There are those who say that many of the reasons we need a national, public broadcaster no longer exist because of new technologies. But Jo-Ann Roberts, Canadian Media Guild member and CBC host of All Points West, argues that it is those very technologies, and who controls them, that makes the CBC more important than ever.

By Jo-Ann Roberts

There’s nothing like hockey to get your attention in this country. So now that we know CBC has lost the rights to NHL games, let’s talk.

We can start by making sure we talk to the ongoing Senate committee that's reviewing the CBC. The committee is chaired by Liberal Sen. Dennis Dawson and has started holding public hearings. According to Postmedia News, the senators are examining “the CBC’s role in Canadian society by examining how it has used billions of dollars in government subsidies received over the years.” “Subsidies” is an interesting choice of words. Some would say it is the cost of having a public broadcaster – and the lowest one at that across major Western countries ( $31 for every Canadian v. a median of $80 per capita in other OECD countries).

Dawson said the committee will seek out viewers and stakeholders across the country to evaluate their feedback on the service they are getting from the public broadcaster. He added that senators will also hear from CBC management, as well as competitors from the private sector.


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I’m sure Sen. Dawson is aware that as citizens and taxpayers in this country we are all shareholders in the CBC and as such should be able to have our say. I also hope that Sen. Dawson’s committee wants to hear from non-management employees at CBC, who are the majority of the workforce and in many cases the ones who know how the recent budget cuts have been felt “on the floor.”

The value of something: 83 per cent believe CBC is important in protecting Canadian identity and culture

I work at the CBC. I started in 1978. I’ve been a reporter for both radio and TV and for the past 20 years I have been a local radio host, first on the East Coast and now on the West Coast. I want to make it clear that I am writing this article on my own time and in my capacity as a local union representative. I understand the fear of some that we at the CBC must not be seen to be using public money (tax dollars do, in the end, pay 60 per cent of my salary) to defend ourselves or promote what we do. There are those who will use anything they can to make it look like we are wasting money. But I think it is time for those of us who are passionate about what we do, and who believe strongly in public broadcasting and its vital role in a democracy, to stand up and be heard.

This became very clear to me last year when I began teaching a course at the University of Victoria on Public Broadcasting. I had been awarded the Harvey Southam Fellowship on Issues in Journalism, which allowed me to develop the course curriculum and research and write a public lecture on the topic of public broadcasting in Canada. I had 60 fascinating students and I learned a lot.

When the course began it is fair to say that most of the students didn’t know much about the CBC. But what I found encouraging was that as they explored the concept of public broadcasting and talked about how CBC had influenced their lives and looked at what it meant to their future, they became defenders of Canada’s public broadcaster and had very good suggestions about ways it could be improved.

I wasn’t shocked that they didn’t think they knew much about the CBC; I didn’t either at their age. But, like them, I knew it made a difference to society and my country.

When I needed the CBC, it was there. It was there with quality kids' programs, it was there pioneering Canadian music and Canadian arts and cultural associations. When I moved from one part of the country to another, it was there to fill me in on what I was missing at home and to introduce me to my new community. I could count on it to include me. My mother in Halifax could hear the same conversation I was hearing in Winnipeg. Those are often qualities about a national public broadcaster that you don’t come to appreciate until you need them.

But, what worries me now is that Canadians have started to take the CBC for granted. Like my students, I think many Canadians have lost sight of what makes a public broadcaster unique. They know it has value: 83 per cent believe that CBC is important in protecting Canadian identity and culture and 81 per cent believe that CBC is one of the things that helps distinguish Canada from the United States (Pollara poll 2009). Unfortunately, it is like many things we value: we don’t know what we have until it’s gone. And then it’s too late.

To tell Canadian stories without political interference for the national good

I hope the Senate committee will talk about the role of a public broadcaster in our society.

I must admit I am concerned when I hear Conservative Sen. Leo Housakos, a deputy chairman of the Senate transportation and communications committee, say “We’re going into this with an open mind to look carefully at what the CBC’s capacity is in a changing environment; where it is and where it needs to be in order to remain competitive, and to be able to provide the cutting edge cultural broadcasting, which is the mandate the CBC has had now for decades, on behalf of Canadians.”

It’s the word “competitive” that worries me. With whom does the CBC compete? The principles of public broadcasting are: universality, diversity, independence and distinctiveness. Those are not the principles of private, for-profit broadcasters. If the committee looks at how CBC funding is being used to ensure that those principles are being met and what is needed to meet them in the future, then I think it will be a very valuable discussion.

There are those who will say that many of the reasons we need a national, public broadcaster no longer exist because of new technologies. But, I would argue that it is those very technologies, and who controls them, that make this conversation more important than ever.

Some historical perspective: when the idea of a public broadcaster was first considered it was because of new technology—radio. In 1924, Maclean’s (now owned by Rogers Media) declared in a headline, “Radio May Remake Our Lives.” The worry was that radio signals from the United States could be picked up in Canada and the possibility existed that the Americans would end up controlling what Canadians listened to.

The CBRC, which became the CBC, was created to ensure that there was a broadcaster who would be mandated to tell Canadian stories without political interference for the national good.

There have been changes to the Broadcasting Act over the years to reflect the technology and the needs of the country. CBC has been at the forefront of change and has continued to fulfill its role as a public broadcaster. It has also continued to play a role in protecting the balance between profit and power and the public.

Pierre Juneau, a former head of the CBC and the first chair of the CRTC, and Chair of the WRTVC (UNESCO World Radio and Television Council) wrote in May 2000 that a public service model of public broadcasting is based on mistrust:

  • mistrust of the ability of market mechanisms to fulfil certain goals,
  • mistrust of the state’s ability to achieve these objectives — inform, educate and entertain and
  • therefore, public broadcasting requires a public organization, at the service of citizens, culture and democracy. At its heart, that is public broadcasting.

It is my belief that we need this form of public broadcasting in Canada more than ever because of the combination of new technologies and the concentration of corporate ownership of media.

Canada finds itself having a handful of large companies that not only create content but also own the platforms that distribute this content, like cable companies and phone companies. Here’s a list of the degree of media concentration in G8 Countries [source: the Boston-based Analysis Group]:

8. Russia – 0 per cent
7. Germany – 7.1 per cent
6. United States – 23.1 per cent
5. France – 27 per cent
4. United Kingdom – 31 per cent
3. Italy – 33 per cent

2. Japan – 37.5 per cent
1. Canada – 81.4 per cent

A perfect example of this is the recent purchase of NHL rights by Rogers Media. Now they own the content, the hockey games, the networks that will carry them, Rogers phones and Sportsnet. Their goal now is to make enough money to make the deal pay a profit. They have no obligation to meet the needs of the public or society.

The price of so much: 82 radio stations, 27 television stations, online and abroad—in French, English and eight indigenous languages

Canada has a public broadcasting corporation that has the respect of broadcasters around the world. And it has done it with far fewer funds than other public broadcasters. In a study of the 18 major western countries with public broadcasters, Canada ranked 16th in terms of government support (Nordicity, April 2011). In 2011, at $34 per inhabitant, CBC’s funding was 60 per cent less than the $87 average. That amount has now dropped to around $31 per Canadian per year.

Successive governments have made cuts to CBC budget. How the money is spent is no secret. You will find audited statements on the CBC website. But, it is important to remember that with the recent federal cuts, the federal funding for the CBC is the lowest it has been since 1999.

So it is important to know what the CBC has been providing for the funding it receives. For less than 10 cents a day per Canadian, CBC/Radio-Canada operates 82 radio stations and 27 television stations across the country. It provides content on multiple platforms and in both official languages. It serves all areas of this country and broadcasts in eight indigenous languages. Internationally, CBC/Radio-Canada News has 14 foreign bureaus, offering the most extensive and in-depth coverage of any Canadian media organization (June 2011). No other broadcaster would offer to compete with the CBC in offering all of these services because it would not be profitable.

As well, the CBC provides a national service and the money invested in the CBC goes right back into the Canadian economy. In evaluating the cost of the CBC cuts in the last budget to the Canadian economy, a study by Deloitte & Touche showed that taking $115 million out of the CBC’s budget would take nearly $400 million out of the Canadian economy (source: Canadian Media Guild). In other words, for every $1 invested, there are almost $4 in economic value.

I encourage everyone who cares about quality public broadcasting in Canada to take the time to let the Senate committee how you feel. British author Anthony Smith, who was writing about the BBC said, it is so important that it has “probably been the greatest of the instruments of social democracy of the century.”* I believe the same could be said of the CBC in Canada. I trust it is an instrument that will still be in working order for the next generation.

*Anthony Smith, quoted by Graham Murdock and Peter Golding, “Common Markets: Corporate Ambitions and Communication Trends in the UK and Europe.” The Journal of Media Economics, Vol. 12, No. 2, 1999, p. 122.

CMG member Jo-Ann Roberts is the Host of All Points West on CBC Radio One, Victoria. This column was originally published by Canadian Media Guild and reprinted here with the organization’s permission.


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