CBC/Radio-Canada’s high-quality, public-service journalism is more vital than ever.
CBC-Radio-Canada (CBC-RC) looms large in the current debate over the future of Canadian media. The public broadcaster is seen as either the last bastion of public service journalism, or responsible for the demise of local news and the impoverishment of democratic life in many communities.
There have been many proposals on how CBC-RC can help ease the financial crisis facing the news industry: getting out of advertising, giving away its content to local media, and ending competition with mainstream newspapers by not publishing opinion pieces. The latest proposal, by the Public Policy Forum in its report, Shattered Mirror, is that the public broadcaster give up digital advertising revenue altogether in exchange for compensation by the federal government. CBC-RC’s own proposal, future.cbc.ca, is for the removal of advertising on all platforms and the replacement funding to offset the lost revenue. In our view, this proposal would enable the public broadcasters to focus on a public service mandate.
The proposal is part of a broader vision of a cohesive Canadian culture strategy that has public broadcasting at its heart. We know that in the digital world, we can no longer protect Canadian culture with barriers and regulations as we once did. But we can ensure that in a competition with the best in the world, Canadian content thrives here and internationally. Other countries understand this. Fifteen years ago, the United Kingdom’s Creative Britain strategy focused its cultural industries around the production and promotion of British stories. This strengthened British culture and created tremendous growth in its creative economy. The BBC played a pivotal role in the success of Creative Britain. We believe CBC-RC can play an equally important role in the success of a Canadian cultural strategy. But a piecemeal approach will not work.
For example, looking solely at digital advertising – a small but growing revenue stream for broadcasters – will do little to address the revenue challenges faced by newspapers. Certainly, only a small fraction of advertising revenue from CBC-RC’s digital platform would migrate to newspapers. It would, however, have a very detrimental impact its revenues. Today advertisers look for integrated campaigns, TV and web-based, to reach their audiences. Denying advertisers access to the growing digital space will exclude CBC-RC from integrated campaigns, while making the TV-only advertising space less attractive.
One of the other aims of this proposition, incidentally, is to depoliticize the debate around financing and the impact of CBC-RC on the media market environment.
As the heads of news and current affairs of CBC and Radio-Canada, we would like to frame the debate over their roles very differently: what is the purpose of public service journalism in a rapidly changing media eco-system?
We must be engaged in comprehensive and critical coverage of local and provincial institutions, from city hall to the courts to legislatures.
CBC-RC’s mandate is to inform, enlighten and entertain Canadians. At the heart of this mandate lies the notion of an informed citizenry. We are committed to nurturing and sustaining Canadian democracy. It means providing citizens with the information they need to make informed choices and decisions that enable them to position themselves relative to their community, their country and the world. To do this, we must be engaged in comprehensive and critical coverage of local and provincial institutions, from city hall to the courts to legislatures. It means engaging Canadians in discussions about national issues, whether the future of their health care system or the country’s response to climate change. And it means providing Canadians with a unique window on the world.
Our foreign correspondents and journalists on special assignment produce first-hand accounts of world events and issues. They are on the ground in Syria, trek with refugees in Europe and, recently, travelled America’s rust belt to understand the resentment many Americans feel toward Washington elitism and why they turned on the Democratic Party. It means leading by committing resources to investigative journalism and stories Canadians don’t know but should hear about, like our extensive coverage of missing and murdered Indigenous women. It means bringing a journalistic lens to stories that younger Canadians may care about more than their parents.
From this perspective, local news is not separate but an integral part of our comprehensive news offer. Our Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission license conditions demand that we reflect local communities to a national audience.
In making good on this promise to Canadians, we are faced with two important challenges: the digital environment and the post-factual world. It is not just in our interest in reaching an ever-increasing number of people on our digital platforms, it is in our mandate as a public broadcaster. The premise of our multi-platform strategies is to make sure Canadians can access our content on the platform of their choice at any time of the day, in live or catch-up mode. Our mobile-first strategy is key to reaching younger audiences, and it is part of our efforts to make sure we invent public service journalism for the next generations. Our overall goal is to position content where Canadians consume it.
Our digital platforms also enable us to serve communities in new ways. Our CBC Indigenous and Espaces Autochtones websites, for example, are designed as places where all Canadians can learn and exchange with one another on Indigenous issues. For these reasons, we cannot agree with the argument that CBC-Radio-Canada should reduce its presence in some digital markets and concentrate instead on television and radio, platforms that primarily attract an older audience. Doing so would run counter to our continued relevance for Canadians. We cannot condone an argument for public broadcasting that by virtue of distribution chooses not to serve younger Canadians.
The journalistic standards and values that CBC-Radio-Canada represent are crucial in this era of misinformation.
We also recognize, in a world where opinion can easily be mistaken for fact, where incorrect and deliberately manufactured fake news is becoming more prevalent, where people don’t know who to trust, that we, as a public broadcaster, have a responsibility to the public, our stakeholders, to be beyond reproach when it comes to credibility. The journalistic standards and values that CBC-RC represent are crucial in this era of misinformation. In order to uphold these values and the trust Canadians put in us, we must invest even more in fact-checking, in-depth reporting and investigative journalism. Our signature programs “The Fifth Estate” and “Enquête” are recognized leaders of the genre. We also continue to participate in initiatives like the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, which published the Panama papers.
Like other news organisations, we believe the current crisis of confidence in the media is an opportunity to reinforce that CBC-RC is a brand known for its credibility. Research shows that news and information is the biggest driver of our brand. The quality of our news services over the decades has helped define CBC-RC as one of the most trusted and recognized brands in the country. So, it is no accident that IPSOS and the Institute of Communications Agencies recently named CBC as its most influential Canadian media company.
The trust Canadians have in the CBC-RC brand is not something we take for granted. We must continue to make our journalism more available and discoverable to Canadians. To that end, we must be present on all platforms, in all news markets, however big or small, and continue to evolve and transform with technology. We recognize that the current environment, for many media organizations, is a difficult and changing one and that our presence impacts that environment. But diminishing us will not serve Canadians well and won’t lead to better journalism, more local reflection or a stronger democracy in Canada.
We share the concerns that the changing media landscape is leading to the closure of news organisations and to a reduction of diversity of voice and opinion, especially in local markets. Under our proposal to move away from advertising on all our platforms as a source of funding, approximately two-thirds of our current advertising revenue, or $158 million, would flow to other Canadian media, helping them during the period of transition to the digital environment.
CBC has put forward a bold vision about what a strong public broadcaster, focused squarely on what its public service mandate, can do for this country. High quality, credible, trustworthy news and information is a cornerstone of a strong democracy. It is part of CBC-Radio-Canada’s pledge to Canadians as a public broadcaster. Any steps we take to address the current challenges before the news industry should put the public first and foremost and not undermine that commitment.
This article is part of the special feature The Future of Canadian Journalism.
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