The Conservative Critique III: the CBC

CBC Logo 1974-1986

Previous Critiques:

In my opinion, there are four approaches the Conservatives can take and have a decent chance of beating the Liberals in the next election.

  1. Be really Liberal-lite (the same policies, the same dull managerial style, but corruption free. The only problem is, you have to be really squeaky clean to accomplish this, and unscary. The Conservatives recent antics in parliament have made them as muddy-looking as the Liberals, and their opposition to same sex marriage is a big target on their foreheads).
  2. Be Libertarian (this is the riskiest approach, but it should intrigue Canadians as it’s never been tried before. Social conservatism does not sell in this country, but a party that pounds the drum of personal responsibility and getting the government out of as many aspects of one’s life as possible — especially the bedroom — might do surprisingly well).
  3. Cross the Centre (come up with a set of policies that Conservative and NDP supporters can both be happy with. Think it’s impossible? Well, they’re doing it in Nova Scotia).
  4. Be Radically Centrist (Cherry-pick the best ideas from the left and the right, but where the Liberals have avoided, go for the fruit)

I’d like to think that my suggested policy on the CBC, below, is an example of radical centrism. But it could just be radical idiocy. You decide.

This is what the Conservative policy book has to say on the CBC:

Canadian Broadcasting System

  1. The Conservative Party believes in a stable Canadian presence in a varied and vibrant broadcasting system. The Canadian broadcasting system should offer a wide range of Canadian and international programming, while being respectful of Canadian content. The system should provide audiences with maximum choice and have the ability to utilize new technologies to achieve its public and private objectives.

  2. The CBC-SRC is an important part of the broadcasting system in Canada. It must be a true public service broadcaster, relevant to Canadians. The Conservative Party will focus the CBC-SRC services on its mandates as public broadcasting services.

  3. The Conservative Party recognizes the vital role played by the private broadcasters of Canada through their local and regional programming that reflects the language and multicultural realities of our country. Private sector broadcasters and service-providers first and foremost are businesses and must be able to compete in an ever-increasing fragmented and global market. The Conservative Party recognizes the need for both regulatory flexibility and predictability.

  4. Broadcasting policy in Canada must be relevant in today’s communications environment and responsive to the demands of Canadians. The Conservative Party will review and update the Broadcasting Act to ensure its relevance in today’s technological environment. The Conservative Party will establish clear, national policy directions and a framework that will maximize the freedom of choice and ensure that freedom of speech is respected. The CRTC’s role in content regulation will be reduced to eliminate duplication where other legislation exists.

So, basically: we will get the CRTC to back out of the affairs of private broadcasters, encourage Canadian content by waving our hands, and do nothing serious to tamper with the current funding or editorial direction of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. I think.

Not particularly scary. Unfortunately, I don’t believe a word of it.

That may be unfair of me, but when the Conservative Party boasts former MPPs who liken the CBC to the “Communist Broadcasting Corporation” (they obviously have no idea what a communist is other than somebody they don’t like), when so many Conservative Party supporters are absolutely certain that CBC bias is behind their low showing in the polls, any suggestion that the Conservative Party believes in and supports the mandate of the CBC just doesn’t ring true to me.

It’s possible that Stephen Harper and the rest of the Conservative leadership don’t want to pick a fight with the supporters of the CBC, and will instead be content to ignore it, but neglect is not beneficial to public broadcasting in this nation either. As the current lockout situation illustrates, without leadership, the CBC will lose its focus. Some say that its relevance is already in question. If allowed to fall further, it will be that much easier to eliminate in the years to come, and I think that’s a tragedy.

The Liberals have also been content to just throw money at the CBC and forget it, so the Conservatives’ non-policy on the CBC represents another missed opportunity for the party. I would actually believe that the Conservatives meant to improve public broadcasting in Canada if they actually put forward some radical policies to improve it. Perhaps if the Conservatives can address some of the typical complaints Conservative Party supporters had over the CBC in a way that improved public broadcasting rather than eliminated it, maybe then the general public would be more willing to get behind the Conservatives.

By far the biggest complaint Conservative Party supporters have over the mainstream media in general and the CBC in particular is that there is a “liberal”/pro-government bias. This I tend to discount right off the top. Moreover, I dispute the contention that the CBC’s bias, whatever it is, is one of the reasons voters have stayed “like sheep” behind the Liberals. Like most Canadians, I feel I am able to take the information I receive and build off of it, coming to conclusions which may run counter to any opinions the reporters may have felt while doing the reporting. Any individual who takes all of their news from just one source, be it the CBC or Fox News, and who treats all of that information as gospel, is not doing the work they need to be as informed as they need. I fear that some Conservative supporters, in their attacks on the CBC, seek only to replace one form of bias with another. This policy strikes me as one which serves Canadians as badly as these supporters claim Canadians are already served.

Some point several sentences ago, conversations between myself and Conservative Party supporters tend to stop dead. However, it is still a shame that these individuals honestly believe that there is a bias against them. The lack of trust that some people feel in the media is harmful to this nation. Conservative supporters on this continent feel that the media is too liberal, while many liberals on this continent believe just the opposite. If we hope to ease the polarization of this society and cool the flames of political rhetoric, we cannot have both sides stuck on different playbooks. It is in the interest of society to have at least one source of news that all sides can trust.

And let’s not forget that part of the problem with the mainstream media isn’t just real or perceived political bias, but a corporate bias and the sloppy reporting that comes from that. Large corporations such as Monsanto have successfully kept embarrassing stories off of such stations as CNN and Fox. Indeed, Monsanto’s threats to sue Fox News into oblivion are the reason why Canada and Europe bans bovine growth hormone from its cows while this known carcinogen can be found in American milk. If the CBC did nothing else in the past, its ability to take on large corporations and governments and to publish news of interest to ordinary Canadians without fear of reprisals, has more than paid for its tax subsidy.

This is why a public broadcaster must be able to support itself without advertising revenues — something which is not the case at the CBC today. To present all sides of the story thoroughly and critically, regardless of embarrassment, public broadcasting has to be supported by tax dollars. To limit the perception that such funding makes the public broadcaster beholden to the government, the organization must be held at arms length, and its operations, and even its reporting, must be made as open as possible.

So, a first step for an intriguing Conservative policy designed to improve public broadcasting in Canada would be to increase funding for the CBC — to the point where the CBC ceases to rely on advertising revenue and thus turns the commercials off. This should please private broadcasters like the Aspers to some extent, as taking the CBC out of the competition for advertising dollars will free up more revenues for fewer television spaces.

The second step would be an expansion of the powers of the CBC ombudsman, with the ability to critically review reports that come out of the CBC and issue corrections, elaborations, comments from ordinary Canadians, etc. The ombudsman should not have the ability to punish CBC reporters for their stories, except in cases of real wrongdoings, like plagairism, or conscious deception. Rather, the ombudsman should give ordinary Canadians the ability to critique or otherwise add to the stories that appear, with facts that may have been missed, or points of view that may have been misinterpreted. The best criticisms appear in segments on radio and television, preferably in the timeslot of the show where the critiqued report appeared, in the time left over from the vacated commercials, or in a special weekly, half-hour long slot in prime time. All other complaints or comments can be accessed online.

So the third step under a radical initiative to increase trust in the public media takes the CBC deep into the Internet. Everything the CBC reports should be kept online in a vast archive. All reports should be open to comments and other fact checking. The forums should be open to the public so that other members of the public can fact check the fact checkers. Thus the CBC becomes a publically funded Wikipedia where an engaged public can debate the facts and the issues and (hopefully) come to some consensus, or agree to disagree.

Yeah, I know, I’m being so optimistic I might have to check myself into an insane asylum.

But whether you are a Socialist or a Libertarian, the free flow of information is key to a healthy democracy. To ensure the information is as free from bias as possible, the process of extracting that information must be as open as possible. Information is what arms active citizens. Reporters must be given as much access as possible to report on anything, regardless of the embarrassment suffered by governments, corporations, unions or whoever. To make sure that the information we receive is as accurate as possible, we must to have the ability to fact check. And nothing must be allowed to drop into the memory hole.

The entire archive of the CBC should be put online. Indeed, why stop there? Add in the archive of the National Film Board of Canada, the National Archives. Let us digitize the National Art Gallery, while we’re at it. And let us slip in every government document, every transcript from Hansard, every committee meeting that isn’t affected by national security concerns. Everything should be put at our fingertips, on our computers, in our libraries, in our schools. A fair chunk of our education system should be given over to teaching students how to research and how to think critically, so that the next generation, at least, knows where to look, how to look, and what to make of what they find.

Indeed, if the Conservatives want to shake things up a bit: let us embark on something well nigh uncontrollable: Open Source Government. Let it be the policy of this government to put as many items in the public domain as possible, following accessibility standards as much as possible. Let the governments say: where possible, no more secrets. We will give the citizenry everything we can. It’s up to them to make of the information what they will.

And, incidentally, let’s have every government contract on the web as well, along with all of the memos in the process that led to the awarding of that contract. Where possible, let the mantra be: no more secrets, no more lies, a government that operates for the people, openly.

It’s a truism that governments hate openness. This would be a challenge for any party to implement once in power; and, once given, these rights would be difficult to take away. But if the Conservatives want to show that they will govern on more than just the viewpoints of its supporters, let them implement something that all Canadians can walk away from with good things in their arms. Hand the opposition the very big stick with which to beat you; you’ll get it back to beat them with when you return to the opposition benches.

It’s optimistic. It’s probably naive. It would be revolutionary if we could make even half of this happen. But I never said the Conservatives could only gain power by refusing to rock the Liberal boat. Instead, I’m asking them to take the rudder and change direction — just, not back the way we’ve come. I’m tired of the calm and staid waters the complacent Liberals favour, and the anti-SSM sentiment is just so last year.

You want the steering wheel, and we want a joy ride, so be bold. Take us into uncharted waters, baby! Let us go where we haven’t been before.

Next article: Show Your Work.

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