Media

The perils of CBC

Labour strife threatens the future of the corporation

Anthony Wilson-Smith March 15 1999
Media

The perils of CBC

Labour strife threatens the future of the corporation

Anthony Wilson-Smith March 15 1999

The perils of CBC

Media

Labour strife threatens the future of the corporation

ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH

This just in, coming up on the news: even though his union voted by a margin of 85 per cent last week in favour of a strike, don’t look for Peter Mansbridge on a picket line any time soon. It’s not that Mansbridge, arguably the CBC’s most recognizable face in his role as anchor of The National news, plans to disobey his union, the Canadian Media Guild, by working through a strike: he’ll stay at home. While Mansbridge will not disclose how he voted on the issue of a strike, he says: “I have great confidence in the judgment and wisdom of the people who head our union.” As well, he demonstrated support for striking CBC technicians by flipping hamburgers at a cookout on their behalf—a move that drew widespread coverage from other media. But Mansbridge, who earns an estimated $300,000 a year, told Maclean’s: “At the end of all this, I’m not sure either my company or colleagues are well served if attention focuses on me standing on a picket line, appearing to ask for more money. Our viewers would not understand or appreciate that.”

For now, the effects of the technicians’ walkout are evident in cancelled and disrupted broadcasts of Hockey Night in Canada, reruns of such popular shows as This Hour has 22 Minutes and Royal Canadian Air Farce, endless hours of repeats of Fashion File on CBC Newsworld, and nightly broadcasts of The National that, with their lack of video footage, could be out of the 1950s. And for the moment, the CBC’s unionized employees stand united in agreeing that their demands are reasonable—but many, like Mansbridge, are divided in their emotions.

This week, a federal mediator will oversee new talks between the network and the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada, the union that represents the 2,000 striking technicians. Even as that happens, 3,300 radio and television on-air reporters, hosts and producers—including such familiar figures as Wendy Mesley, Alison Smith, and Jason Moscovitz—are preparing to join the technicians in walking off their jobs, perhaps as early as next week. Although CBC officials will not say what they will do if on-air personnel walk out, the end result would almost certainly be a nearcomplete shutdown of English-language services.

But the usual angry rhetoric in such situations is tempered by fear about the future. Most strikers feel their walkout is justified by years of ongoing job cuts and pay freezes. But they recognize, as striking sound technician Eric Foss says, “the real danger is that many people will simply give up in our absence and tune out the CBC for good.” Adds Foss, a union member who demonstrates his support by walking the picket line outside the CBC’s Toronto headquarters daily: “We’re not exactly hearing a lot of people screaming ‘give us back our Newsworld.’ ” Similarly, says Mesley, host of the popular show Undercurrents'. “I am terrified that someone has to be sacrificed on the altar of budget cuts, and that the target will be the technicians. And I am terribly worried about what will happen to the CBC if this drags on for long.”

In the short term, CBC officials claim that damage from the strike has been minimal: audiences for prime-time programs are off by “less than 20 per cent” despite the fact that most are reruns, says CBC spokeswoman RuthEllen Soles. So far, advertisers who paid for space on affected shows are accepting offers of additional free time on other programs rather than asking for their money back. “CBC has been extremely solicitous in dealing with our people,” says Ann Boden, president of OMD Canada, the country’s largest media-buying group.

And, notes Tony Burman, the head of Newsworld: “As long as the news is quiet, we’re all right.

But if a big event breaks out and we’re not able to cover it, I shudder to think of the long-term damage that does to our morale internally, and our viewers externally.” Still,

CBC officials insist they are proceeding with plans to televise the official birth of the new Arctic territory of Nunavut on April 1.

One sign of the damage that a long-term strike will cause is in the performance of The National, where the absence of technical crew is most marked. Before the strike, the nightly news was drawing more than 900,000 viewers at 10 p.m., compared with about 1.1 million viewers on average for CTV at 11 p.m. By Feb.

24, a week into the strike, CTYs numbers had risen to 1.6 million viewers, while CBC says its audience had fallen to 700,000-plus. And, in a move that rocked the corporation’s journalists and will have clear long-term effects, the CBC announced that it is closing foreign bureaus in Paris, Mexico City and Cape Town. Said a disappointed Mansbridge: “Virtually every time I speak in public about the CBC, I make the point that we offer homegrown, highly trained eyes and ears on the rest of the world for Canadians, and that sets us apart from others. So you can imagine just how devastated I feel by this.”

There is nothing new in the laments about the uncertain future of Canada’s public broadcaster: those have been commonplace ever since 1989, when Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservatives began reducing the size of the CBC budget by a total of $140 million over five years. That was relatively minor compared with the actions of the Liberals, who, after arriving in office in late 1993, slashed $400 million from the corporation’s annual budget, reducing it to $1.1 billion. Now, although concerns about money continue, an increased level of worry is palpable among CBC supporters. That includes a decline in audience

size at all big networks because of the growth of speciality channels and the Internet; a lack of support for the CBC among both the ruling Liberals and opposition parties; and a sense that the corporation is rudderless because of the pending departure this fall of president Perrin Beatty, with no indication from Prime Minister Jean Chretien’s office regarding a successor. “I’m not an alarmist, but there is considerable peril in this situation,” says Vince Carlin, a former head of CBC Newsworld who now runs the journalism program at Toronto’s Ryerson Polytechnic University. ‘This is an ugly convergence of circumstances.” Bill Fox, a former journalist and adviser to Mulroney whose upcoming book Spinwars.ca studies the changing face of the media, uses strikingly similar language: “You get the sad sense of seeing the CBC imploding through an unfortunate confluence of events.”

The most immediate problems are the strike of technicians and the threat of a strike of producers and on-air personnel. (The only two areas in the country unaffected are the province of Quebec and Moncton, N.B., where English and French personnel operate under separate contracts and unions that negotiate with Radio-Canada). The technicians walked out on Feb. 16, after their demands for a three-year contract providing job security, limits on contracting out, and pay increases averaging five per cent a year were rejected. The CBC is

offering a three-year deal that would provide a $700 signing bonus, three-per-cent raises in each of the next two years, and a freeze in the following year. The CBC has made a similar offer of six per cent to Canadian Media Guild members over the next two years. Neither group has had an increase since 1992.

Of the two groups, the technicians are the more aggressive in their demands. Their group has been hard hit by cuts, and by demands that union members learn multitasking—a requirement that one person perform tasks that were once the work of two or three people. The technicians „ earn, on average, about $56,000 a year, including annual salaries averaging $42,000, with over| time making up the rest. Pri| vately, some CBC journalists £ and outside observers believe £ that the technicians are being unnecessarily intransigent in their opposition to change, particularly in the use of new technology and the development of online services. “You get the impression that the CBC is like the old railroads, with featherbedding, unnecessary manning, and an inability to fix itself,” says Fox.

Another problem is the frosty relationship between the CBC and the Liberals—and, critics say, the Prime Minister in particular. “This government has expressed hostility to the CBC’s basic job of journalism,” says Carlin. That suggestion is sharply denied by Peter Donolo, Chretien’s communications director: “We, as always, fully support public broadcasting in this country.” Adds Donolo: “On a personal level, I think CBC reporters in Ottawa would agree that relations between us and them are excellent.” But Chretien’s annoyance sometimes shines through. In a 1998 year-end interview with Maclean’s, when pressed about the fact that many of the CBC’s board of directors have strong Liberal ties, he grimaced and responded: “Yes, but it’s not very visible when I watch the news.”

Privately, Chrétien and his advisers have long resented coverage on the French-language Radio-Canada side, which they regard as heavily pro-sovereigntist. On the English side, the PMO is angry over

MEDIA_

the CBC’s coverage of the APEC affair, questioning the Prime Minister’s role in the 1997 incident in which protesters at a conference of Asian and North American political leaders in Vancouver were pepper-sprayed by the RCMP. Donolo complained to the CBC after learning that reporter Terry Milewski had provided advice and encouragement to the protesters.

Many people within the CBC say there are indications that the liberals are trying to put the corporation on a short leash. They are alarmed by the proposal that the CBC put a maple leaf on its logo—a move which, critics say, marks a step into transforming the corporation into a voice of the state, rather than an independent entity. A story in the National Post suggested that the government wanted the French and English networks to establish a new position of “news manager” in Ottawa, who would be more responsive to government concerns.

Donolo says the Post’s report is “complete, unfounded fiction.” He adds that the maple leaf story grew from a Treasury Board study that said government bodies were not “using the brand [traditional symbols of Canada] enough in their identification.” The idea, Donolo says, “was a theoretical one, and never targeted at the network.”

Perhaps the best test of the government’s intentions will come with the appointment of a new president. Beatty’s term was to expire in March, but he is staying until autumn to oversee the CBC’s licencerenewal efforts at the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, whose hearings begin in mid-May. Chrétien, asked by Maclean’s when he would announce his choice, would say only that it would be “this year.” The leading candidate is believed to be Robert Rabinovitch, a fluently bilingual former federal deputy minister of communications with Liberal ties—he was fired by the Mulroney Conservatives in 1985—who now works for Charles Bronfman’s Claridge Inc. Other possibilities include former TVOntario president and longtime CBC executive Peter Herrndorf, James McCoubrey, the current chief operating officer, who is recuperating from a car accident, and Trina McQueen, president of the Discovery Channel.

Even within the CBC, there is agreement that the corporation has, in the past, caused many of its own misfortunes. Mansbridge cites the ill-

fated 1991 move of the nightly news to 9 p.m.—a decision made, ironically, by Ivan Fecan, now the chief executive officer at CTV, when he was at CBC—as “a disaster in every way that took us years to recover from.” As well, CBC officials have often hedged on or reversed key decisions, with costly results. In 1991, faced with the need to cut $108 million, the CBC either closed or sharply reduced operations at 11 regional stations. That appeared to indicate a move away from regional programs and towards an emphasis on national programming. But in recent years, the CBC has increased spending on regional programming in the news area. Many news executives believe the money would be better spent on national news—and that the closure of foreign bureaus could, and should, have been avoided by making cuts at the I regional level.

I Virtually everyone at the CBC is 0 touchy about the corporation’s long! standing image as the overstaffed home * of underworked journalists. Mesley, who 1 joined the CBC in 1981 and describes herself as “a lifer,” told Maclean’s: “If that

were ever true, those days are over. We’ve heard the criticisms, we’ve taken it all to heart, and, by God, we’ve changed.”

The sad irony is that after several difficult years, the broadcasting season began well on a variety of fronts. Although the audience for speciality channels across North America has grown by 19 per cent since last September— and audiences for private broadcasters have fallen by eight per cent—CBC had, as of the start of this year, managed to keep its primetime numbers stable. That, says Soles, “shows the wisdom of going to all-Canadian programming.” As well, The National had been showing improvement in its audience share. Still, as critics observe, the CBC’s English television service now attracts less than 10 per cent of viewers in prime time—while all taxpayers finance it. That feeds the argument in right-wing circles that the CBC should be drastically reshaped or privatized—and the present labour problems add fuel to that argument.

CBC defenders say the issue is not only who watches television—but also what they see. Mesley, whose program has tackled everything from the ethics of television sponsors to the money journalists make from speeches to private groups, cites her personal exposure to the difference between public and private broadcasting. When Undercurrents was taken off the air two years ago—a decision later rescinded —Mesley was so upset that she approached officials at other networks “who had always told me how much they’d love to have the show.” But when the officials, whom Mesley would not name, were offered the opportunity, “it became apparent that the only way I could sell the show would be by transforming it into a sickly sweet, toothless thing. Only a public broadcaster has the guts to do otherwise.”

But now, Mesley suggests, the CBC’s willingness to make enemies with its journalism may be the cause of its undoing: “It’s in the interest of the private networks to get rid of us, and we can’t even defend ourselves. Because we work for the taxpayer, we have no lobbyists or public relations people to speak on our behalf.” But as problems persist at the corporation, the growing concern is not who speaks for the CBC—but whether anyone is listening. □