After a distinguished career reporting, running CBC’s news division, and Al Jazeera English, then as visiting scholar at Ryerson University’s Journalism program, Tony Burman remains a passionate believer in the role of public broadcasting and CBC/Radio-Canada.
In a recent appearance at the CD Howe Institute’s debate on the future of public broadcasting and public media in Canada June 8, 2015, Burman explains why Canada needs CBC/Radio-Canada now more than ever.
Read his thoughtful remarks and see the full video of the debate below.
National President, CMG
It’s been nearly eight years now since I was last working at the CBC.
I spent more than three decades there in different roles and in different countries.
However imperfect my work may have been I was proud to be associated with Canada’s public broadcaster. We felt that we were part in some small and chaotic way of building a nation.
As I look back, I particularly remember my colleagues at the CBC, the passionate, inspiring, sometimes eccentric, but always dedicated men and women who were my workmates and in many cases became my friends. Were they often self-righteous? Yes, of course, but I confess none more than I.
Since I left the CBC I was out of the country for four years in the Middle East and then for a year in Washington with Al Jazeera English. That gave me a whole new appreciation of the cultural power of global public media.
I’ve been back in Canada for the past four years and in my part-time teaching role at Ryerson University’s School of Journalism I’ve learned a lot about how today’s young people use the media.
Since returning, I’ve actually tried to avoid being part of the debate about the CBC. I’ve felt it was time for others to get involved. So, today is a bit of an exception for me.
But what I find most striking about today’s debate is that it is not really about the CBC at all and all the drama that entails.
It is far more important than that.
It is about how Canada would evolve in this increasingly border-less 21st century. Through our broadcast and digital media, how will Canadians learn about ourselves and our place in the world, through our stories, our drama, our comedy, our art, and our journalism.
My experience working abroad reinforced my belief that we can take nothing for granted in this threatening world. Cultures live and cultures die – countries live and die.
The difference between the two outcomes is often very simple. Do we know what we want? Are we going to do what we need to do to make it happen?
If not, then we shouldn’t fool ourselves. We should simply let the lights go dark and move on.
But that’s not my view.
Coming back to Canada after living abroad was like a Rip Van winkle experience for me. Things appear so clearly after a good night’s sleep.
So, while I’m wide awake let me state three first principles as my introduction to this debate.
Number one – Never has public media and public broadcasting been more needed in Canadian history.
Let us not kid ourselves, we may go down in history as the generation that lost this country. In this globalized world it is largely American cultural media that is defining the world for our young people.
Our stories and our journalism are being crowded out of the marketplace. We have one of the weakest public media systems in the world. Canada spends about 33 dollars per citizen per year on public broadcasting. That is among the lowest in the world.
Yet, in poll after poll, the majority of Canadians have indicated they want a strong public broadcaster and are willing to pay more for it.
Number two – Never has public broadcasting in Canada been more threatened.
Since 1985, total government expenditures have risen by about 50 per cent. In the same period, funding for the CBC has been cut by two-thirds.
In the dead of night, across this country, cut by cut, Canada’s public broadcaster is being destroyed.
What makes it even worse now, is the cowardly complicity of CBC’s senior management.
Its president and board of directors, who’s only real credential is that they have been Conservative party donors, have abandoned the public trust by implementing these cuts in virtual silence.
Number three – The single most important component of a 21st century public media system in Canada should be a strong, independent, well-funded and well-managed CBC/Radio-Canada.
Canada does not need a low-rent clone of its commercial rivals. But it does need is a strong commercial-free public broadcaster that provides what Canadians want and need: ground-breaking news and current affairs, and documentary journalism, and distinctive Canadian drama and entertainment.
My final point –
In my research for this debate, I kept looking for some guidance or vision from our political leaders. After all, they control the game. Is there anyone, I wondered, who actually gets it, who realizes what’s at stake and seems ready to do what’s necessary?
Well, bingo, in my files, I think I found one. A very prominent Canadian politician. In a speech he talked to the CBC fulfilling its role as a unique public broadcaster.
The CBC he said, should “seek to reduce or eliminate mass audience American programming and reduce CBC’s dependence on advertising revenue.”
And I loved his concluding line: “This refocused CBC will obviously have to be provided with stable, long term, public funding.”
That was November 29, 2004. Stephen Harper.
I’ve been in the Middle East for a while. What ever happened to that guy?
Watch the full debate (password: peter)