Daddy Warbucks vs. The Mother Corp
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Daddy Warbucks vs. The Mother Corp

The CBC doesn’t always get it right. In the last few months alone we’ve mocked it for losing an iconic hockey anthem, been exasperated by its new primetime television show, and condemned its poor taste in music venues. Still and all, we’re pretty sure that the CBC is essential to keeping Canada, well, Canadian, and we’d very much like for the federal government to stop kicking it around quite so much.

Photo by BruceK from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

Due to plummeting advertising revenues the CBC was forced to ask the government for some bridge money earlier this week, in the form of an advance against future revenues or appropriations; the loan would be paid back when economic conditions improve. The Tories quickly shot them down, leaving the CBC with no choice but to consider significant staff and programming cutbacks. There’s no word yet on what form these reductions might take, but Vice-President of English Services Richard Stursberg has said, ominously, that “everything’s on the table.” (One estimate put potential job losses in the range of six to seven hundred.) All this is coming on the heels of last year’s major slap in the face: in June 2008 the federal government rejected the report of its own Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage, which recommended a substantial increase in funding so that the CBC could properly fulfill its mandate. Completely ignoring the committee’s finding that the organization was chronically underfunded, the feds simply told the CBC to “make the best use of its existing resources.”
The problem, essentially, is that successive federal governments going back as far as the late 1980s have been pulling a bait and switch in their positioning of the CBC. The CBC is a Crown corporation, established by the government to meet public policy needs. It operates in the public realm for the public good, and its purpose is to achieve cultural (not financial) goals. As outlined in the Broadcasting Act, the CBC provides “a public service essential to the maintenance and enhancement of national identity and cultural sovereignty.” Recent federal governments, ignoring this apparently inconvenient fact, have been treating the CBC as though it were any other company seeking their aid: an enterprise judged in the first place by the state of its books and only secondarily (if at all) according to how well it satisfies its stipulated mandate. The distortion of the CBC’s identity has only gotten more glaring under Harper, whose spokesperson said yesterday: “Nobody likes to see this, but broadcasters have to adapt to lower ad revenues. No one broadcaster is immune from that.”
This is missing the boat on a grand scale. The CBC is supposed to be immune precisely from that—from the vagaries of the marketplace that leave private broadcasters vulnerable in economic downturns. That is much of the point of deeming it essential in the first place. The Tories are playing dumb, acting astonished that they’ve been petitioned for a loan at a time when everyone needs to make do with less. But just like healthcare services or border control or the myriad of other public goods that government undertakes to provide even when times are tough, the CBC needs to be able to keep doing its job. With other media operations retrenching at every turn, tough times are perhaps when it is most important that it do so. How else will Mr. Harper know what Rankin Inlet residents think of his tax cuts?