CBC trying to shake free of its mandate as a public broadcaster

The RCI controversy shows CBC’s primary purpose is the acquisition – at the expense of private broadcasters – of audiences and money

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Peter MenziesAn uprising backed by former prime minister Joe Clark and actor Donald Sutherland is trying to force the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. to hit pause on its plans to dismantle Radio Canada International (RCI).

If successful, the move to save CBC’s once-vaunted service that took Canada to the world will throw a wrench into the CBC’s transition from a public broadcaster into a disruptive, taxpayer-funded commercial operator.

The Radio Canada International Action Committee recently released a multi-signature letter. Mine is among the 32 signatures, including Clark, Sutherland, former federal Foreign Affairs minister Lloyd Axworthy, author Naomi Klein and former Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) broadcasting vice-chair Michel Arpin. The letter urges the government to put CBC’s plans on hold and give RCI employees a few weeks to come up with an alternative restructuring plan.

“In an interconnected world in search of truth, facts and honest journalism, countries like Canada cannot abdicate their role on the world stage,” states the letter addressed to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault, Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland and Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau.

“It’s not a question of whether we can afford to have a strong Radio Canada International. It’s whether we can afford not to have it,” it says.

Group spokesperson Wojtek Gwiazda, a former RCI host-producer, says CBC executives have been trying to shut down RCI since the 1990s. Initially, the downsizings were ostensibly to minimize budget cuts for domestic services. The next move, in 2012, was to convert RCI from a shortwave service to an Internet-based web service only.

Now – in a stunning in-your-face to the Broadcasting Act – CBC/Radio-Canada plans to switch RCI’s focus from reaching external audiences, its raison d’être for three-quarters of a century, to serving unofficial language minorities within Canada.

The committee’s letter prompted a response from CBC executive director Shaun Poulter to many (but not all) of the signatories. He protested that the corporation wasn’t changing the mandate of RCI. Pointing to low listener numbers (which aren’t surprising given the low levels of investment in content), he said the goal is to modernize RCI.

“We truly believe that these changes are necessary and will make RCI a better, more used international service for the internet age,” Poulter said in the response letter. “It will also help new Canadians learn more about their new country.”

That, however, is the role of licensed ethnic radio stations.

CBC’s aim appears to be to create an RCI that will compete for listeners – and eventually advertisers – against Canada’s private ethnic radio operators, many of whom survive on shoestring budgets. In focusing on domestic audiences, CBC will be in clear violation of the Broadcasting Act, which reads:

“46 (2) The Corporation shall, within the conditions of any licence or licences issued to it … provide an international service in accordance with such directions as the Governor in Council may issue.”

RCI was born in the final months of the Second World War to bring Canada’s voice to the world and assist with the de-Nazification of Germany. It grew from there and at one time had as many as 200 employees connected to its Sackville, N.B., headquarters.

In 2012, CBC implemented an 80 per cent cut to RCI’s budget, two-thirds of staff were laid off, and RCI ceased shortwave and satellite transmission, becoming internet only.

The Trudeau government infused a lot of cash into CBC when it was first elected in 2015. And it has declared on numerous occasions since that “Canada is back” on the international stage.

CBC executives have experienced that ambition differently. They continue to focus $1.2 billion in annual public funding to create commercial television networks and online news platforms that compete for eyeballs and dollars with struggling private sector broadcasters and newspapers. As a result, CBC is only a public broadcaster in terms of its radio services and its reputation.

Unless the government or the CBC board is willing to uphold the legislation that governs the corporation, it will disrupt the already-fragile ethnic radio market, which is not insignificant. Ten of Toronto’s 35 licensed radio stations, for instance, are aimed at unofficial language listeners.

It’s increasingly obvious that CBC has lost interest in its public-service mandate. Its primary purpose appears to be the acquisition – at the expense of public broadcasting and struggling private broadcasters – of audiences, money and power.

Peter Menzies is a past vice-chair of the CRTC and is a senior fellow with the Macdonald-Laurier Institute.

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Peter Menzies

Peter Menzies is a former newspaper publisher who spent 10 years as a CRTC commissioner and vice-chairman.

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