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Amanda Lang scandal legacy of CBC's long corporate metamorphosis

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Photo: kris krüg/flickr

A new scandal blew up at the CBC this week when the website Canadaland published an exposé charging that Amanda Lang, the broadcaster's senior business reporter and host of The Exchange, tried to sabotage an investigative story the CBC produced about abuses committed by the Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) over the temporary foreign worker program (TFWP).

The story aired in April of 2013 and revealed that the RBC was using an Indian company called iGATE Corp. that was bringing in foreign workers under the program, but then allowed the workers to stay in Canada for years, with the intention of using them to replace Canadian workers. The story showed how Canada's biggest bank was using a government program to cruelly exploit defenseless foreign workers while throwing Canadian citizens out of work. After the story aired, the Harper government was forced to alter the program, and RBC got a lot of bad press.

But in the rollout of the story, Canadaland alleges that Lang tried to dismiss the story's importance by arguing that what the RBC was doing was merely outsourcing (in itself, a dreadful practise). Despite not being involved in the story, she was inexplicably allowed to participate in a conference call of the producers who were working on the piece, where she argued the bank's position. After the story aired, the allegation is that the CBC did little follow up -- possibly because of Lang's internal meddling.

In fact, there were a number of things the CBC producers involved in the story didn't know about Lang's surprising intervention, namely: 1) She had been paid up to $15,000 a pop to conduct speaking engagements at RBC-sponsored events; and 2) She was involved in a romantic relationship with a member of the RBC's board of directors, W. Geoffrey Beattie.

Then, immediately after the story aired, Lang invited the RBC's CEO, Gord Nixon, to do an interview on The National where he pissed all over the broadcaster and its story about the bank's TFWP abuses. Lang did a puffball interview, apparently asking no hard questions.

To make matters worse, without informing her bosses, Lang approached the Globe and Mail and penned an op-ed page piece where she championed the practice of companies outsourcing jobs to countries like India.

Despite all this, when the Lang story broke, the CBC brass immediately (and angrily) rushed to her defence. Jennifer McGuire, the CBC's editor-in-chief, vehemently denied Lang had done anything wrong. McGuire, CBC spokesperson Chuck Thompson and Lang herself launched a PR media onslaught, attacking the Canadaland story, saying she had not tried to sabotage the TFWP story.

This is not the only issue where Lang has crossed over into the world of outright corporate flackery. She's also taken paid speaking gigs for the insurance companies Manulife and Sun Life and then had their CEOs on the CBC to do further puffball interviews.

The Lang affair comes hard on the heels of the debacle over the Jian Ghomeshi assault scandal (also broken by Canadaland's owner, journalist Jesse Brown). But while the Ghomeshi affair revealed the craven efforts of CBC's management to protect one of their stars in the face of numerous allegations of assaulting women, the Lang affair speaks to the issue of how the CBC has, in effect, increasingly become a mouthpiece for big business and neo-conservative ideologues.

Transformation of the CBC

I worked at the CBC for nine years, from 2001 to the end of 2009 before I lost my job as a producer on the investigative unit due to budget cuts. I'd joined the CBC as an associate producer at The Fifth Estate and eventually worked at CBC News Sunday as a producer. I owe a lot to the CBC and had the pleasure of working with amazing people on great stories. I still have many friends who work there.

As a result, I saw the beginnings of the metamorphosis of the CBC that begat the Amanda Lang scandal. This change in the CBC's direction began under former CEO Robert Rabinovitch. In 2004, Rabinovitch appointed Richard Stursberg, a millionaire and former head of Telefilm Canada, as vice-president of English services. At the time, CBC English television was in a ratings slump, having been hammered by government cutbacks, competition from other channels and the Internet, as well as uninspired programming.

Stursberg brought a business approach to the CBC, which in practice translated into turning it into a private network backed with public funds. Symphonies and experimental films and documentaries were out, and the Battle of the Blades was in. Meanwhile, The Fifth Estate saw its budgets cut, and moved from a prime-time TV slot on Wednesday nights to the graveyard shift of Friday nights, to make way for a now long-forgotten sitcom called Being Erica.

In 2005, Rabinovitch engineered a showdown with the CBC's main union, the Canadian Media Guild, locking out 5,500 workers (myself included) for two months. Management's goal was to try and get hundreds of positions delegated as contract positions, thereby allowing the brass more ability to get rid of staff whenever they wanted. They won a partial victory in this dust-up.

The CBC was now run like any other textbook corporation, with union-busting embraced. Employee morale sank, stress levels rose, and dread over the constant reality of layoffs and cuts grew. Stursberg emerged as an unpopular if not openly despised figure.

To be fair to Stursberg, the federal government seemed determined to let the CBC die the death of a thousand cuts, especially after the election of the Conservatives in 2006. His solution to this reality was to try and drive up ratings by producing popular programming in the hopes that advertising dollars would follow, which would stem the financial leakage. But he also evinced such open contempt for the news department (which he labeled "Fort News") and current affairs -- the very lifeblood of the CBC's raison d'etre as a public broadcaster -- that he alienated the beleaguered CBC staff.

Corporate ideology

The other change Stursberg introduced was of an ideological nature. In an interview I did with him in 2012, Stursberg said he wanted to change the perception that the CBC was too downtown Toronto leftist. In 2006, the CBC began airing Dragon's Den, the show where rich businesspeople decide whether to the finance the ideas and dreams of would-be entrepreneurs. It's a horrible program, with the "Dragons" appearing as arrogant super-clever overlords, often mocking those who come seeking money as if they were dumb serfs. It's a show that broadcasts the idea the rich deserve their wealth.

Then, in 2009, Stursberg snatched up Kevin O'Leary and Amanda Lang from the Business News Network (BNN) and gave them an hour-long show everyday during the dinner hour. O'Leary was a failed and unethical businessman, who sold a sham of a company to Mattel, the toy manufacturer, in what Businessweek later called one of the worst deals of all time. He was fired, sued and almost destroyed Mattel in the process. Just about every other project he's touched has been a disaster, too. Yet Lang, who clearly is no journalist, was happy to be his co-host and tolerate his far-right wing blatherings, which he showered on viewers everyday. Despite his odiousness, O'Leary became a star.

Meanwhile, too many CBC hosts -- who are extremely well compensated to begin with -- were using their fame to make more money by giving speeches on the side. Both Rex Murphy and Peter Mansbridge were caught doing speeches for the oil industry. Murphy, who is a right-wing ideologue, also writes a turgid column for the pro-business National Post, where he rails against environmentalists on global warming, champions the oil sands and pipelines, and protests any effort to fight climate change. And yet Murphy is given the soapbox of the CBC's The National to vomit forth his bizarre jeremiads like some bug-eyed curmudgeon.

At the same time, the CBC's investigative unit, run by one of Canada's most accomplished investigative journalists, Harvey Cashore, has limped along for years since it was created in 2009 with inadequate funding. In the latest round of cuts last year, his meager budget was cut down to virtually nothing. And yet this unit has broken important stories about how rich and powerful Canadians use offshore tax havens to evade the Canada Revenue Agency.

Since 2007, the CBC has been presided over by lawyer Hubert T. Lacroix, who used to work at the Canada's most powerful corporate law firm, McCarthy Tétrault, as a business lawyer. He's embraced, without complaint, every effort by the Harper government to kill off the CBC. Meanwhile, the CBC board is made up of Conservative appointees, most of whom have business or corporate law backgrounds.

Stephen Harper's vision of Canada clearly does not include a national public broadcaster. Even in its castrated form, the CBC occasionally produces critical journalism. The private sector has long wanted to kill it off, too. The recent scandals that have plagued the broadcaster, brought on by its incompetent managers and toxic internal environment, further erode public trust in its existence. And that is a tragedy. For Canada needs the CBC -- just not the pro-corporate current incarnation.

Photo: kris krüg/flickr

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