When an institution that I can remember from my childhood—a staggeringly long time ago—starts to rot, it’s usually from the head, like the proverbial fish. We cannot blame the MotherCorpse’s current condition, of course, on the Harper government, or the squad of yespersons he has appointed to the CBC’s board. Indeed, the smell could first be detected when Brian Mulroney showed his hand by appointing the far Right, CBC-hating John Crispo in 1991, and then trimming the CBC budget.
Under Jean Chrétien, things grew far worse: he chainsawed that budget to levels that in some years were lower than Harper’s allocations until 2010-11—when the Conservative government really went to town, slashing and burning the CBC to its lowest funding levels in decades. Local programming, once an integral part of the CBC service, lies in shreds. International shortwave and satellite broadcasting are gone.
Add to that the appointment of the ridiculous Richard Stursberg in 2004, who stayed in place for six more years. Stursberg wanted to wrest control of the CBC (English) from the “elites,” which is marketspeak for selling schlock to the rubes. Under his dubious reign CBC news became a joke: talking heads telling us what to think and reporters cribbing their info from other news sources. Much of the entertainment programming was mush, like the cringeworthy Little Mosque on the Prairie. The person who appointed him was then-CEO Robert Rabinovich, who pointlessly locked out CBC staff in 2005 to show them who was boss, cutting Canadians off from much of the talent that remained there. Stursberg coarsened and cheapened the CBC, while Rabinovich drowned it in freelancers, firing talented people like Barbara Budd as he did so.
Governments all hate the CBC: they would prefer it to act like a state broadcaster, not a watchdog, which it used to be, at least to some extent. Years of laying waste to talent, and bone-deep cuts, had to have a cumulative effect. And they did. The CBC is now an empty husk, where everyone looks over their shoulders, fearing cross looks or worse from their Conservative overlords. Speaking truth to power? Soft lobs to power have become the order of the day. Take Peter Mansbridge’s fawning year-end interviews with Stephen Harper—please—or the seeming inability of Evan Solomon to ask incisive questions on Power and Politics.
Then we have the Cult of the Curmudgeon: the grating T-Rex, making Cross Country Checkup simply unbearable to listen to, and the antic dotard whose “work” is to talk like a hillbilly for a couple of minutes during Hockey Night in Canada, raking in fabulous amounts of taxpayers’ cash for doing so. And don’t forget the slobbish Kevin O’Leary, now thankfully departed for greener pastures. (Yet to some, the CBC is irremediably left-wing. The cognitive dissonance here is enough to tear a Toronto phone book in half.)
For its part, CBC management has become ossified, timorous and incompetent.
What could possibly go wrong? Well, as it unsurprisingly turns out, plenty. A moral anomie descended, despite the wording of its Code of Conduct, from which I excerpt, with some emphases:
2. Respect for People
CBC/Radio-Canada employees shall respect human dignity and the value of every person by:
2.1 Treating every person with respect and fairness.
2.2 Valuing diversity and the benefit of combining the unique qualities and strengths inherent in a diverse workforce.
2.3 Helping to create and maintain safe and healthy workplaces that are free from harassment and discrimination.
2.4 Working together in a spirit of openness, honesty and transparency that encourages engagement, collaboration and respectful communication.
CBC/Radio-Canada employees shall serve the public interest by:
3.1 Acting at all times with integrity and in a manner that will bear the closest public scrutiny, an obligation that may not be fully satisfied by simply acting within the law.
3.2 Never using their official roles to inappropriately obtain an advantage for themselves or to advantage or disadvantage others.
3.3 Taking all possible steps to prevent and resolve any real, apparent or potential conflicts of interest between their official responsibilities and their private affairs in favour of the public interest.
First it got out that Peter Mansbridge and the aforesaid T-Rex were getting lucrative speaking engagements from Big Oil ‘n’ Gas, at the same time as they were supposed to be reporting on them. A public outcry ensued, and “the rules were changed”—at least for Mansbridge, but less so for Murphy, who will merely have to disclose his paid speaking engagements, and presumably carry on as before.
Review the wording of the Code, above. Anyone familiar with public service conflict of interest rules knows that “apparent” conflicts of interest are supposed to be avoided with the same assiduity as real ones. Public trust is at issue. Even if you have done nothing wrong, your behaviour shouldn’t look wrong.
Clearly neither Mansbridge nor Murphy didn’t look very good when the news broke—hence the changes in rules, weak as they were. And what of using their official roles to obtain pecuniary advantage? Would either of these two worthies be invited to speak anywhere were it not for their public broadcasting roles?
The next bombshell was Jian Ghomeshi, who was in part a symptom of the mephitic corporate culture within the CBC. I needn’t dwell on this point, but a few comments: first, the Ghomeshi was the CBC’s eggs-in-one-basket, a star who was keeping the corporation on the dial, and who was hence untouchable. On-site, he harassed women; offsite, be savagely abused them. This was well-known inside and outside the CBC. But one person who dared to complain to management was simply asked to find a way around this ticking human time bomb. (Her union didn’t cover itself with glory either.) So much for maintaining safe and healthy workplaces that are free from harassment and discrimination. When this exploded into the public arena, well after the fact, a couple of managers were placed on leave. Retroactive ethics are always the most useful kind, to be applied only when wrongdoing becomes too well known.
Then we had the revelation this past Fall that veteran CBC reporter Terry Milewski sat on a huge scoop concerning Canadian government surveillance by Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC). There is some suggestion that he did so on purely ideological grounds, because he actually supported the surveillance. But whatever the reason, CBC dropped the ball on that major story. Or, rather, threw the ball to the ground with great force.
Now, with the Amanda Lang revelations, we have been dragged much further into the swamp. Lang—the other half of the former stone-cold-boring Right-fest known as the Lang and O’Leary Exchange, stands accused of trying to sabotage a story by her colleague Kathy Tomlinson about the Royal Bank of Canada’s misuse of temporary foreign workers, while speaking and writing favourable commentary about the RBC. Not only the RBC benefited from her tender ministrations: a few weeks ago it was revealed that she gave favourable coverage on her show to a couple of insurance companies, while receiving money from them for more speaking appearances. The brash Canadaland earned its stripes yet again when it briskly followed up with a devastating revelation: Lang was literally in bed with the RBC while she was reporting on it.
Of course we got the usual swift denials from the same source as the swift Ghomeshi denials—some low-level munchkin named Chuck Thompson trying to put his finger in the dike. Then we got the longer denials—from the CBC brass-hat Jennifer McGuire, who accused Canadaland of having some kind of unspoken agenda (a pretty desperate move, frankly), and then from Lang herself.
These responses are most notable for what they omit. They contain detailed rebuttals, to the effect that nothing bad went on and that some of Canadaland’s reported facts were inaccurate. Why, the CBC knew all about Lang’s relationship with an RBC Board member in 2012, and put “appropriate protocols” in place. Nothing to see here. Please move along, and remember to keep your eyes closed.
But the replies make no mention whatsoever of the CBC’s Code of Conduct.
Remember that “apparent conflict of interest” proviso?
Are all these revelations “apparent” enough for you?
They are for me. I can no longer defend yet another horribly broken institution, once a landmark that helped to pull this country together. At this juncture it really doesn’t matter who broke it—one can level blame at more parties than we have fingers to point. But surely the time has now come to bury it before the stink of decomposition overpowers us all.
UPDATE: Kathy Tomlinson on Amanda Lang.