Here’s a thought. Canada needs more CBC.
Now wait, before your heads explode, let me explain. What we need is not more of the same, old Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, but a new-and-improved CBC, one focused exclusively on good, quality journalism, analysis and opinion, expanded local coverage with increasing resources dedicated to a more robust online presence. In other words, it’s time for a serious rethink of public broadcasting in this country, one that reflects the reality of today’s rapidly changing media landscape.
My starting premise is that journalism matters in a democracy. As Thomas Jefferson famously noted almost two-and-half centuries ago, if the choice were between government without newspapers or newspapers without government, he would choose the latter. He might have been engaging in hyperbole, but Jefferson’s point was well taken. A public square that includes not just free speech and a multitude of voices, but serious, professional journalism that engages diverse opinions, challenges ideas and informs citizens with facts, is crucial to democracy. And, a well-functioning democracy is the foundation of good governance.
As we watch the gruesome demise of newspapers in Canada, taking with them the journalism they produce, it’s time to ask a fundamental question. Should we simply allow the market to determine what form and type of journalism emerges in a digital world, or is the need for quality, professional journalism too important to democratic society, as Jefferson noted, to watch it simply disappear? In other words, is there a greater good that requires a public policy intervention?
I’m not suggesting market intervention to save newspapers. It makes no policy sense for government, either financially or journalistically, because it has become painfully obvious that traditional, printed newspapers are part of a dying industry. Readership and paid circulation numbers have been in virtual free fall. Like it or not, people are choosing to get their news from other media sources, whether the myriad that exists online, or through other electronic media.
A snapshot of the newspaper carnage between 2000 and 2014 tells the story. During that period, according to Newspapers Canada data, the Edmonton Journal’s average daily paid circulation fell by more than 55 per cent, from 140,601 to 62,714. The story is similar for the Calgary Herald, with its circulation dropping from 121,646 to 62,974. The Toronto Star, which once strode over metro Toronto and southwestern Ontario like a colossus, is a shadow of its former self. Its average weekday paid circulation has collapsed from 495,608 to 237,141. The value of Torstar shares have plummeted, and today the Star is so financially precarious that its very survival, at least in its current form, is in serious doubt. The Globe and Mail, “Canada’s National Newspaper”, has also been bleeding circulation. Its average weekday circulation fell from 333,989 in 2000 to 244,021 over the same 14-year period. As bad as things are at the Globe, they are even worse at the National Post, which is set to become Canada’s first major “digital only” newspaper.
Canadian newspapers have invested heavily online in hope of attracting readers who have abandoned their print products, but they have struggled to generate digital revenue. With so much news and opinion available free online, people are far less willing to pay for it. As Ken Whyte, founding editor of the National Post and former editor of both Saturday Night and Maclean’s magazines, noted in a recent blog post, “one of the principle reasons print outlets fail to transition to digital is the weight of legacy operations.” What needs to happen, argues Whyte, now an executive at Rogers Communications, is for newspapers to crash and burn and transform completely into more nimble, purely digital products. That advice also applies to the CBC.
There is simply no going back to the glory days of newspapers, when press barons made fortunes and legions of reporters and editors produced publications that informed and even framed the public debate. It’s time to look beyond the sunset of the industry to the question of what happens to democracy if newspaper journalism disappears? If good journalism simply transitions to a new, accessible, digital form and provides citizens with the accurate news, information, analysis and perspective that a functioning, healthy democracy needs, then there is no issue. But the evidence of that happening, so far, is decidedly meagre.
Clearly, good, independent and fact-based journalism is being produced online. But so too is an avalanche of biased, ideological websites that pass themselves off as credible, when in fact they’re promoting a specific agenda and, in some cases, disseminate false news to shape and distort public opinion. The role of quality journalism is to sort fact from fabrication, to provide proper context and the examination of various points of view. A public that is well-informed by good journalism is then equipped to exercise its democratic choice.
Recently, the Ottawa-based Public Policy Forum released its report into the state of the newspaper industry in an era of new media. Entitled “The Shattered Mirror: News, Democracy and Trust in the Digital Age”, the report was commissioned by the federal government to determine what, if any, policy options exist to ensure quality journalism as newspapers decline. Its 12 recommendations include a new “local mandate” for The Canadian Press to ensure journalistic “boots on the ground”, changes to the Income Tax Act to support “civic-function journalism”, and to modernize the CBC’s role that would strengthen its “civic-function mandate of informing Canadians.”
So if there is a public interest – and a public policy need – to ensure good journalism, you might ask what has this got to do with the CBC? After all, there is no shortage of critics of the CBC as a bloated, wasteful organization, with an obvious ideological bias and inflated journalistic egos. True as that might be, the CBC, both television and radio – and Radio Canada in Quebec – also does exceptional news coverage domestic and internationally. The question is how can it be made better?
Last year, the federal Liberal government signalled its support for CBC with an increase of $675 million in funding over five years as part of what it called a move “to modernize and revitalize CBC/Radio Canada in a digital era.” More initiatives are expected following last year’s completion of the public online consultations labelled “Canadian Content in a Digital World.” But if the Trudeau government is serious about modernizing the CBC, it needs to address some fundamental issues.
A new and improved CBC
The first step is to narrow its mandate to news, analysis and public affairs. In other words, get rid of the main CBC TV English-language network. The idea there is a need for a national English network, and the hundreds of millions of dollars annually to run it, as a mechanism to disseminate Canadian culture programming to Canadians, is frankly absurd. That might have been true in 1962 when there were only two networks, programming didn’t start until 4 pm and ended with God Save the Queen at 11 pm. In other words, back when things like fibre optics and the Internet were beyond even the bounds of science fiction.
Today there are hundreds of TV channels and infinite Internet-based delivery vehicles for every kind of programming taste and interest imaginable. Is it any wonder that the CBC TV main network has only five percent of the audience? And after losing the rights to NHL hockey two years ago to Rogers (though it still carries some games as part of a four-year sub-licensing agreement), the network has lost its single biggest audience and advertising revenue generator.
Two dots need to get connected. One is the simple market reality that has turned the CBC main network into an anachronism. The other is the public interest need to ensure good, quality journalism exists in what has become an unregulated Internet free-for-all.
If there is agreement that solid journalism is a public good that cannot completely be left to the market in today’s digital jungle, the question becomes how best to ensure it happens. Clearly, the CBC is an instrument that could be an important part of the solution. But it requires a different public broadcaster, one with a new mandate focused on news and public affairs only. The current programming format of CBC radio, which is the only truly national radio network, would remain, but with added resources for local and online journalism. What would emerge is a single, enhanced CBC TV all-news channel. Other networks, whether CTV, Global, City, or countless other cable channels like Bravo, Showcase, Discovery and many more, can and often are required to deliver Canadian content as part of the terms of their Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications licence. At the same time, a new-and-improved CBC must no longer compete with private broadcasters for advertising revenue. It needs to be completely publicly funded.
But suggesting that CBC should be entirely funded by government doesn’t mean it need be a bigger burden on the public purse. In fact, a CBC liberated from its main network drama and culture obligations could redeploy resources to strengthened and expanded news and public affairs at the local and national level, while continuing to build a stronger and more robust online presence. Strengthened local news gathering would feed into the all-news TV network and CBC radio.
More crucially, the CBC needs to be a television, radio and online source that fairly reflects and represents all the diverse views within Canada as part of its delivery of news, public affairs and commentary. A core challenge is to ensure the publicly funded broadcaster’s journalistic integrity is unassailable. Admittedly, as a state-funded broadcaster, that is no easy task. But nor is it impossible. The new CBC must be shielded from political pressure and influence by the government of the day, or Parliament. The moment the CBC is perceived as partisan or ideologically driven, the state-owned Canadian equivalent of Russia Today or the People’s Daily, its journalistic value evaporates. So rather than a Crown corporation, with government-appointed board members, the CBC should be modelled after the Bank of Canada, a federal institution truly independent of political pressure. It should include an independent journalistic advisory body that helps ensure the regional and diverse opinions that make up all segments of Canadian society are fairly and accurately reflected by the CBC.
No doubt there will be those who will argue that if the public policy objective is to ensure good, quality journalism, then public funding should be directed to journalists, not an institution that employs them. The equivalent argument is that if you want good art, you don’t build art galleries, you fund artists. The problem with that position is that journalism, unlike art, doesn’t exist in some abstract world of individual tastes and personal expressions and preferences. Good journalism has objective standards based in discernible facts, historical context, and the clash of ideas. In other words, good journalism must rise to a certain legal and moral level that an institution with specific criteria, like the CBC, can impose. Thus, the institution itself becomes critical to ensuring the journalistic standards required in a digital world where “fake” news parades as truth.
An inevitable question is how to reconcile a CBC mandate, geared exclusively to news and public affairs, with the role of the French-language Radio Canada network. Clearly, in a national media landscape dominated by English, there is a much stronger case for the French language network’s continuing cultural role in Quebec, and for francophone Canadians in other provinces. Given that reality, Radio Canada would not be abandoned as part of a new and narrow mandate on news and public affairs network for the English-language CBC.
Clearly, the CBC is not, and should not be, immune from the irreversible changes that have radically altered news consumption in Canada. The media world and news environment Canadians live in today is unrecognizable from what it was even 15 or 20 years ago. Just as other media institutions either die or adapt to that reality, it’s time for the CBC to rethink fundamentally its public policy role at a time when the public need for quality journalism has never been greater.