You don't have to hate the CBC to demand transparency - Macleans.ca

You don’t have to hate the CBC to demand transparency

Keeping the public looped in on spending could be a guarantee of quality

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Ash Mishra/CP Images

The Globe and Mail reports:

“Spurred on by recent controversy over the CBC’s compliance with Access to Information laws, Friends of Canadian Broadcasting is launching a satirical, wrestling-themed campaign in support of the CBC.”

The thing is, you don’t have to be an enemy of the CBC to want them to comply with the law and open up their books. Many of us who listen to the CBC and support the mission of public broadcasting would also like some transparency on how they spend the public’s money.

Unfortunately, the call for disclosure originates with the CBC’s rival, Quebecor. Quebecor is no friend of the CBC, and its demand to see their spending is a petty campaign to create scandal and to discredit. Quebecor’s obvious goal is to arm itself with proof that the CBC is irresponsibly wasting the money we give them- ammo for their argument that the CBC should therefore be deprived of funding completely.

Quebecor is probably half right–the CBC’s spending habits are likely shameful. The public broadcaster’s secrecy over the documents in question suggests that they do indeed have something to hide. Their rationale–that to disclose Strombo’s salary or the budget of their 75th anniversary self-promotion campaign would be a violation of journalistic sources–is ridiculous. If profligate executives are hiding behind journalistic ethics, then journalists themselves–CBC journos included–should be leading the charge to pry the documents from their fingers.

What about the second part of Quebecor’s campaign? If (when) wasteful spending at the CBC is revealed, then what? Will it mean we should cut off funding to the CBC, privatize it and sell it off to an ugly American wrestling tycoon? I don’t think so, and most Canadians agree with me.

Instead, clarity on how the CBC spends our money would present a wonderful opportunity to build a better CBC. Consider the case of CBC Radio One. Free from the ads and game shows that complicate CBC TV’s place in our hearts and minds, Radio One is a beloved service with an enormous audience. And yet it has been razed. Tune in during the day and you will hear repeats, archival programming from the 1940s, and repurposed regional content where news and current affairs used to be. (I like a good cod fishery report as much as the next guy, but why am I hearing it as I drive the on the DVP?)

As a former employee and occasional contributor to CBC Radio, I know how much these cancelled programs cost to produce (one radio show might have a staff of just three producers). What I don’t know is how much the network spent on episodes of Little Mosque on The Prairie, while it was simultaneously closing foreign news bureaus.  And why do the salaries of on-air hosts matter? Because the CBC has chosen to pay them while sacrificing crucial journalistic resources.  That might make sense when a famous host pulls in huge audiences.  But when these “celeb” hosted TV shows play to smaller audiences than cancelled radio programs, there are questions that need to be answered.

Revealing the numbers behind these decisions won’t change the past, but a new era of CBC transparency will certainly affect the future. As the next round of budget cuts approaches, and the CBC brass once again sharpen their cleavers, it will be good for them to know that their real friends–the audience–will be watching closely.

Jesse Brown is the host of TVO.org’s Search Engine podcast. He is on Twitter @jessebrown