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BBC: don’t go down CBC’s path

It has been heartening to watch BBC employees stand up to the changes proposed for the UK’s national broadcaster. The one-day strike at the end of May by thousands of employees succeeded in getting those in of the broacaster to soften their position somewhat on massive job cuts and privatisation. The strike kept many high-profile shows off the air and demonstrated employee strength in the face of an attack on a key source of quality news in the world.

Unions representing employees at the BBC are promising more strike action if the corporation does not back away from plans to implement large-scale involuntary layoffs by 2007. BBC journalists rightly argue that you can’t reduce staff by 20 per cent and expect to maintain quality, just because business models suggest doing so.

BBC director general Mark Thompson has said that money freed up by the cuts– close to $1 billion– will be spent on programs and content. The BBC says it wants to show politicians it provides value for money. Sound familiar?

We here in Canada know this game all too well. The CBC has been shrinking for about two decades, mostly through huge cuts in its operating grants from parliament in the 1990s– which have never been restored — and static funding ever since. CBC managers have reacted by becoming believers in the myth of downsizing. The thinking goes that if we shrink to conform to these funding constraints and battle on ever so efficiently, the CBC will be rewarded in the next federal budget. It hasn’t worked.

What we have is a smaller CBC. Period. It’s been downsized and privatized, one bit at a time, to deal with the various funding crises. Good, local television newscasts were among the first casualties. The late evening shows were the first to be cancelled, followed by the hourly local supper hour television newscasts.

CBC drama was also put up on the chopping block. Until the mid-1980s, the CBC produced dozens of quality dramatic productions per year. Now, no drama producers are left. They’re planning to get rid of many of the props used on these shows. Most of the non-news programming you see on the CBC is bought from producers not necessarily working with the public broadcaster in mind.

In news and current affairs, CBC employees produce programs on shoestring budgets with minimal staffing levels, while pushing themselves to produce quality work in spite of the environment.

Last month, the CBC announced plans to contract-out its publicity department. These are the people that promote the programs the CBC creates and reach out to its audiences through events in communities across the country. You’d think that was a service that should be done by people who know CBC programming and who understand public broadcasting. But in the quest to achieve savings, CBC decided it should do less of this outreach, and do it through a private firm.

The CBC hopes to divert these and other savings into television drama programming– shows that will be bought from elsewhere, of course. The cycle of scaling down continues. So how is Canada’s public broadcaster serving its mandate of providing independent, thoughtful programming by offloading its own capacity to produce and promote shows?

Like their colleagues at the BBC, CBC employees often feel they are the last line of defence for an institution that Canadians want and trust. Yet these employees are threatened, too. Labour talks now underway are partly focused on whether the CBC should be able to move to a contract-based staff, and eliminate permanent jobs in certain areas. It’s all about creating a corporation in the “business model,” without the messy commitment to people, without the collective memory, and thus without the ability to develop a cohesive long-term vision.

In the meantime, hurrah for BBC employees, whose work sets a standard around the world for quality, unbiased and unfiltered information. Fight for the BBC and its programming now, before it’s too late.

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