Tuesday, March 17, 2009

"Conservatives couldn't be happier" about CBC problems

A Don Martin column published last night deserves some attention for the insight it offers us into the current thinking from the Harper government on the CBC. Martin sets the scene:
The CBC is in unprecedented upheaval as its board of directors winds up a two-day salvage session today — and the Conservatives couldn’t be happier.

The way the government sees it, these dire times create the perfect financial conditions to starve the television and radio network, which receive more than $1-billion per year from the public purse, into a reinvention revolution.
Crisis = Conservative opportunity. A second point, Martin suggests that the CBC should be happy since James Moore is Heritage Minister:
...is one of the brightest on the front bench, is no burning right-wing ideologue and, while new-media savvy, supports the CBC’s continued right to exist with public subsidies.

His only quibble is the form it will take, his government’s preference being for a PBS-model broadcaster that doesn’t sell ads — a network backed by aggressive viewer fundraising that sticks to Canadian news, drama and children’s content in both languages while reaching aboriginal and remote markets.

If that concept requires more money to deliver properly — and the CBC currently receives less per capita than almost every ad-free public broadcaster — Mr. Moore has suggested he might find enough Cabinet support to cough up more cash for the transformation project.
Um, has something changed and the ministers' views now figure in the PM's deliberations? There's no evidence to suggest that Moore's views will override the PM's. Also of interest here, note how the column immediately veers into the key issue at hand being CBC's "continued right to exist with public subsidies" and what "form it will take." While the CBC is a perpetual hobby horse for the right with their eager projections of what it should become, it's by no means certain that there's public support at all for a re-working of it to the extent that now seems to be a creeping assumption in our dialogue on the topic.

A few other items in the Martin column were irksome as well. Two additional points that seem to have been conveyed to Martin from Harper government types in particular. First, the apparent disdain that Martin picked up about Keith Boag having gone to New York on the PM's recent visit there while no other Canadian reporters did:
While CBC television and radio reporters are among the best in the business and work extremely hard...deployment of their talent is sometimes open to question.

It didn’t escape Stephen Harper’s notice that only CBC television sent an Ottawa reporter on the Prime Minister’s recent New York trip, which was billed in advance as just a photo-op.
So let's get this straight...the PM's office tells the media that the PM is going to New York and by the way, it's just a photo-op, none of you pesky Canadians needs to come to cover the trip. Then when the CBC tags along, he "notices" and this is viewed somehow as an extravagance to be held against them, the clear suggestion given Martin's context. I guess we'll have to excuse the independent media operation for deciding for themselves whether something needs to be covered or not and whether they accept the PMO's advice on the significance of the visit.

The PM should be covered by independent Canadian media on a trip like this, New York's not exactly half way around the world. Harper met with the head of the U.N. while there. If this is the kind of thing that's factoring into current Conservative decision-making on the CBC, that's telling. How broke are we that our national broadcaster is looked upon as extravagant when its Ottawa reporter travels to New York to cover the PM on what was hyped as the "... biggest-ever U.S. media blitz launched by a Canadian prime minister?" Media always tour with Obama, it's a non-issue. For this PM, we know what his preferences certainly are and it shouldn't be up to him.

The second item in this same vein:
Mr. Moore’s staff also regaled the minister with the large number of CBC staff at the January budget lockup.
This budget was enormously important, the future of the Harper government hanging in the balance and should have been covered to the hilt. The CBC was clearly taking it seriously. But it was hilarious to Conservative staffers, apparently, that the CBC would put a "large number" of staff on it. And again, this information is being conveyed by Martin as a rationale for why the Harper government is looking closely at the CBC, for its questionable deployment of resources.

As for Martin's characterization of Moore as being "outraged" at being disinvited from attending the board meetings underway now, given the government's stakeholding in the public institution...
Mr. Moore’s office was outraged, arguing the government had no interest in program manipulation but, as the network’s sole shareholder, claims the same right to address the CBC board as Defence Minister Peter MacKay has to visit top generals at military headquarters.
Um, arm's length relationship is the difference, anybody? And given Moore's public comments on content, it shouldn't have come as a surprise and he should have understood the appearance of "interest in program manipulation" that would in fact be created. Sounds like a little more heat from the Conservatives being spread. They certainly do get outraged enough, don't they?

Martin's information and perspectives are typically quite useful and this column was quite a window into the recent Harper government thinking on the CBC. If the CBC does in fact need to undergo change, insight like this bolsters our asking whether the Conservatives should be trusted to oversee it.