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One year after the CBC lockout: lessons learned and lessons ignored

By Lise Lareau, National President of the Canadian Media Guild

Today marks the one-year anniversary of the lockout that forced more than 5,500 CBC employees onto the street. It’s hard to know whether to celebrate, mourn, mark or ignore it.

We could concentrate on the triumph: the way Canadian citizens and CBC employees worked together to end the dispute. We learned a lot of lessons about moving people to take action, and creating a climate of camaraderie where creativity and ingenuity help win the day. Together, we showed that the fight for real careers, as opposed to a series of temporary jobs, is one that’s universal, important ? and winnable. It is important to remember that some collective good came from it all. But, a year later, other events have overwhelmed us, and it’s hard to know how to take stock.

Look at the way things are shaping up. First, the minority Conservative government is getting away with being silent about what it wants to do with the CBC. Heritage Minister Bev Oda called off her review of the CBC mandate in June, after championing it both during the lockout and the federal election campaign. Why? Probably so that her government can keep this issue under wraps until after the next election and a possible majority government.

At the same time, the major private broadcaster, CTV, with its purchase of CHUM, is on the verge of becoming a media behemoth capable of squashing everything else on TV and, to a lesser degree, radio. Through this acquisition, which has yet to be approved, CTV now has immense buying power. Witness the network’s reported plan to bid $1.4 billion for the rights to the NHL for 10 years. CTV is now the multi-platform juggernaut that the CRTC and federal policy makers used to worry the CBC would become as they denied application after application by the CBC for more cable channels and “platforms.”

What’s worse is that on top of a lack of direction from the government and major shifts in the media environment, the CBC is also weakened by its very structure. While this stuff isn’t sexy and no one really enjoys talking about it, my view is that the lockout was a mess that could have been avoided had this Crown Corporation’s financial and Board structures been fixed.

As we know now, the CBC continued to get its full government operating grant during the lockout, enabling it to save about $40 million in salaries. There was no immediate financial incentive to end the dispute, even as Canadians were denied service and the seeds of a disastrous ratings season were sown. When the Guild called for an interruption to federal funding at the time, Treasury Board and other bureaucrats apparently had no way of responding. It’ll take legislation to change that.

And what about the way the Corp is overseen by Canadians? At the moment, the CBC Board happens to include a small group of knowledgeable people and a larger group that was appointed even though they don’t have any background in this industry. Carole Taylor quit as chair of the CBC Board just months before the lockout, partly out of frustration with the way the government chose to fill eight vacant seats at the time. She and a board committee had established criteria, hired a head-hunter and set about looking for the best candidates. She then sent the list to the Prime Minister’s Office, and no one from the list was chosen for a seat on the Board.

Worse, the CBC Board cannot hire ? or fire ? the CBC President and CEO, who is accountable to the Prime Minister’s Office, not the Board. But that accountability is actually quite narrow. The top boss serves on “good behaviour” according to the Broadcasting Act, which means he or she can be terminated only for cause, and not because of, say, a gross error in judgment. While this may be good for the arm’s length relationship between the CBC and the government, it means that, in most circumstances, the CBC boss is not directly accountable to any public institution.

Even a former CBC president has added his voice to the chorus calling for governance reform. Tony Manera, who served in the mid-1990s, says the President and CEO must be hired and evaluated by the Board to properly distance the public broadcaster from the government of the day. He also supports the idea of two employee representatives on the Board. It’s an idea that the Guild has proposed several times, most recently to the Heritage Committee’s major study of broadcasting three years ago.

Why are governance reform and accountability so important? Because bad decisions, such as the lockout, will be made again unless there are consequences for the people making them.

A year later, there is some improvement. There is a significant effort now underway to repair the relationship between management and the Guild. Senior people on both sides have taken time to evaluate the damage and consider specific ways to fix things.

But the truth is that the long-term health of the CBC depends, more than ever, on Canadians’ commitment to public broadcasting. That means an end to government neglect of the CBC. It means real steps to fix the broadcaster’s structural problems. Because the CBC cannot afford any more bad decisions in this climate of uncertainty.

In the end, it probably makes the most sense to mark this anniversary with hope: the experiences and experiments that frontline CBC employees and their bereft audiences made together last year should stand as a model for reinvigorating public broadcasting. That’s something no private-sector behemoth can replace.

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