The plan to save the CBC from Pierre Poilievre ‘may be too late’

‘The problem now is that creating a sense of community through public broadcasting has been kind of abandoned, whether it’s at CBC or BBC or NPR,’ says a former CBC journalist

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OTTAWA — In a sense, the CBC is undergoing two separate reviews of its mandate.

The first review is being conducted by the Liberal government and a newly appointed advisory panel tasked with helping the public broadcaster adapt to the new digital media era.

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The other review, a rowdier affair that plays out at Conservative rallies across the country, has already come to a conclusion about the future of the CBC. Its verdict rings out in the words of leader Pierre Poilievre’s catchy chant: “defund the CBC.

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To say these are competing ideas about the future of the public broadcaster would be an understatement.

The Liberal government annnounced members of a new adivisory panel Monday to “provide policy advice on how to strengthen and renew the public broadcaster so it can continue to fulfill its important social, cultural and democratic functions.” It includes two professors (one from California, one from Quebec), the chair of the Canada Council for the Arts, the head of a B.C. video-game industry group, a Quebec TV executive, and two independent media executives — one from a business publication, the other publishing LGBT content.

But CBC veterans and media observers predict the CBC will inevitably remain tethered to the status quo as it slides toward irrelevancy. And, in any event, it maybe too late now to make substantive changes as it runs head-long into a potential Conservative government that wants to pull the funding plug on the public broadcaster (or at least its English television programming).

“This is a great idea, but I think it’s too late. The timing, as usual with the Liberal government, is always out of sync with what the country needs,” said Jeffrey Dvorkin, whose long career at the CBC included a stint as managing editor and chief journalist.

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The panel has been tasked with providing advice to the public broadcaster on its governance and funding, reporting to Heritage Minister Pascale St-Onge, who has said she wants to modernize the CBC/Radio-Canada and adapt to a “rapidly changing broadcast and digital landscape.”

I think they should be afraid. I think they should be afraid more than they have been

Dvorkin, who went on to serve as vice president and ombudsman for NPR in the United States, said all public broadcasters are undergoing an identity crisis in a digital world that has fractured audiences and where trust in the media has plummeted to new lows.

“The problem now is that creating a sense of community through public broadcasting has been kind of abandoned, whether it’s at CBC or BBC or NPR,” said Dvorkin.

“They are trying to attract a different audience. But at the same time, their traditional audience doesn’t recognize it,” he said.

The review may have more basic goals in mind, such as securing multi-year funding that could make it trickier for Poilievre to slash the broadcaster’s funding if he becomes prime minister. In between verbal jousts with Poilievre, CBC president Catherine Tait has been arguing for long-term funding through a charter, like the BBC has in the U.K.

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The mandate is doomed to fail if the panel — and the leadership at the CBC — can’t reckon with the current high stakes facing the public broadcaster, said Peter Menzies, a senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute and former vice-chair of the CRTC.

“There’s nobody there who I think is going to challenge the status quo, in any great sense. I think the panel is largely (about) how do we make the status quo better? What new ideas do we have for the status quo, as opposed to, ‘hey, we’re in a revolutionary time’,” said Menzies.

“I think they should be afraid. I think they should be afraid more than they have been,” said Menzies.

Menzies said the fundamental problem with the CBC is that it’s not so much a public broadcaster as it is a publicly funded commercial broadcaster that is competing with private news organizations for eyeballs and advertising dollars.

The CBC’s gigantic footprint in Canadian journalism means most of the industry will be watching the mandate review and the political discussion around defunding the CBC with keen interest.

The CBC employs somewhere in the region of one-third of all Canadian journalists and its “impact on Canadian culture is massive,” panel member David Skok, wrote in a letter to his publication’s readers the day the panel was announced. Skok is CEO and editor-in-chief of The Logic, a digital business-oriented news startup. “I’ve never bought into the idea that this business has to be a fight between journalism startups and legacy media,” he added.

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Poilievre’s campaign to defund the public broadcaster has strong support from one-third of Canadians and the Conservatives are leading the Liberals by more than 20 points in the polls, meaning this review is aimed at a possible Conservative government as much as the current one.

Although defunding has been deprioritized among Poilievre’s more prominent issues since he won the Conservative leadership in 2022, the party is still promising to defund the CBC if it forms government.

“Common-sense Conservatives will defund the CBC and we will restore balance for small, local, and independent voices in the media that have been crushed after nine years of Justin Trudeau,” said Sebastian Skamski, the director of media relations for Poilievre.

Dvorkin said the government doesn’t seem willing to grapple with the true scale of the decisions that need to be made about CBC/Radio-Canada. He expects a “retrenchment” at the public broadcaster that will mean a complete rethink of its priorities. That doesn’t seem likely in the year-and-a-half before the next election has to be called, he said.

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“I think the Liberals are kind of kicking this ball down the field hoping that someone else will pick it up,” said Dvorkin.

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