Corporate media in Canada are at it again. Sounding alarm bells that the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) is once again trying to eat their supper. This time their focus is on how the CBC’s digital news operations and the shift to publishing analysis of contemporary news events are detrimental to the country’s private media.

In front of the House of Commons Heritage committee the Globe and Mail’s Phillip Crawley said that CBC News is his newspaper’s “largest competitor,” and iPolitics publisher James Baxter called CBC News an “uber-predator.” Meanwhile, the National Post’s David Berry called the CBC’s recent move to offer opinion on its website “irresponsible…particularly when it is doing so out of its own news budget.” Local online organizations have also decried the CBC’s emphasis on digital content. Metro Edmonton’s editor contends the “taxpayer-funded corporation is helping accelerate our demise.”

Let’s be clear. This is the same argument that critics of the CBC and powerful commercial broadcasters have been making for years. It’s the same old “market failure” view of public broadcasting in Canada. Simply put, this view contends that the CBC should only do things that private media don’t or won’t do. The CBC should confine itself to doing things where the market has failed to deliver or there’s no money to be made, such as television and radio for remote and Indigenous communities. According to this logic, public broadcasting is allowed to exist as long as it does not encroach on the space of private media. The CBC should confine itself to opera rather than pop music, which is a domain where commercial media can make a buck. This neoliberal view positions the CBC as a commodity in the market, as opposed to a public good outside it. This view must be challenged.

Canada’s national public broadcaster is intended to be a public good. The CBC is, as writer Wade Rowland has argued pointedly, akin to schools, hospitals, universities and public museums, which enhance public life, and enrich individual lives.

« Everybody who is smart in bureaucracies and governments around the Western world, » argues philosopher John Ralston Saul, « now knows that public broadcasting is one of the most important remaining levers that a nation state has to communicate with itself. »

While academics extol the cultural, social and democratic value of the CBC, it is extremely rare for this view of public broadcasting to be expressed in the popular news media. Instead, our public discourse is filled with pessimism about it.

In our content analysis of Canadian news media coverage about the CBC between January 1, 2009, and April 30, 2014, we randomly analyzed 467 newspaper accounts about the CBC drawn from the country’s large English daily newspapers and the Canadian Press. In our examination of news, commentary and letters to the editor, we found that little if any connection was made between the CBC and public service. Only about 10 percent of media stories in that half decade linked notions of public service with Canada’s national public broadcaster.

This absence is telling. It reflects the power dynamics that surround the public debate about the Crown corporation. Much of the coverage (65 percent) focuses on its troubled and precarious position. It could be argued that this stream of negative news coverage is perpetuating an incomplete understanding of the CBC’s important democratic, social and cultural role.

The absence, or silence, authorizes a discourse that privileges neoliberal or market values over public service values. When compared with the British Broadcasting Corporation in the United Kingdom, the CBC’s importance or worth is largely evaluated in our public debate by means of a balance sheet’s bottom line. In other words, it has become natural in Canada’s public discourse to imagine the CBC with little or no connection to ideals of public value or public good.

For years the anti-CBC argument has been a sort of broken record: The CBC shouldn’t do what the commercial broadcasters already do. A critical reading of this stance recognizes the blatant underlying self-interest, framing private and public media as equals. But their goals are, of course, fundamentally different. Whereas the goal of private media is to make a profit, that of public service broadcasters is to serve the public.

We hope our study rebalances the public debate. By drawing attention to the absence of the notion of public service in the news media, our research seeks to highlight, for all supporters of public broadcasting, the importance of equating the CBC with that public service notion. And perhaps the corrosive market failure monologue that surrounds the CBC will eventually be replaced with a discourse that equates CBC with other public services such as museums, libraries and schools.

To be sure, the CBC is “giving away” a product that private media is trying to sell. Considering the dire straits in which the industry finds itself, one can understand its business strategy of putting the CBC back into the box of its 1991 Broadcasting Act definition as “the national public broadcaster” tasked with “[providing] radio and television services incorporating a wide range of programming that informs, enlightens and entertains.”

This mandate for the CBC predates the Internet. So it isn’t surprising that providing digital services isn’t mentioned directly. However, the CBC was also instructed to make its services available “throughout Canada by the most appropriate and efficient means and as resources become available for the purpose.” The CBC’s Strategy 2020, which emphasizes the organization’s digital future, fits neatly within this and within Canadians’ evolving media habits.

In fact, it is curious we are still hearing this market failure argument (the CBC should only do things that private media can’t or won’t do), given that we seem to have arrived at that unfortunate reality. Canadian media are starving, and some experts even speculate that there will be no Canadian daily newspapers or local TV stations nine years from now. Does that mean we’re going to get a properly funded public broadcaster now, to fill in the gaps? We doubt it.

We recognize that the CBC partly relies on advertising money. But commercial broadcasters such as CTV and Global also get public subsidies and regulator protection. The debate about whether the CBC should get out of the advertising business has some merit. The CBC’s former research director, Barry Kiefl, has questioned the business case for the public broadcaster being in the ad business. This past summer, the CRTC ordered the CBC to stop paid ads on the network’s Radio Two, leading some to speculate that advertising on TV might be next. We think it is time we had a conversation about the role and funding of the public broadcaster in Canada, especially now that newsrooms across the country are increasingly losing journalists.

The CBC hasn’t done much to defend itself against these attacks. The public broadcaster gently pushed back a few weeks ago, and told digital detractors decrying the its recent move to include more opinion on its website that it, the CBC, cannot be blamed for the big problems facing media. It also pointed out the obvious: that the CBC is already in the opinion business, with shows such as “Cross Country Checkup” on Radio One, and “The National’s” most watched political panel, “At Issue.”

“Limiting access to the digital public space is not in the public interest,” wrote the CBC’s executive vice-president Heather Conway. And CBC President Hubert Lacroix defended the crown corporation’s digital expansion more forcefully, stressing that digital advertising revenue is a mere $25 million per year for the public broadcaster. Total digital advertising for all of Canada, noted Lacroix, added up to $4.6 billion in revenue last year. It is indeed difficult to believe, as Lacroix contends, that private media’s “problems would be solved” if the CBC stopped selling ads online.

It is about time the CBC defended public broadcasting and its service to Canadians more directly and robustly. Sadly, too many CBC officials and too much public discourse about the public broadcaster fails to make the connection between what it does and the public service it provides Canadians.

Canadians have the right to a media organization whose motives are not primarily driven by the pursuit of profit and private interest.

Whether analog or digital, information is not just a commodity to be packaged and sold by private media. It is a public good that is vital to our democracy. Private media unquestionably have a right to exist, and government has a responsibility to ensure fair market conditions prevail. However, Canadians also have the right to a media organization whose motives are not primarily driven by the pursuit of profit and private interest. Private media are businesses; they should not be expected to act otherwise. While a healthy private media sector is to be encouraged, on its own it isn’t sufficient.

In 1997, under the headline “Our Democracy’s Quiet Crisis,” Dalton Camp referred to the CBC as “the best guarantee Canadians had for diversity and for freedom of speech.” The crisis at hand was the failure of Jean Chrétien’s Liberal government to abate what Camp described as the “savaging of the CBC.” We now find ourselves on the other side of Canada’s 42nd general election with a Liberal majority government, a deficit-running government that announced plans in its 2016 budget to invest $675 million over five years to “modernize and revitalize CBC/Radio Canada in the digital era.”

While the additional money is welcome, it is probably not enough to adequately pay for public broadcasting in the second largest country in the world, with two official languages and 60 Aboriginal languages. Any new money should not simply be thrown at the CBC if it is only to perpetuate business as usual. Canadians need first to engage in a country-wide conversation about the place of a national public broadcaster in our lives.

As our research suggests, the CBC faces a bigger threat than government spending – there is also a lack of understanding about its larger role. Public broadcasting should be widely recognized as a service for the public good, and not something that only exists to fill gaps that private media can’t or won’t fill. If we don’t take responsibility for starting this conversation, the dialogue will inevitably be dominated and defined by private media interests.

Photo: Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press


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Brooks DeCillia is an assistant professor with Mount Royal University's school of communication studies. He spent 20 years reporting and producing news at CBC. Twitter: @BDeCillia

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