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Read the Broadcasting Act! Explaining the CBC to Stephen Harper

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Are the Conservatives interfering with the CBC in a dangerous way -- or just seeing to it that salaries at crown corporations fall in line with those in the private sector?

One thing is certain: this government is definitely inserting itself into collective bargaining at the CBC, and at other crown corporations -- entities which, historically, have operated at arm's length from government.

The Conservatives are quite unabashed about this, and they are not fazed by the argument that this sort of interference has never happened before.

Predictably, Parliamentary Secretary (and Harper's current chief purveyor of anger), Pierre Poilievre, characterizes this Conservative initiative as taking on the "union bosses."

As a result of measures slipped into the most recent Budget Implementation Bill, from now on there will be Treasury Board officials present whenever CBC, Via Rail or Canada Post managers sit down with their employees' representatives.

The government's aim is to more closely supervise the crown corporations. It not only wants crown corporation salaries, benefits and pensions to match the private sector's; it also wants those salaries, etc. to match those of the public service.

That's all out in the open, and contentious enough.

But, at least in the case of the CBC, does the government have other less obvious objectives than merely controlling staff costs (and giving those "union bosses" an elbow to the ribs in the process)?

Is there more to all this than mere money?

Turning the CBC into a state broadcaster?

The union that represents a good chunk of CBC employees thinks so, as does the advocacy group the Friends of Canadian Broadcasting.

The union, the Canadian Media Guild, says this move "undermines nearly 80 years of public broadcasting in Canada by meddling with the essential arms-length relationship between the CBC and the government of the day."

The CBC is designed, by the Broadcasting Act of 1991, to be an independent, 'public' broadcaster, not an instrument of 'state' propaganda.

The Media Guild argues that the government's inserting itself into CBC staff relations -- which are crucial to so much the corporation does -- "is disturbing, as it has all the markings of an attempt to turn the CBC into a state [as opposed to public] broadcaster."

Canada's Broadcasting Act is fairly clear about the role and mandate of the CBC, and the degree of autonomy the Corporation should have to manage itself as it sees fit.

"The Corporation," the Act says, "Shall. . .enjoy freedom of expression and journalistic, creative and programming independence."

On the question of staffing, the Act is simple and quite precise:

"The Corporation may, on behalf of Her Majesty, enter into contracts in the name of Her Majesty or in the name of the Corporation ..." To which it then adds: "The officers and employees employed by the Corporation shall ... be employed on such terms and conditions and at such rates of remuneration as the Board deems fit."

Finally, just to make sure politicians in power who might want to mess with the CBC's full independence in staffing get the message, the Act stipulates that "the officers and employees employed by the Corporation ... are not officers or servants of Her Majesty."

As for any role for Treasury Board in the management of the CBC -- well, the Broadcasting Act does, in fact, foresee one, although it has nothing to do with staffing:

"The Treasury Board," the Act says, "May make regulations prescribing the form in which corporate plans and summaries ... shall be prepared ..."

That's the only mention in the Act of any direct implication of Treasury Board in CBC's affairs: regulating the Corporation's periodic reports to Parliament.

There is not a word about Treasury Board regulating or supervising staffing decisions, in any way, while the Act goes to great lengths to affirm CBC’s autonomy in hiring, contracting and collective bargaining.

Public broadcasting is anathema to standard conservative ideology

It is difficult to know what the Conservatives' actual policy goals are for the CBC -- or for the cultural and broadcasting sectors in general. There is nary a word, in any of their publicly available policy documents, on these vital areas.

The party's official website, for instance, outlines Conservative priorities on 22 policy areas, from balanced budgets to the long-gun registry to trade, but there is nothing on broadcasting, culture or the CBC.

In the past, Canadian Heritage Minister, James Moore, widely considered one of the least ideological members of Harper's team, has expressed support, in principle, for CBC. In fact, insiders say the Minister endured verbal thrashings from some of his caucus colleagues for being too soft on the CBC.

But whatever Moore thinks, the very notion of government being involved in broadcasting, especially in the Internet age, runs counter to core, free-market, conservative beliefs.

Andrew Coyne writes frequently about how the CBC is redundant and how broadcasting is an inappropriate activity for the public sector. He is not alone. His views are widely shared in both the small-c and large-C Conservative communities.

Outside of Conservative circles, on the other hand, many feel great ambiguity toward the Corporation. Who could entirely love a broadcaster that chose to give such pride of place to the likes of Kevin O'Leary, Rex Murphy and Don Cherry?

Those Muses of the Right appear to be a key part of a too-obvious effort on the Corporation's part to pander to Harper and his friends.

It doesn't seem to be working -- perhaps because the CBC also puts on shows such as The Current and As it Happens, and does investigative reports of the sort that drew the curtain on the Royal Bank's outsourcing practices, and forced Conservative Peter Penashue to resign and face a by-election.

CBC must offend politicians if it is to do its job

The truth is that no party in power has ever, it seems, really liked the CBC.

Progressive Conservative John Diefenbaker, more than 60 years ago, publicly complained about the opinions expressed on CBC Radio's daily 'Preview/Commentary.'

Pierre Trudeau considered the French services of the CBC -- Radio-Canada -- to be nests of separatists, and Jean Chrétien was similarly inclined, especially during the 1995 Quebec referendum. Back in 1995, some in Ottawa took to calling Radio-Canada's newly-created all-news television service, RDI, "le réseau de l’indépendence."

It seems that however much politicians might pay lip service to the idea of an independent CBC, once in power, very few like it. They somehow can't get used to the fact that anyone funded by taxpayer dollars might call them to account.

In addition, among Ottawa politicians there is also the widespread misconception that the CBC is fat and inefficient compared to the private broadcasters.

Until not too long ago, Ottawa political types used to complain that they routinely received multiple calls for CBC interviews on the subject of the day, while CTV, for example, would, normally, only call once.

Those Ottawa folks were forgetting that CTV runs one general and one all-news television service, and that's it.

CBC runs two radio networks in each official language, an all news and general television service in each official language, a northern service, Aboriginal language services, an international service, and a number of specialty channels.

The English-speaking Ottawa crowd's understanding of CBC seems to be, for the most part, limited to one piece of the overall picture: English television.

Policy formed through serious discussion or implemented by stealth?

Again, when they make invidious comparisons between the CBC and the private sector, too many politicians forget that while the privates fill their prime time schedule with American shows, CBC is nearly 100% Canadian.

Still, despite all the prejudices and misconceptions toward the CBC, in the current environment -- where the Internet service Netflix has the most talked about show this season in the United States, and where more and more people make no distinction between over-the-air broadcasting and what is available on the Internet -- it is probably time to take a hard look at the mandate, role, funding and prospects of the CBC, and of the entire broadcasting sector in Canada.

We cannot forget that the CBC is not the only part of the broadcasting sector that gets public dollars. The private networks benefit from taxpayer dollars too, in a variety of ways, and from the Canadian regulatory environment.

There is a rule, for example, that allows Canadian privates to simulcast U.S.-broadcast programs while assuring that all versions of those shows available in Canada -- even those on the U.S. channels -- carry the commercials the Canadian privates networks sell.

It is a big and complicated area of public policy, on which the current government has evinced no interest in starting any sort of open-ended and public conversation.

It is hard to imagine that the Conservatives do not have their own plans for the CBC; but they would rather proceed by stealth. That seems to be their style; or, by now, is it more of a pathological habit?

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