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Stimulate the economy, stimulate ideas, stimulate debate: fund the d**n CBC!

Everyone has an opinion about the CBC. In fact, there is probably no other national institution that sparks the kind of discussions shared from Rimouski to Rankin Inlet to Red Deer– in English, French and at least eight Aboriginal languages. Even the people who profess to hate the CBC seem to love to talk about it.

In the politics of our era, the country’s most important cultural institution is typically treated as little more than a wedge issue by far too many of the parliamentarians who are ultimately responsible for it. They try to make points with their constituents by telling them what they think they want to hear, either complimentary or contemptuous.

Instead, Parliament should be providing money to the CBC as part of its economic stimulus plan. Information and ideas are more important than ever. Improving public infrastructure that supports the exchange of said information and ideas should be a no-brainer.

But no. We get meaningless platitudes about how there’s a recession on. Everyone’s hurting. The CBC should produce its pound of flesh like everyone else.

How about some facts?

The CBC’s budget has hovered around $1.4 billion, including advertising revenue, for years. And every year, it has to pare back internal budgets to make up for the bite that inflation takes to run its 79 radio stations, 28 conventional TV stations, 4 cable channels and websites. These services are in both official languages, and include a Northern service that offers programming in eight Aboriginal languages.

Meanwhile, Canwest ran its all-English-language daily newspapers (15, including the freebies), conventional TV stations (14), cable channels (21) and canada.com website on about $1.7 billion last year.

Perhaps no one told the government. That would be the most generous explanation for the comment made by a spokeswoman for the Heritage Minister on February 25: “We expect the kind of belt-tightening at the CBC as we see with other broadcasters.” Huh?!

Back in 1990-1, the CBC received just under $1.1 billion from Parliament. In today’s dollars, that would be $1.5 billion. But what is the CBC set to receive this year? About $1.1 billion.

And yet.

The expectations on the CBC have only gone up. Back in 1991, there was no Worldwide Web. Then came the budget cuts, and after that came new media. All of the “dot-ca” production has been done since the broadcaster got much leaner.

After those mid-1990s cuts, the CBC made the decision to ease back on local TV. Something had to give and it’s clear that the easiest thing to do with less money is to centralize operations. In 2007, the decision was finally reversed and the local stations went back to full-hour local TV news programs over the supper hour. With no additional resources.

The parliamentary Heritage Committee finally recognized reality. A year ago, the committee recommended that the government sign a 7-year memorandum with the CBC recognizing all of the important services the public broadcaster provides and including a funding increase from $34 per Canadian per year to $40.

No dice so far. The belts are so tight in those local stations that there’s little room left to breathe.

And yet.

We need those local stations more than ever. In the last month alone, private media companies have announced scores of layoffs in TV and newspaper newsrooms, as well as plans to shutter stations altogether. CTV is closing stations in Brandon, Manitoba, as well as Wingham and Windsor, Ontario. Canwest is trying to sell its five E! stations in Montreal, Hamilton, Red Deer, Kelowna and Victoria and says that if no buyer is found the stations will likely just close. Radio stations are turning more and more to music and chatter.

For a growing number of people, the CBC is the only hope they have of hearing their town or city’s name on a newscast, barring a freak tragedy. There are fewer and fewer options for people to find out what’s happening at their city council and school board, or what’s going on with the local businesses and services that they rely on. And there are dangerously few people left who are paid to ask the tough questions that help to hold those in power to account.

As Gatineau columnist Maxime Pedneaud-Jobin pointed out recently in reaction to news cuts at local radio station CJRC in favour of more music programming: “Doing news doesn’t pay and, as happens all too frequently, private companies don’t feel responsible for anything except making money. So they cut what’s useful to keep what’s pleasant.”

He goes on to say that, soon, only the public broadcaster will be left to cover news. If the government doesn’t act, this will be little more than wishful thinking.

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