THE NATION’S BUSINESS

Save the country by salvaging the CBC

The Chrétien government is conspiring to ensure the CBC’s early demise, or to condemn it to the half-life of the National Film Board

Peter C. Newman February 19 1996
THE NATION’S BUSINESS

Save the country by salvaging the CBC

The Chrétien government is conspiring to ensure the CBC’s early demise, or to condemn it to the half-life of the National Film Board

Peter C. Newman February 19 1996

Save the country by salvaging the CBC

The Chrétien government is conspiring to ensure the CBC’s early demise, or to condemn it to the half-life of the National Film Board

THE NATION’S BUSINESS

PETER C. NEWMAN

The understandable fuss caused by the Juneau committee’s silly recommendation that Canadians be dunned about $9 per household per month to support the country’s public broadcaster obscured the report’s worthy purpose: to document why we need the CBC, and prescribe how it can become relevant again.

The funding proposal—which was dreamed up by some rocket scientists at the Toronto accounting house of Ernst & Young, who had never heard of the phrase “politically viable”—would, when fully implemented in 2001, raise more than $1.1 billion for the CBC, compared with its $ 1.36-billion income from Parliament and ad revenues last year. The hypothetical advantage of the scheme was that it would have granted the network what it has always dreamed of: long-term funding independent of the vagaries of governments of the day.

A possible alternative to the doomed Juneau approach might be to place a levy on private broadcasters, getting them to finance the CBC in return for becoming exempt from Canadian content rules. But a much sounder solution would be to hold the Liberals accountable for the promises they made in their Red Book, which got them elected in the fall of 1993. On page 89 of that document, Jean Chrétien was very .specific: “A Liberal government,” he pledged, “will be committed to stable multi-year financing for national cultural institutions such as the CBC.” Three months later, then-Heritage Minister Michel Dupuy was even more specific when he named Anthony Manera the CBC’s new president. “The government,” he wrote in his appointment letter, “considers stable multi-year funding for the CBC as the most effective way of establishing its return to a healthy financing position. I am, therefore, pleased to confirm that the government is prepared to commit itself to such a plan and to affirm that it does not intend to impose new reduc-

tions on the CBC over the next five years.”

Thirteen months later, Dupuy’s department informed Manera that the Liberals had gone back on their pledge and were reducing the CBC’s budget by more than $300 million in the next three years—on top of the $120 million in cuts imposed by the Mulroney government. Contrary to the government’s repeated promises to allow the people’s network the fiscal freedom to do some sensible long-term planning, the Liberals hung the CBC out to dry.

That betrayal suggests that the Chrétien government has lost faith in the CBC as the country’s key national cultural institution and is conspiring to weaken its operations to ensure its early demise, or condemn it to the half-life being endured by the Canada Council and the National Film Board.

That’s a serious situation that demands immediate action. Certainly, English-language CBC television has been losing its audience appeal. Even a decade ago, it was commanding nearly a quarter of its available audience; now, less than 10 per cent of its potential viewers tune in and, with drastically reduced revenues, program quality is bound to suffer. The argument is made that the CBC is dead

anyway, that it cannot—and probably should not—survive in the 500-channel universe, which the technical wonks insist is right around the corner.

The opposite is true. ‘The very power of the 500-channel universe to fragment Canada makes the CBC imperative,” insisted CBC president Manera as he resigned to protest the cuts. He was right. We need the CBC more than ever because, with all its faults, it alone provides the electronic bridge that allows the country to speak to itself.

It’s fashionable for right-wing critics to make fun of Canadian patriots who equate the national destiny with the fate of the CBC. They make their case against public broadcasting in terms of the poor cousin that the CBC has become. But they’re dead wrong in terms of what this country’s public broadcaster could be and should be. Even at its self-indulgent worst, like Adrienne Clarkson’s incestuous irrelevancies, the CBC is the only TV medium we’ve got that can claim significant nation-informing potential.

A good example of how the CBC can redeem itself has been the tragicomic saga of its late-evening news, which lost its clout in 1992 when the network moved the news to 9 p.m. and ditched The Journal, the best program in the CBC’s history. Two years later, having alienated much of their audience, they reversed themselves and moved the news back to its original time slot. Since then, under producer Tony Burman’s inspired direction, The National News has regained most of its following, and is once again helping set the national agenda.

The importance of TV as a force in nation-building can hardly be exaggerated. With our kids watching 900 hours or more of TV a year—and at least 80 per cent of it spreading the gospel of the American way of life—we must maintain a vibrant indigenous alternative.

There’s virtually no chance of resurrecting the national broadcaster with its current mandate, which has been made deliberately vague enough to be meaningless. Five years ago, then-Communications Minister Marcel Masse, who has since come out of the closet as a full-fledged separatist (he recently took over the PQ’s Paris office), severed the link between the CBC and the national purpose. Placed in charge of Canadian culture by Brian Mulroney, he used the guise of a review of the Communications Act to eliminate the CBC’s previous mandate “to promote national unity.” Even though he admitted he was doing so because the directive was “a blatant and unacceptable propaganda tool for strong federalists,” no one in the Tory cabinet tried to stop him. “I have removed the obligation to promote national unity,” Masse boasted at the time, “because it is, first, maintaining this political value artificially and, second, it was a constraint on freedom of expression.”

That was hogwash then and it’s even worse hogwash now. Allow the CBC to survive, so Canada can flourish.