CBC and Quebecor media duke it out in a battle of wits
// Samantha Thompson

Canadian news is suffering. Balanced news is a fantasized goal that many programs dream of seeking but wouldn’t know what it was even if it strode into their production studio.

As CBC celebrates its 75th anniversary this year, reflection on three-quarters of a century isn’t easy. CBC created Hockey Night in Canada, sought out important stories with the likes of Peter Mansbridge, bite-sized Canada and politics with Rick Mercer, and “the nation’s boyfriend” with George Stroumboulopoulos. In addition to these landmark shows, CBC was also responsible for introducing FM radio to Canada, shooting the first in-colour TV show (The Forest Rangers) and was the first broadcaster in the world to use an orbiting satellite to provide TV service. Yet despite this history of firsts, CBC’s balanced coverage of issues is not as strong as it used to be. The CBC is a vital voice in Canada, but, unfortunately, it is easy to lose sight of your goals when a significant portion of your funding is being threatened on a constant basis by the federal government.

Although the Prime Minister and his Heritage Minister regularly pledge that funding to the CBC will continue, they have added that the federal budget must remain balanced. Simultaneously, Quebecor, the parent company of media gems like Sun Television, Sun Media (producer of the ever-reliable 24Hours and Metro News) has been drawing as much negative attention to the CBC as possible, epitomized in a series they feature called “CBC Money Drain”. And while the finances get sorted out, Canada is further from having a balanced voice nationally than they ever were before.

Broadcasts such as the new Sun Television/ Sun Media have turned reports on the happenings of the world into a joke. “Debates” have taken over the televised news: two people sitting at completely opposite ends of the issue will be placed in front of a camera and told to bare their fists, leaving us with the feeling that this is now the only way media knows how to provide “balanced coverage.” An attempt to use debates as a means of providing balance is both insulting and demeaning to the interviewees, as well as the viewers. Watching people as individuals being attacked makes viewers uncomfortable, yet their eyes remain glued to the screen – perhaps the reason that channels like Fox News, with its largely opinion-based reporting, consistently has more than double the amount of viewers as more research-based channels such as CNN.

The CBC, unfortunately, has these “balanced” shows airing on their channel as well. Kevin O’Leary, a relatively new broadcaster (previously he was famous as a vicious Dragon on Dragon’s Den), co-stars in a show during which he spends a majority of his time tearing others apart – including the opinions of his co-anchor, Amanda Lang. O’Leary has been criticized for his controversial comments in the past, and his latest exploit was no exception.

The video, which originally aired on CBC’s The Lang & O’Leary Exchange, received more than 75,000 views on YouTube in less than a week. In the video, Chris Hedges, award-winning journalist, “schools” O’Leary after the TV host called Hedges a “left-wing nut-bar” when he was speaking about the Occupy Wall Street movements. The interview was aired seemingly with very little editing, and it wasn’t until hundreds of letters were sent to CBC News and CBC’s Ombudsman office that any editorial concerns about its content were raised.
CBC’s Ombudsman Kirk LaPointe released a statement on Oct. 14 stating that he felt O’Leary’s remarks had “violated CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices policy.” While the program did issue a private apology to Hedges, LaPointe said he felt that “it would have better fulfilled the spirit of its policy communicating its acknowledgement of error to the audience.” He added, “There is room at the inn for a range of views, but there is no room for name-calling a guest.”

The executive producer of the program, Robert Lack, told LaPointe that the show expected O’Leary to be “colourful, outspoken, and controversial,” though he added that it was still an inappropriate way to refer to a guest on the program. O’Leary’s comments came within days of Don Cherry also using controversial language when speaking about specific NHL hockey players. Unfortunately, the decisions to apologize for these events are occurring reactively – apologies were not made until it appeared as though they had offended too many people. As strong as the CBC is, at present they are having an identity crisis.

And who can blame them? According to a document by advocacy group Friends of Canadian Broadcasting, funding for the CBC was at $1,197.5 billion at the end of Prime Minister Paul Martin’s election, and has decreased to $1,187.9 billion throughout Stephen Harper’s time as Prime Minister. Stephen Harper has wasted no time in making his favourites for national media known, and has suggested that there is no room for anyone else.

The Conservative government has been threatening to cut CBC’s funding, going so far as to include questions about the benefits of the CBC in their “2011 National Critical Issues Survey” (sent out to fellow Conservatives). Sun Media, CBC’s media opponent and loudest critic, hosted a similar survey. An article in the Toronto Sun reported that “53 per cent of Canadians want public funding entirely cut to the state broadcaster – no matter the amount – and have it try to survive as a not-for-profit broadcaster backed by advertising and viewer donations, while 39 per cent would like it sold off entirely.” With such surveys being sent around, the CBC is left fighting for survival.

Sun Media is missing something very key: it is critical that we have a Crown corporation media source that is operated at an arm’s length from the federal government. Having this federal funding allows a media source such as the CBC to focus on going more in-depth in stories, providing accurate reporting without having to worry what their advertisers are going to think. Having what should be guaranteed funding provides stability to a broadcaster, which in turn results in better reporting and a better news source that is more concerned in being accountable and loyal to the country’s citizens instead of the country’s corporations.

Although federally funded, it is no secret that CBC is, generally, a left-leaning broadcaster. Every media source has a slant, and the CBC just happens to be a lefty. Conversely, Quebecor is very right-leaning and continues to demonstrate this with their frequent attacks on CBC. Quebecor and CBC are in a constant battle, because they are competing for the same airwaves – particularly in provinces like Quebec. Perhaps this is the reason for CBC’s latest airing of O’Leary’s escapades, and similar conservative programming – it is simply an attempt to appear as though they are capable of fostering a plethora of viewpoints. However, it is not the lack of viewpoints that is the problem. Intelligent people are brought onto the shows and interviewed for their expertise, only to be ridiculed by the broadcaster who is clearly unknowledgeable about the interviewee’s area of expertise. It is this blatant disrespect shown for any viewpoint that is not shared by the broadcaster on both Sun Media and CBC that is creating a rift and minimizing the support that either of the companies will receive from the public.

While they fight it out, Quebecor will continue to gain influence and funding because they share the same political views as the political party in majority, the CBC will continue to fight to be Canada’s public broadcaster, and the Canadian public will become less informed and more unintelligent. Here’s to the future death bed of Canadian media.

// Samantha Thompson, Editor-in-Chief
// Illustration by Lydia Fu

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