Trust No One

One of the many, many things that trouble the Conservative Party leadership about the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation is who watches it. More than a billion dollars a year of taxpayers’ money is being spent to provide programming for people who are not Conservative voters.

We can argue all we like about whether or not the CBC is a propaganda ministry in the service of its government paymasters and Justin Trudeau personally. We can debate to what extent it has the institutional culture of an East German bureaucracy. But it is indisputable that the CBC’s audience skews politically to the centre-left. This much is a fact that Mr. Poilievre accepts. And abhors. 

Worse, the people who watch the CBC don’t even watch it that much. Its dramas and comedies are well enough regarded but their ratings, in a world of Netflix and Disney+, are anemic. It is a broadcaster with advocates rather than viewers – people who like the idea of it more than the fact of it.

Except when it comes to the daily chronicle of what’s going on right where you happen to live, and in the wider world beyond. Journalism — from the local to the national, about politics, arts, science, sports, commerce, traffic, weather, your region, your city — that’s the CBC’s métier.

CBC News Net is the most watched news channel in the country, with at last count 8.6 million subscribers against CTV News Channel’s 5.5 million. In local radio, CBC’s morning and drive-home shows typically dominate the market, though they carry no advertising. And in moments of tragedy and crisis — the Humboldt Broncos bus crash, the Nova Scotia mass shooting, wildfires in Alberta and Quebec – people turn to media sources with the resources and professionalism to provide searching, responsible, non-hysterical coverage.

There aren’t many of those anymore, so when there’s genuinely bad news the CBC’s ratings spike. Even people who don’t like the idea of it turn to the fact of it.

This, if you must know, is what really irks the biscuits of those who would defund the CBC. It’s not the money spent on the heartwarming family dramas that fail to find an audience. It’s the money spent on the news and current affairs divisions that do find an audience.

Groundswell supporters of the current Conservative leadership are, no great secret, royally pissed off at the way things are. They want change. Meaningful, structural, institutional change. With maybe a shot of sweet, sweet payback for how they believe that what matters to them has been belittled and marginalized in the national discourse. They would like to do something to undo the wrong thinking that has been going on in this country for so long.

Step up as the punching bag, CBC.

#DefundCBC makes for an excellent hashtag. Why should someone who doesn’t watch the CBC, who thinks it’s a waste of money, and who can’t help but see its dramaturgy and its journalism as an endorsement of every goddamn leftist complaint about this country, be required to pay for it? If you don’t want to pay for the Food Network, don’t sign up for the Food Network. The CBC has no opt-out option. It is a form of taxation without subscription. 

But a hashtag is not a policy. It is barely a slogan. 

Delegitimizing the CBC along with the Supreme Court and the Bank of Canada is a hell of an electoral gambit. Who knows, it just might work. But what happens if it does? In the policy shops of the Conservative movement, they must surely kick around what to do with the CBC when they take power. If it isn’t already, it should be an essay question for the party’s campus youth wing. The CBC: Burn it to the Ground or Bend it to Our Will?

No more public money, no more CBC. Such savings! Plus, a thorn in the side of Conservatism cauterized forever. On the other hand, if there were an opportunity to restaff the CBC with right-thinking people who would look at things differently, defunding it would be short-sighted. From Labrador to Yellowknife, it has all these transmitter towers, microwave relays, satellite uplinks, broadcast studios and unionized technical staff who keep the whole thing humming flawlessly. A terrible machine to waste.

A Poilievre government would find a way to punish and diminish the CBC. This much is a fact the people in the executive suites of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation/Société Radio-Canada are painfully aware of, and there’s not much they can do about it. Their job is to believe in the CBC/SRC and protect its interests. Now, more than ever, they have their work cut out for them.

As a partisan political leader in a free country, of course the Leader of the Opposition is entitled to despise the national public broadcaster as loudly and contemptuously as he does the current government. But the CBC, slave as it is to a form of rationalism and public duty, cannot respond in kind. Mr. Poilievre can declare war on the CBC. The CBC cannot declare war on Mr. Poilievre. Still, all this can’t help but complicate its journalism.

How should the responsible news media, what’s left of them, cover the Leader of the Opposition when one of his tub-thumping messages is that whatever they say about him can’t be trusted? How can the CBC report the news impartially when it depends for its existence on public funds the Leader of the Opposition vows to take pleasure in bringing to an end?

Mr. Poilievre insists that his public contempt for the CBC ensnares the broadcaster in a conflict of interest. It should recuse itself from the national conversation. He deauthorizes it.

And not just the CBC, but all who traffic with it. That includes the private sector news companies. His argument doesn’t really hold together, but it’s not supposed to be something that might be picked apart in a moot court. It is supposed to be felt, like a sharp left jab. He has no use for the legacy media. That’s his point.

Back in April, outdoors in the sun at a media event in Edmonton with the North Saskatchewan River in the background, Canadian Press reporter Ritika Dubey asked whether his promise to defund the CBC applied equally to the French-language Radio-Canada

Mr. Poilievre had been waiting for this one. For him, the question is not an open invitation to explain his position. It is a barbed thing. It is a trick and a trap. Whatever he says about Quebec, right on the spot in this staged media moment in Alberta, is certain to be used against him by his political enemies and a hostile press on both sides of the solitudes. The smart political move is not to answer a question like that. It is to question the motives of whoever who would ask a question like that.

“You work for CP?” he asks. Ms. Dubey acknowledges that she does. He jokes that she might have to consult the Ethics Commissioner about whether she is in a conflict of interest, since the CBC, being the largest news company in the country, is the largest paying client of CP’s news service.

Mr. Poilievre is arguing here that the sheer weight of money bends news coverage in a form of gravitational lensing. Canadian Press depends on the CBC for so much of its revenue that its reporting would have to be attuned to the point of view of its best customer, even as it feeds the same reports to its private sector subscribers – the Globe and Mail and Global TV, the National Post and the Toronto Star, the Postmedia papers and CTV. In this way, Mr. Poilievre argues, the CBC “negatively affects all media.”

(Ms. Dubey, who speaks from off camera, quite properly refers Mr. Poilievre to the true court of ethics on whether she is in a conflict of interest. “I’ll check with my editors,” she says, then stays back on topic.)

Mr. Poilievre is right, but not in the way he wants us to get angry about. When the commercial news media were spigots of profit, liberals fumed about their outsized influence over how things were reported and therefore what people were led to believe. Now that the profits are trickling to death and the CBC, with its billion-dollar grant, is next to the last full-service source of reliable journalism able to command national attention, conservatives are mightily displeased.

What’s new and bold is that Mr. Poilievre is just as displeased with Canadian Press, the private sector national news service, and by extension the private sector news companies that created it. 

Let us pause to consider what Canadian Press is and where it came from, because while almost everyone inside the world of the working news media depends on it, almost everyone who isn’t a journalist has never heard of it. 

It is not a newspaper chain, it is not a cable news channel, it does not run a syndicate of talk radio stations. But it is older than the CBC. And it is notoriously impartial. 

It began in 1917 through an Act of Parliament and a government grant. Back then newspapers were still local things, isolated from one another. The telegraph and telephone companies already existed, but the concept of a newspaper chain or a media conglomerate was still a fair way off. The government of the day thought it would be in the national interest for the country’s newspapers to circulate information about what was going on in each of their cities and towns across this vast land. It was a nation-building initiative.

From the start, CP was an information switchboard. It had editors rather than reporters, people who handled copy rather than generated it. It curated content from each member newspaper and made it available to all of them, transmitting the copy over the telegraph and phone lines. CP did not own the newspapers that produced the news. It did not own the wires over which the news was transmitted. But it was the necessary, dependable, affordable and shared source of national and regional news that made newspaper conglomerates possible.

By 1925, it had reporters as well as editors and had weaned itself off government support to become the unusual entity it remained for almost 100 years: a private non-profit company of companies that pooled their resources to mutual benefit. Today, it’s a for-profit enterprise owned by the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star, and Power Corporation. It sells reliable information on a timely basis in both official languages to almost every news outfit in the country. Its core business model is unchanged, except that the newspapers on which CP used to depend now depend on CP. 

Some journalists, you may have noticed, are grandstanders. Loudmouths and know-it-alls whose personalities are as important to their careers as the news they report on. Fair enough. They can be lots of fun to agree or disagree with, and journalism is a calling in which the whole point is to compete for public attention. 

Canadian Press is not that kind of journalism. CP has no place for grandstanders or political torque.

All of which is to say, to sneer that CP is not to be trusted is a deft political move if the plan is to show that the “facts” don’t get to set the agenda anymore.

In the last fortnight, the prospects for news journalism in this country have become all the more weird and confusing. Meta and Google are refusing to carry Canadian news traffic rather than submit to a regulation they don’t like. They have torn up the funding agreements they signed with Canadian news media companies. Millions of dollars agreed upon and now lost. Two of the largest remaining news companies – or, rather, the hedge fund that owns Postmedia and the one that owns the Toronto Star – announced they were hammering out the details of entangling themselves corporately only to announce that the deal was off, and they would be circling the drain separately. And Bell Canada, one of our two telecommunication behemoths, let it be known that news journalism is a money-losing division in its corporate structure and Bell would be petitioning the federal regulator to relieve it of the obligation to lose money in this way. 

All this is a political and policy headache only if you care about saving some version of the legacy media.

Mr. Poilievre is telling us he has no such headache.

  • The Hill Times July 12, 2023