Stephen Harper may no longer be prime minister — but his influence on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation lingers.
While the new Liberal government plans to invest $675 million over five years “to modernize and revitalize CBC/Radio Canada in the digital era,” communication scholars meeting in Calgary for this year’s Congress of Humanities and Social Sciences warn that Harper’s anti-CBC rhetoric has not been replaced with a view that respects the public service value of the broadcaster.
What emerged clearly from the research presented about public media at the Canadian Communication Association annual meeting is that the biggest threat facing public service broadcasting in Canada is not so much controversy sparked scandals, poor ratings, budget cuts or even a hostile government — but the pervasive neoliberal thinking that surrounds all media in Canada.
Neoliberal values do not view public service media — and the CBC, especially — as a vital public service akin to our schools, libraries, and hospitals.
Bell Media’s recent decision to abruptly kill Canada AM, for example, illustrates well some of the problems facing media including how media corporations are “no longer in the business of serving the public interest.”
Neoliberalism’s solution to every problem, argues Wendy Brown in her book Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution, “is always more markets, more complete markets, more perfect markets.”
Simply put, it’s a thinking that diminishes everything to economics — risk, exposure, and yield.
And when it comes to the CBC, economic reductionism eliminates valuing the public communications service provided by the broadcaster. These days, politicians and the people who run the crown corporation talk mostly about ratings, money, efficiency and transparency. These are hallmarks of a neoliberal imagination of the world.
The public good CBC provides — its contribution to democracy and citizenship — is mostly absent from public discourse.
And Prime Minister Harper entrenched the way we talk about public broadcasting during his time in power.
One presentation at this year’s Canadian Communication Association meeting argued that Canada’s public broadcaster faces “a precarious situation and defining moment.”
Miles Weafer, a PhD candidate in Communication and Culture at York University, highlights how the CBC, during Harper’s time as prime minister, was subjected to intensified scrutiny.
The graduate student analyzed a number of key documents — including the CBC’s most recent five-year plan and the Senate’s highly critical report about the crown corporation in 2015 — as indicators of how the public broadcaster represents itself and gets discussed publicly.
Drawing from the research of Christine Crowther, a PhD Candidate in Art History and Communication Studies at McGill in her 2010 piece titled “CBC’s First Annual Public Meeting: Engaging the ‘Public’”, Weafer notes for instance that business rhetoric has permeated discussions about CBC. Instead of talking about being accountable to citizens, the public broadcaster has sometimes suggested it’s answerable to “shareholders.”
According to the research, this business language is “out of sync” with the CBC’s history and “at odds with… forging closer ties with the public.”
It’s of course no surprise to those who work at the CBC that Harper’s time in office was marked by cost-cutting, excessive accountability demands — and even trash talking the CBC.
The Conservative Party even raised money, turning its complaints about the CBC’s alleged liberal bias into fund-raising efforts, asking its supporters for money to counter supposed biased political coverage from the public broadcaster.
Conservative Members of Parliament also circulated a petition amongst their constituents in 2011 calling for the CBC to be sold or privatized.
The Conservatives, like the Liberals before them, continued the decades of devastating cuts to the crown corporation.
In 2004, while leader of the Official Opposition, Harper suggested “…government subsidies in support of CBC’s services should be to those things that … do not have commercial alternatives.”
Harper (and those who surrounded him) never saw Canada’s public broadcaster — or the media in general — as a public service akin to a museum or a university.
Media are not, in this way of thinking, a valuable conduit for engaging with the citizens about public policy.
And the Conservatives’ views pervaded the leadership of the corporation who enabled and justified gutting a vital national “institution it should have been protecting.”
Neoliberal discourse has, arguably, overwhelmed the way politician — and even the public — talk about the public broadcaster. Neoliberal values rule in and rule out how the CBC is imagined internally and externally.
Broadcasting is viewed — in large part — as an extension of the market. Efficiency, ratings and accountability define and narrow how we communicate about media.
Values of citizenship, democracy and bolstering arts and culture are largely marginalized — and rarely given a full-throated defence by many these days.
Critics may argue that the CBC’s decision to focus on ratings and efficiencies and cut staff are business decisions, not political ones.
Yet, relinquishing power to a markets know best thinking ignores the crucial social benefits — and public good — provided by media in general and public broadcasting in particular.
Some longtime media watchers predict there could be few, if any, printed newspapers and no local television stations in Canada in less than nine years.
Now is not the time to be complacent about speaking out for the value of media and the service they provide to the public.
We can, of course, welcome the Liberal Government’s new investment in public broadcasting — but that’s not enough. That’s just a tiny step in the right direction. The corporation’s governance needs a change, the media sector needs to be less concentrated, and there needs to be proper funding for local news as well as arts and culture.
But most importantly, we need to change the way we talk about the CBC and all media, for that matter.
We need to loudly and proudly promote the service — the public good — the CBC provides Canadians.
Submitted by an concerned CMG member