The CBC building in Ottawa. Photo courtesy of Andrevruas/CC BY-SA 3.0.

Public broadcasting, private boardrooms

Inside the push to put workers on CBC’s board of directors. Continue Reading Public broadcasting, private boardrooms

Much like hockey and Tim Horton’s, the CBC is an integral Canadian institution. Yet, while many Canadians may know about the rules on the ice and the various coffee cup sizes you can order, few know much about the CBC and its inner workings.

Despite the CBC being a crown corporation that is funded by the public, many of us remain in the dark about how it is governed.  

The CBC is run by a 12-person board of directors, each of whom is appointed by the Minister of Canadian Heritage, who also appoints the president of the CBC. The process of deciding who gets to be on the board has not been without controversy, especially over the last two decades, under both Liberal and Conservative governments. During the Harper years, the Prime Minister was accused of stacking the board with Conservative Party loyalists. Former Radio-Canada executive Alain Saulnier has written about how Hubert Lacroix, CBC president during the Harper years, took direction from ministers and interfered with news coverage. Later in 2016, Brian Mitchell, a member of the CBC board who had been appointed by Harper, stepped down to run for president of the Conservative Party.

Two years after the Trudeau government came to power, in 2017, it announced changes to the appointment process. An Independent Advisory Committee on Appointments was created to select candidates to recommend to the minister — but ultimately it is still the minister who appoints the candidates.

Friends of Canadian Broadcasting, also known as FRIENDS, a not-for-profit organization that advocates for public broadcasting, has long called for the board appointment process to be independent from the government. Daniel Bernhard, executive director of FRIENDS, says that while the creation of the committee is a step in the right direction, it does not go far enough.

“We’d like for an independent panel to have the authority to select board members without political interference of any kind,” he said.

For the first time, in 2017, the committee accepted applications from individuals for consideration. Among the applicants were three CBC/Radio-Canada employees: Lise Lareau, Natalie Clancy, and Rufo Valencia. These staff applications were put forward around the same time that the unions that represent workers at the CBC and Radio Canada, the Canadian Media Guild (CMG), Syndicat des communications de Radio-Canada (SCRC), Confédération des syndicats nationaux (CSN) and Association of Professionals and Supervisors (APS), called for union representation on the CBC board. According to Jonathan Spence, president of CMG’s CBC branch, the CBC has yet to respond to this proposal.  

Who can and cannot serve on the CBC’s board is regulated by the Broadcasting Act. According to section 38 of the act, those who are “engaged (as owner, shareholder, director, officer, partner or otherwise) in the operation of a broadcasting undertaking” are not eligible to be appointed as a director.

When asked about this stipulation and about the unions’ proposal for staff representation, Eric Girard, a spokesperson for the Department of Canadian Heritage said that new process for appointments also applies to union members.

“Each applicant would need to be assessed on a case-by-case basis. Intended appointees to the CBC/Board of Directors must meet the eligibility requirements of section 38 of the Broadcasting Act” said Girland.

Late last December, the CBC announced the new directors and while none of the present CBC employees were appointed to the board, a former employee, Marie Wilson was. Wilson spent over 20 years at the CBC working in the north, as part of a 35-year career in journalism. From 2009 to 2015, she served as a Truth and Reconciliation commissioner.

This isn’t the first time that the CBC’s employees have called for board representation. When Lise Lareau was president of the CMG, back in 2001, the union submitted a proposal to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage during a review of Canadian broadcasting. In it, the union called for a public selection process for board members but also for two employee directors to be added to the board, one from the CBC and one from Radio Canada. The would be elected by fellow workers at the CBC.  

Lareau, says that union’s suggestions were ignored and the years that followed were characterized, at times, by a rocky relationship between the CBC and its staff. Lareau believes that staff representation on the board is important to avoid such issues.  

“They (staff) understand and can often predict the tangible on-the-ground impact of decisions the board is tasked to make,” says Lareau.

The 2001 CMG document cites the Australian Broadcasting Company as an example for staff representation; the ABC has one elected staff member who sits on the board and the rules governing the election of said representative are enshrined in the ABC Act of 1983.

In France, the French broadcaster, France Televisions also has two staff representatives who sit on its board. Just this past month, in Spain, the country’s congress approved reforms aimed at bolstering the state broadcaster’s independence, by changing the way its board is appointed. Staff at the broadcaster, RTVE, had pushed for months for changes –– potential directors will now have to have an application publicly assessed by an advisory board and get 2/3rds approval in congress.

Back in Canada, at most large media organizations, public and private, staff do not get a say at the board table. TVO, Ontario’s public broadcaster, has no seats for staff on its board, nor do the large publishing conglomerates, Torstar and Postmedia. Canada currently has no legislation which mandates that corporate boards have some form of employee representation, but many European countries do.

Under new rules introduced by the UK government last year, companies in the UK now must have some form of employee representation on their boards – whether that be having a worker serve as the company’s director, appointing a worker to be an employee representative on the board, or forming a worker’s council to liaison with the board. Some experts say that these changes in the UK could lead to eventual regulatory changes in Canada.

While the creation of the advisory committee is a positive step, employees argue that more needs to be done, namely that the board needs to create a seat for a member of staff.  The CBC’s union members argue that the push for employee representation isn’t merely about workers having a say, like it may be at private media outlets – it’s about keeping the publicly funded national broadcaster accountable to the people.

“The CBC is a public asset that belongs to the people of Canada – it exists because we wanted it, and it’s up to all of us to be vigilant in making sure it remains strong. A robust Board of Directors made up of respected and representative members of the community is key to instilling faith in the institution,” said Spence.  

Lareau agrees. “Employees are a valuable link between the public and the board because they hear directly from Canadians and audiences as part of their jobs. Good decision-making happens when the decision-makers have the best intelligence and information to work with,” she said.

Last month, the government launched a review of the Broadcasting Act, the Telecommunications Act and the Radiocommunications Act. An independent panel will review the respective pieces of legislation and make recommendations. According to Girard, the panel will also be looking at how to how to reinforce the public broadcaster’s independence. The panel is set to announce its findings by January 31st 2020 and as part of the process will be consulting industry stakeholders and the public. Further steps in the review are to be announced in the coming months.

Abdullah Shihipar is the first-ever J-Source/CWA Canada Reporting Fellow. Shihipar has written about the media and social issues for numerous publications, including the Globe and Mail, Quartz, VICE, CANADALAND, Torontoist and NOW Magazine.