by Brian Lilley
Freedom Press, 2012
Softcover, pp. 185; price: $22.36 CAD
My relationship with the CBC as a listener ended about a decade ago when, during the course of a weekend’s air- time on Radio One, I heard veteran broadcaster Michael Enright make a series of crude anti-Irish jokes that might have provoked a few titters at an Orange Lodge, or been unremarkable banter in polite company almost a century ago, when Toronto was known as the Belfast of Canada.
I won’t bother unpacking the casual and time-honoured code that makes an Irish joke, by inference, a Catholic joke. There’s no point, since Enright has been quite forthright in his dislike of the Church, going back before the 1997 Globe and Mail article where he called it “the greatest criminal organization outside the mafia.” There’s probably some tortured back story here, as Enright went to the same private Catholic boys’ school I attended, but that’s also besides the point.
What is important is that there were thirteen million Catholics in Canada when Enright made his comment. One of the fondest refrains of the defenders of the CBC is that the national broadcaster “unites the country.” It’s a phrase used by Elizabeth May and the Green Party and by the Friends of Canadian Broadcasting, the interest group whose prime function is to refute attacks on the CBC in the public arena. It’s a strange institution that can “unite” a country by attacking the faith of over a third of its citizens, but I’ve long since come to the conclusion that Canada is a strange country.
Cable news channel SunTV has been leading the charge against the CBC since its launch two years ago, so it’s no surprise that one of its news personalities, journalist Brian Lilley, has put together a catalogue of what he sees as the publicly-funded broadcaster’s sins in a book. CBC Exposed will probably serve as a handy reference for anyone hoping to bolster their case against the CBC in a forum that requires them to take their argument past their intuition that Canada’s national broadcaster doesn’t seem to like many Canadians.
Lilley begins his list with a series of attack journalism stories produced by CBC’s once-esteemed news department—the sorts of “gotcha” features that are the hallmark of TV news shows like 60 Minutes. CBC exposés against Dr. Frans Leneen, Dr. Martin Myers, fashion magnate Peter Nygaard, and former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney were calculated to ruin reputations but ended up in protracted legal battles that the national broadcaster usually lost while funding their defence with taxpayers’ money.
The corporation’s cavalier use of public money is the meat of Lilley’s book, as he details how the CBC has used its billion-plus dollar budget to expand beyond its mandate and set up a digital music service, competing unnecessarily with private businesses in the same over-serviced market. They’ve also dipped into their funding to finance campaigns against the adversaries they’ve created among private broadcasters and cable companies, as well as paying for a private party at the Toronto International Film Festival to fete George Stromboulopoulos, host of a CBC chat show and one of the broadcaster’s stars. (As I write this, Stromboulopoulos has announced his move to US cable news channel CNN, whose own viewership has been shrinking to approach the same cozy numbers George will have enjoyed at the CBC.)
While funding all of this and more with taxpayer money, the CBC has been pointedly unwilling to share details of its own spending, pleading the need for journalistic immunity and protection from their competitors in the media marketplace. Even when ordered to make their operations more transparent by the government that acts as a conduit for their funding, they’ve delayed and obfuscated at nearly every opportunity, a tactic embodied by CBC president Hubert Lacroix, who arrogantly told a House of Commons committee in 2011 that “we believe that only a judge should have the right to demand the disclosure of information that relates to our creative activities or is journalistic or program related.”
Lilley’s book chronicles all of this and more, painting a picture of a government agency that, like many bureaucratic entities, has outlived its usefulness while expanding its sense of entitlement. Lilley devotes chapters to the network’s liberal ideological bias, which is obvious but hardly remarkable in an era when bias is a hallmark of all media (including Lilley’s employer, Sun Media.)
I’m not arguing against media bias, however, or against the freedom of people like Michael Enright to have opinions that many people would consider offensive. Even as a Catholic, I would defend Enright’s freedom to be offensive in any media, provided it isn’t one that’s funded by the dollars of the very taxpayers he’s offending.
That might sound like I’m arguing for the CBC to return to the anodyne practices it reputedly followed back when it shared the airwaves with a scant handful of competitors. The thing is, I’m sure the CBC’s defenders think that the national broadcaster still upholds these objective standards today, since they don’t see what’s offensive or objectionable in its stances or biases, mostly because they share them.
It’s not that the CBC is unwilling to become more transparent or unbiased, or even adhere to its mandate as stated in the 1991 Broadcasting Act, to “contribute to shared national consciousness and identity.” (A phrase that, like most high-minded expressions of government intention, is actually so specious as to be really meaningless.) It’s that transparency and lack of bias is realistically impossible for a media entity in a bitterly competitive and ideologically charged marketplace like ours, a situation that makes a public broadcaster, obliged to be both, a woeful anachronism.
Like many Canadians, I’ve tied myself in knots trying to understand and even defend the CBC, motivated mostly by a nostalgic fondness for its place in our history and national mythology. I’ve made suggestions for how it could survive and even thrive in a transformed media marketplace, with the stubborn sentiment that the CBC has a role to play. But thanks partly to books like Lilley’s, but mostly to the CBC’s own actions, I find it hard not to agree with Lilley that we might have passed the point where a national broadcaster plays anything like a vital, or even healthy, role in Canada’s future.