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A new era for public media and the common good

Growing up, I watched history unfold each night on the CBC with my family. I remember the conversations that would spark and flow as we tried to process the news of the day together. I remember, especially at moments of national crisis, feeling like I was a part of something bigger than myself.

I am not alone. The CBC keeps Canada connected. Like the railroads that knit our country together, the CBC provides a common thread for all Canadians living across our massive and diverse country. And today, as we can feel the world changing around us, more and more Canadians are coming together to talk about the future of the CBC.

At the heart of this conversation is a recognition that public media is a common good. Studies have shown that countries with well funded public media have more informed citizens, one of the necessary ingredients of a vibrant democracy. The CBC provides essential support to Canada’s arts and culture, a sector whose $85 billion contribution to our economy is dwarfed by its importance to the health and well-being of our society. And, the CBC is emerging as a catalyst for Canada’s growing digital economy.

With public support, public media can excel in areas where the private sector has no incentive. You can’t capture the value of informed citizens or thriving culture in a statement of profit and loss. You can’t support good local programming for Canadians if you’re working within the logic of sending the lowest cost content to the greatest number of people. And, just as the Internet was invented and established with public funding, our public media can incubate radical innovations that will harness digital technology to change the way we understand and participate in the world.

Public media is important, and it’s ultimately accountable to the citizens who fund it. That’s why Leadnow.ca and OpenMedia.ca, two of Canada’s largest citizen-engagement organizations, are working together on a new project called Reimagine CBC. The goal of the project is to ignite a national conversation about the role of public media in a new age where global change is accelerating, and digital technology is breaking business models while it empowers people to participate in their news, culture and governance in entirely new ways. The ideas have already started to pour in.

Yet, just as this conversation is starting, we anticipate that the federal budget, which will be tabled next week, will propose massive budget cuts to the CBC. A 10% cut, about $110 million dollars, is the equivalent of most of the cost of producing CBC radio, and it will damage our news and culture while threatening local coverage in countless places where the CBC is the primary media presence.

Furthermore, a recent study by Deloitte showed that the CBC creates almost four dollars in economic value for every dollar of public funding, so a $110 million dollar cut to the CBC is also a nearly $400 million dollar cut to our economy.

Severe cuts to the CBC are also out of step with the Canadian public. A Harris-Decima survey conducted for The Canadian Press suggests 46 per cent of Canadians would like the CBC’s funding to stay at the current level and 23 per cent would like it to be increased. On the flip side, 22 per cent say funding should be cut, while 12 per cent say it should be eliminated altogether.

The reality is that Canada’s funding for public media is low when compared to other Western democracies. How many Canadians know that Canada’s $34 per person funding for public media is near the bottom of the pack, compared to an average of $80 per person for other Western democracies, and Norway’s robust $164 per person budget? You can look to the south to find a country that spends much less on public media. The US spends a mere $4 per person on public media, and Canadians can rightly ask if we want our media to be more like theirs.

The CBC keeps Canada connected and it is good for our democracy and culture. Let’s build on this tradition for a new era, so whole new generations of Canadians will be able to participate in our society in ways that we can only begin to imagine today.

Jamie Biggar is executive director of Lead Now. This article first appeared on The Network, the CBC and public broadcasting: a national conversation.

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