do the research.”

The Khan arbitration decision represents among the more recent flashpoints in discussions about how whiteness in leadership and discriminatory workplace cultures in media bear on the execution of editorial norms and reader and source trust. 

Toronto Star columnist and internal ombudsperson Shree Paradkar concluded in a Jan. 15 column that the CBC damaged its own reputation after firing Khan for actions with “reputational impacts for the CBC.”

After the siege of the United States Capitol and in the wake of Khan’s arbitration victory, an editorial, co-signed by Canadian Association of Black Journalists, Canadian Journalists of Colour, Media Girlfriends, Journalists for Human Rights, the Coalition for Women in Journalism, the Canadian Journalism Foundation and the Canadian Association of Journalists, under the newly formed Canadian Journalists Anti-Racism Coalition, described the flaws in practice that continue to result in the punishment of media workers who denounce racism publicly. 

“Racism is not a matter of controversy. It is widely accepted as wrong. And so there is no need to be impartial on the topic, no matter how powerful the person who is using the racist language.”

Barriers to access consultations an ‘institutional failure’

The dynamics of systemic racism at the French arm of the broadcaster are strained further still, says Ricardo Lamour, a Black artist and co-organizer of the open letter, “Absence of racialized voices at CRTC public hearings,” which calls the barriers to the consultations process “an institutional failure” and describes how editorial positioning at SRC excludes non-white residents from its concept of audience.

“The pandemic has disproportionate [impacts] on racialized communities, so how did the CRTC take this into consideration when the people that know about their processes are part of the procedures, know how to subscribe, how to do the interventions, but so many people in this day and age who four months after the first throne speech that addresses systemic racism, there’s just no representation of racialized people during the hearings.”

The CRTC responded to the letter, which was addressed to CRTC chair and CEO Ian Scott, Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault and Tait, on Jan. 25.

“The Commission invited and encouraged all Canadians to submit their views. In the course of this proceeding, the Commission received more than 20,000 interventions. During the hearing, the Corporation was questioned extensively on these issues, and the Commission continues to pursue questions with the intervenors,” reads the CRTC response, signed by Scott Shortliffe, executive director of broadcasting.

 “The Commission wishes to assure you that it will take into account concerns regarding the reflection of Canada’s diversity raised during this process in making its decision.”

The CRTC did not address specific questions surrounding structural impediments to accessing the public process. 

Lamour had previously sent inquiries to the CRTC regarding the value of CBC’s licences, a full list of those who submitted recommendations, what strategies they have in place to “ensure consequential and non-stereotypical representation of Indigenous and racialized people in the public space,” and the existence of any equity, diversity and inclusion plans they have on file, citing concerns about access to the license renewal consultations and process.

The CRTC responded to confirm receipt.

“If there’s a pandemic, you can’t do business as usual like you were doing it because the inequalities are only going to be exacerbated,” Lamour told J-Source. “If there was a gap, well the gap is only becoming stronger. If there was a digital divide, well now, it’s no longer a divide, it’s a Grand Canyon. We’re no longer reaching populations the same … the key information as to how people can influence processes, those key informations are not always disseminated.”

“I have a certain strong relationship with the public broadcaster and I just feel like we need a better CBC and SRC and we need a more inclusive CBC and SRC. And the context has changed now and more and more people want to see shows where you have two racialized people speaking one another and not apologizing for tackling topics in a broad way and even criticizing our society to make it better.” – Ricardo Lamour

He said he’s filed more than 40 information requests to the CBC since 2016, often requesting budgetary information about independent productions. 

In August, Lamour a submitted complaint after he was invited to appear as a guest on a radio program and was present as the N-word was used shortly before having to go on air. 

“I had to submit complaints to [the] French ombudsman to say that it’s not normal that I get invited to do an interview and I have to hear the N-word discussed by two white journalists, and then I get on air to do my bit, and they have no shame in using the word.” 

Ombudsperson Guy Gendron rejected his complaint.

The open letter included accounts of creators who say they’ve been told that proposals centring on racial minorities or anti-racist framing aren’t suitable for programming, including a pitch focused on Canadians of Asian decent which was deemed “very niche” and lacking “societal value for Canadians.”

“[There’s] linguistic duality, but there’s a certain way that the white dominant majority at the CBC and the French SRC is handling diversity, as if they’re sub-Canadians, as if we’re guests in the building, as if the building is not really ours,” said Lamour. 

“But it should be. And it should be shown at the board level, direction level and personnel, staff, fiction, and if people are not able to meet their objectives in terms of having bold fiction, of having both for programming they should not be there. They should be evaluated and they shouldn’t make a career out of leaving us out.”

CBC’s responses to interventions are scheduled to begin Thursday.

Steph Wechsler is J-Source's managing editor.