By Greg O’Brien
CONVINCING SENIOR FOLKS in the broadcasting industry to talk – on the record – about the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation is no easy task. It’s not that no one has an opinion (quite the opposite, of course), it’s just that few are willing to be quoted.
Heap too much praise on the CBC and you’re some kind of apple-polisher, angling for a job or some other favour. Heaven forbid if you’re a private broadcaster who praises the CBC. That’s just not done. They are the enemy, after all! On the other hand, leveling criticism at the Corp. in a public forum such as this is seen to be a career-limiting move or a zero sum game where any negative words would simply be received as sour grapes and ignored by those at the CBC – or feared stored for future use.
(The exception to that rule are the folks at Sun News and Quebecor – who can’t seem to stop talking about the CBC. On-air hosts Brian Lilly and Ezra Levant seem to have the same show on every time I watch, complaining about the Corp. The CBC is fair game of course, but having the same show on so often sure makes for boring, repetitive TV.)
Others who do go on the record with critiques on how the CBC does this or that or doesn’t do this or that are quite often dismissed by the powers there as malcontents with an axe to grind. If you’re a former employee of the CBC with something to say about your old employer that, too, is discounted. The attitude I’ve seen espoused over the years – and recently – is that any former employee is a former one for a reason and their evaluations of the Corp. can therefore be ignored or denigrated.
Whether they recognize it or not, there’s a level of hubris that emanates from many CBC-ers which limits the Crown-owned broadcaster’s ability to accept, process and apply constructive criticism (and I say all of this as someone who has been a fan most of his life, who has been covering it professionally as a journalist for 15 years and who believes that the CBC is something our country needs, is money well-spent and is mostly on the right track as it manages change in our multimedia environment).
It’s as though many there believe they are doing “god’s work” for lack of a better term. TV and radio producers, journalists, management and executives believe what they are doing is Good For Canada, writ large. Now, while I think what the CBC does actually is good for Canada, I also think that what CTV, Global, CKNW, CHCH, TVA and Cable 14 does is good for Canada. However, it is disquieting to see or hear the attitude some CBC-ers let slip out that what they are doing is somehow better, more pure, or higher-minded than other TV or radio stations.
It’s great to believe where you work and what you do is the best. That’s a positive, compelling reason to come to work every day. It feeds healthy competition and drives people to do their best. It crosses the line to bald hubris when some begin to believe – and tell others – that “no one” can/could/would do what the CBC does or that “only the CBC” would do a certain story or air a certain program.
That irksome approach bubbled to the surface most recently at a November conference in Ottawa. During a panel session at the Institute of International Communications’ Canadian conference, two CBC-ers, Carol Off (co-host of As It Happens) and Patrick Beaudoin, Radio-Canada’s executive director of radio, each showed a lack of humility when discussing the Corp’s work, especially when provoked by Sun News’ Levant, who was also on the panel.
For example, Off told delegates that “no one” would be covering the stories the CBC does in Canada’s far north if the Corp. wasn’t there. Beaudoin, on the other hand, insisted Canadians needed some trusted media outlet to lead in this day and age of fragmented multimedia sources and “guide” us on what’s important or what should be. Having worked for small, independent, trustworthy media all of my working life, I’ve done hundreds of stories on worthy Canadians and subjects that flew well below the radar of other media outlets and have not felt once I needed a “guide” to tell me which news is important to my life.
If there were no CBC in the far north, would people and news organizations with cameras, laptops, web sites and Internet connections or even YouTube channels fill gaps? You bet they would. In fact, they already do. Just Google “Nunavut news”, for example. I bet the folks at APTN would be surprised to hear that “no one” else is there to cover the far north.
As for Beaudoin’s assertion that we poor flummoxed Canadians need a guide to tell us what’s important and what isn’t? Well, I’m sorry, but I’ll be my own guide, thanks – and my bet is that most Canadians would say the same. CBC TV or Radio or cbc.ca or CBC Music may well be some of my picks, but so may be Canoe.ca, TMZ, Sirius and SI.com. The news and entertainment sources we all trust have earned their way into our lives and do so every day. The CBC knows it must continually do the same, but the words and actions of some CBC-ers belie that.
This haughty attitude made another appearance that same November week during a different CBC press event where it released a study done by research firm Nordicity to show that removing ads from CBC/Radio-Canada’s services would result in a significant reduction of Canadian content “and have serious consequences for both the independent production sector and advertisers.” My dilemma with that whole release and press conference afterward is not whether that statement is true or not (it likely is), but rather I was disturbed by the CBC hierarchy’s portrayal of this as the truth.
Canada’s private broadcasters have long wanted CBC-TV and SRC-TV out of the ad game. The Corp. already gets a billion dollars in revenue from taxpayers so it isn’t fair for it to accumulate $370 million more annually in ad dollars which could go to private broadcasters, is how the historic complaint goes. In the fall, Quebecor was publicly moaning about just that prior to CBC releasing its Nordicity report. It has objected to that for ages.
“If we ground the conversation in facts, then we will have a better conversation,” CBC CEO Hubert Lacroix said when the report was released. That stunned me because any CBC or other reporter worth their salt would never, ever accept a report commissioned by a company as “fact,” and yet the CBC’s word on this – even done at arm’s length by Nordicity – is supposed to be accepted by all as fact?
Are reports on the oil sands, or telecom or asbestos or anything – commissioned by the industries or companies themselves ever accepted as fact, by CBC journalists? Likely not. So why does the CBC expect different treatment of itself? My answer is because of that hubris, which must be banished. The CBC’s culture is believing it is doing such good work for such a high purpose, so why wouldn’t everyone accept these are facts? Again, I am not disputing the report’s contents nor do I mean to impugn anyone’s integrity. I just question the assumptions made that we should all accept what the CBC says as the truth.
Besides, I bet the private broadcasters could commission and construct a report which would say the exact opposite, that taking the ability to sell advertising away from the CBC would be beneficial to all...
That the Corp. felt it had to make such a public statement by commissioning and then attempting to make a big deal about that research shows its “rabbit ears” problem – and we don’t mean for TV reception. In this case, the term is a baseball reference where a player or umpire shows himself hyper-sensitive to criticism, reacting poorly by hollering back at loud, complaining fans or changing their calls because of what they hear from the sidelines. If I were advising the Corp., earplugs would be mandatory.
Lacroix showed those ears last month with a letter sent to the entire Quebecor board over a Sun News segment which paired the CBC’s head of English language services Kirstine Stewart on a split screen with clips from Hard, a show (since pulled) available on Radio-Canada’s on demand online video portal Tou.tv. Sun News tried to make all believe the CBC was showing Canadians hard core pornography. We watched an episode of Hard and while it is about the adult film business and does show nudity, it doesn’t fall into the category of porn.
Now, placing some of the naughty bits of the show on a split screen along with Ms Stewart was vulgar and puerile and took her words wholly out of context. It would have angered me too if I was she or her boss, but a letter to the whole Quebecor board with a threat of legal action, knowing full well the continued on-air fun Sun News would have with it? It was a distracting overreaction. And this was just one example of the CBC-Quebecor feud which is hopefully over now.
At 75 years of age, the CBC should be focused on what Canadians are demanding from it, and be sure enough of the high regard in which it is held by Canadians so that it can publicly ignore criticism leveled by other broadcasters. Its masters are the majority of Canadians, not the few other competitors who nitpick. At the age of 75, the CBC should know who’s worth listening to and who’s full of it.
Those rabbit ears must instead be tuned to hear hubris so that it can be eradicated while always listening for what Canadians demand from their CBC so that it can constantly shift in order to reflect what we want to see and hear, and not presume to be the only one which can guide us, inform us and entertain us.
Are we right? Are we off our rockers? Let us know at email@example.com. We'll publish your comments if you wish, or keep them confidential if you prefer. Watch for next week's installment in our series on the CBC as we look at the progress it has made on its five-year plan, what some others think it is doing right (and wrong) and how the upcoming March 29th federal budget cuts will affect Canada's national public broadcaster.