The Harper Index

CBC has been a Reform-Alliance-Conservative target for years

Public broadcaster faces political heat on top of years of budget cuts.

There is some irony in longtime CBC critic Preston Manning having his own show on the network.Changes at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation — the CBC — became more apparent recently when its radio network began running the program This I Believe hosted by long-time CBC-hater and Reform Party founder Preston Manning. Budget cuts, political nervousness and management catastrophes have combined to water down the public broadcaster's programming and change the slant of news coverage, so that more and more it reflects the politics of the government of the day.

Local programming has endured severe cuts. Mainline CBC programming is becoming more conservative and more sparse. As well, there seems to be a new and unprecedented deference to government authority. The CBC's fawning camera work at the first Stanley Cup game in Ottawa, for the entry of top Canadian general Rick Hillier — the Afghanistan war's biggest promoter, accompanied by celebrities Ron McLean and Don Cherry, certainly looked like a salute to the general's celebrity.

What is the Harper Conservative agenda for CBC? In the 2006, Harper sent contradictory statements intended to quell fears he would kill the network if elected. According to the Friends of Canadian Broadcasting, though, his policies "threaten[ed] CBC's role in presenting the Olympics and professional sports (such as Hockey Night in Canada) as well as undermin[ing] the CRTC as a defender of minimum levels of Canadian programming in the radio and TV systems."

Murray Dobbin wrote in Straight Goods in January 2006, that "With respect to the CBC expect it to be privatized, over time, in the hands of Mr. Harper.... At a news conference in Winnipeg on May 18, 2005, Mr. Harper spoke specifically of commercializing the CBC's English TV network and Radio Two the precursor to privatization. He said, 'And I think when you look at things like main English-language television and probably to a lesser degree Radio Two, you could look there at putting those on a commercial basis.'

"During the French-language leadership debate on Monday June 14, 2004, Jack Layton asked Harper about his commitment to the CBC. Harper replied: 'Let me outline my policies on this issue. I would keep those services of CBC, which are unique, including those for Francophones outside Quebec.' He did not say what he meant by 'unique' but it could easily be argued that there is very little that is truly 'unique' on CBC."

In the old days of Reform, Harper 's colleagues were even more blunt. "I'd like to put a 'For sale' sign on the CBC. We don't need it," Conservative MP Myron Thompson told the Moose Jaw Times-Herald on June 18, 1994.

How bad have CBC cuts been? In 1993 Preston Manning was ridiculed during the election campaign for saying he would cut $250 million from CBC. Once elected, Jean Chrétien cut $400 million, and the trend has continued.

With this political background we see CBC drifting to a "Programming Lite" formula in the wake of years of budget cuts. Radio One totally bombed with its Freestyle afternoon show, which replaced the witty and well-loved Bill Richardson and his Roundup. CBC TV was hammered over its decision to displace the late news with a reality show — that was cancelled after only a few months. Regardless of current political influence, years of devastating budget cuts made by successive Liberal governments are working their way through the company.

Nova Scotia journalism professor and former CBC staffer Bruce Wark agrees. In email correspondence he wrote, "As an informed observer, I am dismayed by much of what I'm seeing and hearing these days on CBC.

"It seems to me that CBC is really worried about the Harperites and especially the threat that TV will be privatized. That might explain why The National picked up the 'Seven Wonders of Canada' thing. I can see such an idea appealing to the producers of Sounds Like Canada, which routinely pursues Gzowski's 'celebration of Canada' themes (but in much cruder ways). However, I find it mind boggling that such drivel would make it to TV's flagship news program.

"When I was at CBC, the journalists and producers would probably have walked out first rather than submitting to this stuff. The Seven Wonders thing makes me think everybody's in blind panic mode over the Harper threat.

"I notice other things too re: local radio. I retired in July from the J-School, but still keep tabs on former students now labouring at CBC Radio. They typically work for years as 'casuals,' expected to serve the needs of both news and soft current affairs. So, the other day I heard one of our most talented recent grads on the afternoon show interviewing a cook and tasting the 'delicious food' at the local Greek Fest. In my day, news reporters would have refused to participate in such promotional stuff — and gotten away with it too. Today, the 'casuals' labouring in the so-called CBC news pool can't afford to refuse to do anything.

"I notice other things too. Yesterday, the Current interviewed Andrew Nikiforuk about the tyranny of petro-dollars and their threat to democracy in Alberta. Host Jim Brown thanked Nikiforuk, then moved on to interview Ron Ghitter, the former Conservative senator and Alberta pol who said Nikiforuk was exaggerating things wildly. Ghitter had the last word in this carefully (and artificially) 'balanced' discussion. It seems that these days the CBC shies away from letting the opposing sides debate things directly. That way, the producers get to put more of the spotlight on the ever-present host who can control the discussion more tightly by playing devil's advocate with 'both sides.'"

In the 1980s, it was common for Canadians to sit in their cars in frigid temperatures in parking lots on Tuesday mornings at 9:15 to hear Kierans, Camp and Lewis debate on Gzowski's Morningside on the car radio. It has been a long time since the corporation has produced that kind of riveting programming regularly. The current mix of funding cuts and political caution at the network make it unlikely it will do so soon.

Harper Conservative vs. Public Values Frame
  Unique CBC services that don't compete / Deep cuts to CBC

Links and sources
  Murray Dobbin, Will the real Stephen Harper please stand up?, Straight, January 10, 2006
  John Doyle, Goodbye Tony Burman, hello CBC lite, Globe and Mail, June 21, 2007
  Romeo St. Martin, CBC not yet for sale under Harper Tories, PoliticsWatch, June 12, 2007
  Photo source Chronologie de l'histoire du Québec, 28 janvier 1997

Posted: June 27, 2007

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