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The CBC budget: a political show no one should have to watch

It’s budget time for the CBC — and this year, it’s become so painful to watch that I’ve come to the conclusion that we don’t really have a public broadcaster. What we have is a broadcaster that is funded with taxpayer dollars in such a partisan and short-sighted way that the public aspect is missing entirely.

Every year we watch the same play. CBC executives are forced to make their case in serious meetings behind close doors, they wait, they are given vague promises. Then they wait some more. They want to be diplomatic and respectful of the process. Valuable planning time goes by. Decisions are delayed. As time goes by, more scenarios unfold in case the money is not granted and in some cases, the scenarios get worse as more time goes by. Then when the CBC seeks some conclusion to the whole thing – after all the new fiscal year begins in THREE weeks, it’s accused of “begging” or “whining “for money in public.

“The CBC cannot be insulated from all market realities,” said Kory Teneycke, a spokesperson for the prime minister, said last week. That was a cue things were not going well. This forced CBC CEO Hubert Lacroix to go to the public, make the case, and let it be known what’s at stake. Given what CBC does and where it spends its money, what’s at stake always comes down to programming. The made-in-Canada stuff – plus the news and information the CBC delivers in communities from coast to coast to coast. You know. The stuff the private sector is abandoning.

The truth is there’s not a lot of wiggle room in CBC budget setting, certainly not enough to justify all this hand-wringing.

It has been getting the same base parliamentary appropriation of just over $1B for the past 15 years or so. Sometimes there’s a discretionary $60M for programming that the government always calls “one-time” and dangles like a piece of red meat. And this year, the CBC is asking for bridge financing – a loan – to get it over this ad revenue freefall.

So why all the drama over a relatively small amount of money? The only answer is pure partisan politics. When Finance Minister Jim Flaherty tells reporters the CBC gets “substantial financing”, he is inferring that $1B is overly generous. (It sounds like a lot until you learn that Canwest spent $1.7B last year.) He is doing this to play to his party’s base.

Last year, the parliamentary Heritage Committee recommended that the CBC and the government enter into a seven-year deal or “memorandum of understanding” so there would be more stability in decision-making and not so much room for political interference.

It’s time. The annual rerun of this show is destructive to the CBC and everything it stands for. It creates a nasty government-as-boss dynamic. Meanwhile, as employees, all we can do is watch…and wait.

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