Imagine this was the 1980s and the CBC was suddenly on a feverish buying spree to snap up printing presses and reporters from Winnipeg to Saint John. As daily copies of the CBC Times began hitting Canadian doorsteps, the country might rightly guess whether the national broadcaster may have lost sight of its mandate.
But in the digital era, the exact same takeover has been allowed to occur with nary a whisper: No Senate committees, no “Keep My CBC a Broadcaster” lawn signs. The CBC has quietly become Canada’s largest newspaper, and it didn’t even bother to explain why.
Many of the same voices who decried the consolidation of corporate media (such as Postmedia’s slow-motion monopolization of most English-language daily papers), are now eerily quiet as a similar consolidation takes shape, this time with the backing of the awesome power of the federal treasury.
This is often touted as “saving” Canadian journalism. No less than the authors of “The End of CBC?” cast the broadcaster as the critical player in any solution to Canada’s “crisis” of journalism.
The print sector didn’t need CBC’s help to enter its current fiscal tailspin, but the broadcaster has not refrained from kicking it while it’s down. Just as Canadian newspapers began adjusting to the harsh new reality of fighting over clicks and Facebook shares, the CBC rolled in to do the exact same thing, except without having to worry about quarterly losses.
Even if CBC shifted to a model free of advertising, that doesn’t change the reality of print media trying to sell digital news in a country where a government-subsidized competitor is giving it away for free.
Most galling of all, it is a not-uncommon experience that an original, resource-heavy news story is reprinted within hours on CBC.ca (watch for the phrase “CBC has learned” as an oblique euphemism for “we read this on another news site”).
In the handful of times I’ve delivered talks to student journalists, I’ve been asked more than once how to deal with the phenomenon of CBC yoinking stories from student newspapers without attributing the source (not to say my hands are clean when it comes to yoinking stories from the student press, but I at least embed a link).
In a column two years before her death, the late Christie Blatchford described the surreality of walking into a CBC newsroom and discovering a level of activity she hadn’t seen in decades. “Every desk was filled. Reporters were busy. Phones were ringing. It was bedlam, like every newsroom in the world used to be,” she wrote.
I’ve noticed much the same on my sojourns into various Mother Corp. headquarters, albeit without Blatchford’s memories of thriving public sector equivalents. For the eight years I was at Postmedia, the various Canadian newsrooms I occupied can be best described as Omega Man-esque, with few human survivors.
Despite the claims of its most die-hard enemies, the CBC has never been a government propaganda arm. But if we’re talking about the survival of free and independent journalists, there are good reasons to question its plan to kneecap the last surviving outlets and then poach their employees.
The authors of “The End of CBC?” are correct in noting that the CBC has spent far too much time in places it no longer belongs. “The CBC needs to shed much of its old skin and become solely a news and current affairs organization,” it reads, noting that the broadcaster should instead specialize in content that is “difficult to find anywhere else.”
The CBC can indeed do this when it tries. CBC Indigenous, which first began in 2013, has poured journalistic resources into one of the most chronically underreported sides of Canadian life.
In Quebec, Radio-Canada escapes many of the same calls for defunding for the simple reason that everyone watches it; the chat show “Tout le monde en parle” still witnesses an audience share that most North American broadcasters haven’t seen since the days of Johnny Carson.
And while CBC TV has hemorrhaged viewers to everything from cable TV to Netflix, CBC Radio has still retained its place as the country’s most listened-to radio network. It’s instructive that when Conservative leadership candidate Erin O’Toole promised to take an axe to the CBC, he only threatened the network’s TV and digital news operations. Even a solid Blue Tory in a party filled with dyed-in-the-wool CBC haters, he knew he couldn’t touch “As It Happens.”
“The End of CBC?” wouldn’t be the first to argue that something drastic has to change at CBC. But given the past few years, I remain very skeptical that this change wouldn’t ultimately be a continued annexation of a sector they’re all too willing to help strangle.
Tristin Hopper is editor-in-chief of The Capital, an investigative news startup on Vancouver Island.
© Toronto Star