Lost at Sea
An essay written in 2013 in response to proposed Bill C-461.
The memory of fresh coffee and CBC Northbeat is one that sits comfortably within the folds of my childhood. My mom’s daily routine entailed turning on the radio while she brewed coffee and attempted time and time again to rouse my brother and I from our warm, soft beds. I’d fumble with the toaster, frozen and half asleep, as my mother leaned against the counter, coffee in hand, listening to the broadcasters fill our morning with current affairs and local happenings. I was fortunate. I grew up in a household that not only revered the CBC but furthermore encouraged me to look at the world as a reporter might: ask questions, challenge perspectives and over all, to understand that not all sources are created equal. By middle school I understood that even in our Western Democratic Society, bias and propaganda existed in the form of distraction and sleight of hand. Instilled in me was reverence for words. Never was I to forget the power of speech and the respect and responsibility required in recounting any sort of story.
One morning, I sat at my computer with that familiar cup of Joe as a recent podcast of The Current streamed through my speakers. As I perused my email, Facebook and blogs something caught my eye. “Free the CBC”. Immediately a new tab was opened and my heart sank as I read about proposed Bill-C461 and its relation to the CBC. My CBC.
Wanting to know more, I looked into the bill and read its specifics. I was confused. Up until this point I’d had exactly zero formal education in anything pertaining to parliament or legislation. On the surface the proposed bill seemed simple. It was presented as An Act to amend the Access to Information Act and the Privacy Act (disclosure of information) or Short Titled as the CBC and Public Service Disclosure and Transparency Act. “Sleight of hand” my conscious hissed bringing back the lessons learned in childhood. I knew there was more and was filled with an inexplicable urge to fully comprehend what was happening to Canada’s beloved Broadcast Network.
Usually when I have questions about Canadian affairs my first step is to skip over to the CBC website and check for related stories. I’d have to bypass this step as journalistic integrity would clearly be compromised if the CBC were to publish anything pertaining to the topic. Skipping this first step felt much like dropping my compass into the ocean in hopes that my navigation skills alone would guide me to my desired destination. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t scared; I’d grown up with the CBC and had become borderline dependent on it. This in and of itself I felt was worth examining. I was about to devote my time and energy into researching and fighting to save the CBC so first, I determined, I had to identify what about this national staple I felt made it so worth preservation.
First came the fact that the CBC gets over 62% of its funding from Government sources with only 20.3% coming from corporate sponsors. Unlike those reporting for Global Television or CTV (which are divisions of independent broadcasting networks-respectively Shaw and Bell), journalists at the CBC have more flexibility to report on hard-hitting issues without having to censor due to a conflict of interest. A simple experiment involving Google helps to exemplify this fact. If you were to go online and search “CBC News Bell”, the first five to six search results would be links to news articles on the CBC’s website. One of these articles refers to a recent court case involving Bell TV and the payout they were required to make after invading the privacy of a Nova Scotia man. Several other articles speak of a current investigation involving Data Collection that Bell Mobility is linked to. Return to the search bar and replace “CBC” with “CTV”. Not a single news article pertaining to Bell will come up.
Because of this arm’s-length advantage, the CBC has the ability to hold corporations accountable to the people to whom they provide a service. Interestingly enough, though funded federally, the CBC has successfully maintained this arm’s length approach with Ottawa also, actively reporting the going-ons and scandals that take place in parliament. This is the most important aspect of journalism in today’s modern western democratic society. The journalist provides for citizens an unofficial means of keeping corporations and governments in check. In being free to act as messengers to the people, corporate giants and majority governments are held more accountable for their actions.
It has to be mentioned that through investigating the above “Google Case Study”, I did come across an article written by CTV that quickly outlined the details of the Nova Scotia incident and Bell TV’s involvement. Said article was not, however, one that was easily found. Though available to the public, the website does a seamless job of hiding the article in plain sight among other stories, work out tips and uplifting viral videos. The CBC’s straightforward and simple platform that lacks excessive advertising allows for general public to easily access articles and news bulletins that affect and interest them.
Another thing that needs to be mentioned when discussing CBC’s unique nature is the programming they offer. Unlike other networks, the CBC is able to offer programming in both official languages. In the North where I was raised, CBC Radio broadcasted in seven different languages. This may seem excessive but in truth it is a simple and beautiful method to provide a platform with which all people can identify; it creates the image of a reliable and people-driven national broadcast network that an entire nation feels they can trust and support.
In addition to broadcasting in more languages than any other Canadian news source, the CBC offers radio programming that is unlike any other national radio program would offer. The best of example of this is their longstanding program Cross Country Checkup. Every Sunday afternoon, Canadians from across the nation and over seas tune in to listen to a nation-wide debate on a current affair of national interest. Listeners are offered the opportunity to call in (toll-free) and engage in a discussion with individuals from within their community as well as across the country. Cross Country Checkup first aired in May of 1965, offering Canadians a place to discuss the issue of universal healthcare (this, according to CBC’s website, is where the name of the program originated from). Since then it has become a Canadian Classic, being the only widely known and accessible program of its nature. programs like these allow for Canadians to actively engage in current affairs and are crucial in providing citizens with a place in which they feel their voice is heard. In a time when voter turnout continues to dip and keeping informed is placed well below “laundry” on the average person’s list of things to do, it is crucial that Programs like Cross Country Checkupare not only preserved, but also met with encouragement and support to grow and adapt with today’s ever-changing technologies and forms of media.
The CBC is clearly an integral part of Canada’s image and what we aspire to as a national community. Why, then, was it under attack? Slipping my oar into the water, I began to navigate my way across the World Wide Web, trying to make sense of Bill-C461 and what its passing would mean for the future of the CBC.
On April 30th 2013, an article was posted on an alternative news site pertaining to the CBC. Though limited in detail, it confirmed for me the Bill’s potentially devastating hidden agenda. Transparency Act. The irony was rich.
In 2011 the CBC received an F in a report card issued by the Information Commissioner for the Network’s inability to process properly Access to Information Requests. The CBC took a proactive approach to the problem, making more of their information available to the general public and restructuring their departments so that requests could be dealt with more effectively and efficiently. The result: in 2007-2008, the CBC’s refusal rate for information requested sat at 80.14%. By 2011-2012 that number had dropped to 4.24%, turning that F into an A. This jump brought in an award nomination from the Institute of Public Administration of Canada for their successful transition to greater accessibility, transparency and accountability.
The irony in this story sits in the fact that the proposed bill is being presented by a majority government that currently sits under investigation for the mishandling of large sums of money. Senators Mike Duffy, Patrick Brazeau and Pamela Wallin (all appointed by Prime Minister Harper) are being investigated for claiming ineligible expenses and face a two-year suspension from parliament without out pay. A story, I might add, that the CBC has not been shy to report on. With this in mind, the potential underlying intentions of Bill-C461 become more visible.
New Democratic Party MP Jamie Nicholls puts things into perspective during the House Debate on March 26th 2013 when he was quoted saying “With this bill, the Conservatives are trying to discredit the CBC through insinuations that are not only unfounded, but also wrong…the Conservatives want to imply that the CBC operates opaquely and apparently has something to hide from Canadians.” MP Jamie Nicholls also points out that the majority of complaints filed with the CBC in relation to their access to information come directly from Sun News Networks- a network who’s original employee lineup consisted of more than a few former staff members from the Prime Minister’s office. With that, I saw land. The political agenda was clear and visible; X mark’s the spot, the story was uncovered.
Proud as I was for having found my way to my educational destination sans compass, my heart was humbled into heaviness knowing that not all Canadians had the opportunity growing up to develop the skills and self-discipline required to keep informed without the CBC acting as a gentle guide. For a moment, I envisioned a Canada without the CBC. I imagined having to conduct this much research in order to obtain any credible information or news, I envisioned the small northern communities that surrounded my hometown. They would no longer have a local news source and how eager would community members be to watch the news if the only stories that were covered involve families and neighborhoods several thousands of miles away? The fact of the matter is that the CBC is the portrait of what a National Broadcast Network should be with its elegant blend of inclusivity, Identity, Honesty and their ability to keep institutions accountable to their people. In a time of ever-changing technologies and media, we need a guide. A Canada without the CBC is a Canada lost at sea.
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