Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta's chief medical officer of health during yesterday's daily COVID-19 briefing. Image: Screenshot of YourAlberta video/YouTube

Most politicians have a tendency to use foggy rhetoric and canned talking points. It is an occupational hazard, particularly noticeable in Parliament’s question period, and we have learned to live with it.

But Liberal Minister of Canadian Heritage Steven Guilbeault went way beyond the bounds of run-of-the-mill political dissimulation in his response to a question on Monday, November 3.

The topic was a controversial, new branded content initiative the CBC has just launched, called Tandem.

The public broadcaster is now selling its reputation and expertise to companies and organizations in order to, in the corporation’s words: “create intelligently designed multi-platform Branded Content campaigns, anchored in experiences that leave a measurable impression on our audience.”

The CBC’s adjective-laden pitch continues: “Tandem brings together the brightest creative and strategic minds to a team devoted to telling authentic, inspiring, original and impactful stories that your audience is looking for.”

Impactful? Based on this pitch, whatever the corporation is selling here, good, clear writing is not likely part of it.

The quality of CBC promotional writing aside, a good many current and former CBC journalists are, without putting too fine a point on it, utterly horrified by this new venture.

They believe it compromises CBC’s journalistic integrity. Some of them have launched a campaign to convince the corporation to cancel Tandem.

In the CBC’s defence, many other respected journalistic organizations, including the BBC and the Globe and Mail, have similar branded content programs. The BBC, which is far more generously funded than Canada’s public broadcaster, calls its offering Storyworks.

The government and the CBC could quite legitimately reason that if the world’s most respected public broadcaster believes it needs this sort of revenue generator, why should Canada’s have to be purer than Caesar’s wife?

Steven Guilbeault did not seem to understand the question

Fortunately for the CBC and the government, the controversy over Tandem still flies largely below the political radar in this COVID-19 stricken country. Nonetheless, it would be impossible to imagine that the minister of Canadian heritage was unaware of it. Guilbeault had to expect that he could be called upon to answer questions about this controversial new project.

When that happened, however — when an opposition MP stood up in the House of Commons to question Guilbeault about Tandem — the minister appeared to be woefully unprepared. It is not clear he even knew what his opposition questioner was talking about.

It was Saskatchewan Conservative MP Kevin Waugh who put the question, this way: 

“Over the last few weeks former CBC journalists, like Peter Mansbridge and Adrienne Clarkson, have publicly expressed grave concern over the CBC’s new Tandem project, which seeks to sell the credibility of the CBC to the highest bidder and pass it off as news. Why was a program from our public broadcaster to sell branded content as news ever allowed to get off the ground?”

As he started to answer, Guilbeault seemed to be on solid ground. He noted that the CBC operated at arm’s length from the government, as an autonomous Crown corporation, and should be free of “political interference.”

So far so good.

The minister might then have added that the CBC has always been involved in commercial activities to earn money over and above its parliamentary grant — and it puts that money to good use in services for all Canadians, in both official languages, and in a number of Indigenous languages.

For good measure, the minister might even have gone so far as to say that providing branded content is a widespread and normal practice. He could have pointed to the BBC as an example.

Sadly, that’s not anything like what Steven Guilbeault said. Instead of dealing substantively with the issue, he spoke as though Waugh had been asking the government to interfere in the corporation’s journalistic activities.

“The Conservatives would like to tell the CBC and journalists what to cover and how, but that is not how democracy works.” The minister intoned, self-righteously, “Some might say that the Conservatives are delusional because they seem to find conspiracy theories wherever they look. We need to respect journalists’ independence, and we will always do so.”

Huh? What was that supposed to mean?

Minister will have to do better job defending Bill C-10

Somebody has to explain to the minister responsible for the CBC that Tandem is not part of CBC’s journalistic offerings. It is, in essence, a form of paid advertising. 

The issue of Tandem has nothing to do with “conspiracy theories” (about what?) or telling “CBC journalists what to cover and how.”

The creation of Tandem is a choice CBC management made to earn money for the (underfunded) corporation, full stop.

The minister was on the right track when he pointed out that the CBC operates with considerable autonomy. He went way off track when he fell down the rabbit hole of journalistic independence.

It is obvious that this novice politician still has a lot to learn. It is one thing to resort to talking points; it is another to be completely beside the point.

In truth, it is, mostly, up to CBC managers to defend themselves on the Tandem issue. But it is not asking too much for the minister to be fully briefed on the matter.

Guilbeault will have his hands full, and soon, when he has to shepherd through Parliament the Trudeau government’s new legislative measures to give the broadcast regulator, the CRTC, authority to deal with internet broadcasting services. That legislation has only just come before the House, but has already attracted more than its share of negative commentary.

The minister will have to be much better informed and far more adroit if he hopes to have success with these highly consequential changes to Canada’s broadcasting act.

Karl Nerenberg has been a journalist and filmmaker for more than 25 years. He is rabble’s politics reporter.

Image: Steven Guilbeault/Twitter

Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover news for the rest of us from Parliament Hill. Karl has been a journalist and filmmaker for over 25 years, including eight years as the producer of the CBC...