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Government, private media take their shots at CBC

The Conservative government has used its budget as a weapon, chopping more than 10% from the funding it provides to CBC every year. It would take 25 years’ worth of CBC funding at the new level, which is just shy of $1 billion or about $31 per Canadian, to pay for the F-35 fighter jets. By 2015, CBC funding will sink to 1999 levels, when local TV programming was nearly cancelled altogether.

This is not just another budget cut. Political choices are being made and our big daddy government is slapping departments and agencies with disproportionate cuts for being too mouthy. Aside from CBC, the Auditor General, Elections Canada, and the Native Women’s Association of Canada also got hit hard.

Some fared even worse: the Rights & Democracy Centre, the National Council of Welfare, the National Aboriginal Health Organization and the National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy will be closed. Funding at the National Research Council that once might have supported pure scientific research will handed over to private companies – think energy and mining – directly. These moves come after several years of what PEN Canada calls muzzling of federal scientists about annoying facts related to fish stocks and climate change.

Early casualties of the CBC cuts include the radio show Dispatches, CBC News Network’s Connect and probably a night’s worth of original Canadian TV shows. Fewer Canadian journalists will cover local, national and international events, with more than 100 positions eliminated in news and documentaries in the English service alone. Live music recording will be cut by two-thirds and the country’s only TV production studio east of Montreal will close.

Going by a study produced last year by Deloitte & Touche, taking $115 million out of the CBC’s budget will take nearly $400 million out of the Canadian economy. Artists, writers and independent producers will be thrown out of work and the whole industry will feel the pinch.

The only area of CBC that remains largely untouched so far is existing local programming. But the other shoe may soon drop on that, too. A hearing begins Monday at the CRTC on the future of a fund designed to boost local TV programming in communities of less than 1 million people.

CBC and Radio-Canada stations receive about $40 million right now from the Local Program Improvement Fund (LPIF), which has allowed the CBC and independent private broadcasters to boost local news and other shows since 2009. The hitch is that the money for the fund comes from cable and satellite revenues and those companies want to kill the fund or, at the very least, exclude CBC from it.

Expect a lot of rhetoric this week about how a publicly-funded broadcaster has no business tapping any other industry money. But don’t expect a lot of concern from industry insiders about actual TV viewers and citizens. If the cable companies get what they want, more deep cuts to local news are inevitable. The government is mum on the issue but one of its allies pays into the fund and wants out. Quebecor, with whom the Conservatives made a tag-team effort to haul CBC before the conveniently nicknamed Ethics Committee last October and single it out among dozens of federal departments and agencies struggling to adapt to access-to-information rules, would prefer not to see any money go to CBC and certainly not from its cable operations.

But it’s worth remembering this is an industry with an appetite for doing away with competitors. Canada is three mergers away from an effective broadcasting monopoly. If that sounds improbable, remember there have been three major mergers in the industry in the last three years alone. It is not irrational for powerful companies like Quebecor to want to kill what it dismisses as unfair competition, the publicly-owned CBC, or for Bell to want to buy up all the private competition. It is, however, reprehensible public policy, further undermining citizens’ ability to inform ourselves and engage in the discussions that affect our present and future.

So far, the government’s message is private companies good, public services and institutions suspect. After this week, we’ll know if its appointees on the CRTC will toe the line and get rid of the LPIF.

The hope for public media lies, not surprisingly, with the public. Thousands of Canadians have already proposed or ranked ideas to Reimagine CBC, a coalition of citizens who care about the future public media. Tens of thousands are signing petitions and writing letters against the cuts. The future starts here.

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