All things considered, the short four day week before Good Friday was a momentous week for our national broadcaster. The CBC managed to make headlines for two negative stories, while making no headlines for breaking a big story on their national newscast.
Let’s start with The National’s excellent two part documentary on the rules that Canadian pilots work under. This was great journalism. The documentary showed how tired airline pilots can be dangerous to the health and survival of their passengers. The item also showed what other jurisdictions are doing to combat this problem.
In past years an expose of this sort would have demanded a massive response by Canadian newspapers and would have led to questions in the House of Commons and a condemnation of the country’s lax rules governing air travel. All reasonable responses to the frightening revelations.
Does the fact that I have not seen a single response, anywhere, speak to the dwindling power of CBC News? I fear it does. Based on audience numbers and worse, audience interest, it seems to me that The National is becoming more and more irrelevant. There was a time when a scoop by CBC became a national topic of conversation. Today I seldom hear anyone mentioning CBC News in conversation. Heck even CBC people have stopped tuning in to what has become an entirely pedestrian newscast that seldom rises beyond the petty parroting of The Globe and Mail. So when CBC breaks a story does anyone see it or care about it? If a tree falls…
I was also struck by the crime The National inflicted upon itself with the massacring of their documentary unit. It took a two part report of about 35 minutes to highlight what we have been missing on The National. Not too long ago reports like the one produced last week were the norm for the back half of the news. Depth and journalism had a place, an outlet, on the program. Today that has all but disappeared, last weeks’ docs proving to be the exception that proves the rule. The long reports have been replaced by silly little interviews with reporters, business talk, predictable panels, and worst of all filler stories that come from nowhere and seem to go back to from where they came.
The most interesting rumor I heard last week was that the docs had higher ratings than the news that preceded them. Yes they got large ads in Canada’s newspapers, but this is unheard of. Television audiences generally go down throughout a show. Not this time. The docs caused a spike in the numbers. What does this say about the “new direction” the Corp chose? I believe it is a condemnation of the new National. It speaks to what Canadians and more important CBC viewers want to watch and what The National is not providing.
Also last week, CBC Radio chose to fire Barbara Budd as host of As it Happens. They will say they decided not to renew her contract. That’s semantics, they dumped her. I was at a CBC party just after the news broke and was surprised to hear CBC insiders say,” it was about time.” They said Budd mangled pronunciations and continually made reading mistakes. They went further. They also said she was hard to get along with, a difficult co-worker who caused problems for the staff.
Truthfully, if she made all those mistakes I did not notice them. I heard a CBC announcer with rare personality who had the ability to speak to and sometimes touch the listening audience. I did not have to work with her so I have no idea about her prickly nature. I did however, speak to a former host of As It Happens about six months ago who predicted Barbara Budd would soon be gone. That former host said it would be a huge mistake for CBC Radio and the program. I was told, “the folks at CBC Radio seem to have no idea how popular and more important how good Barbara is.” The former host went on to tell me that yes Ms. Budd can be difficult but that’s a small price to pay for the kind of talent she brings to her job. I was told the decision will be made for the convenience of the staff and to the detriment of the audience. Sound familiar?
One big question looms over the Barbara Budd firing. If the staffers were right and Budd mangled pronunciations and fumbled scripts, why did it take 15 years to get rid of her? That was a poser the CBC types could not answer. Why indeed was all they had to offer.
Finally, there is the sad story of Krista Erickson. She’s the CBC reporter who is allowed to travel for free on the taxpayers’ dime because she is partner to Lee Richardson, a Tory Member of Parliament from Calgary. You may remember Krista because she got in trouble before for leaking information to the opposition that resulted in embarrassing questions to the government. Ludicrously she seems to have gotten off again. Her boss, Jennifer McGuire, who seems to have no noticeable relationship with journalistic ethics, has come to her defense. Ms. McGuire has chosen to attack those who stand for the ethical practice of journalism, she said, “It is particularly unfortunate that the Canadian Association of Journalists and the Canadian Taxpayers Federation would see fit to weigh in with their ad hoc pronouncements…The CAJ and the CFT suggest that Krista Erickson, in her role as a CBC journalist, is acting improperly. This is categorically incorrect and frankly unfair.”
Wow. What Bizzaro planet did Ms. McGuire come from? The best coverage of the events comes from Canadian Press:
OTTAWA- …It is odd that the CBC is taking such a hard line in the letter, says Geoff Turnbull, a journalism ethics instructor at the University of King’s College in Halifax who spent 30 years as a CBC journalist.
“That’s a strange response on her part,” he said of McGuire’s letter.
Having Erickson cover national politics while taking free flights as the travelling partner of a member of the government is an unacceptable conflict, Turnbull said, and at odds with his experience of normal CBC procedure.
“People were taken off beats, asked to go on extended leaves of absence, refused the right to do certain kinds of coverage and accept certain kinds of benefits,” he said. “This situation is not in the spirit of the kind of journalistic management that I’m used to at CBC.”
The CBC prevents Erickson from reporting on the MP — Lee Richardson of Calgary Centre — and daily political stories on Parliament Hill, but she does report on stories involving politics.
On the evening the Chronicle Herald story was published, for example, CBC-TV’s The National led with an Erickson story featuring Prime Minister Stephen Harper commenting on serial killer Clifford Olson’s government pension.
Stephen Ward, director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin, said it is good that the CBC is monitoring the situation, “but there is more to conflicts of interest than what an internal body of editors deem to be OK.”
The criticism of the CBC appears to be justified, he said.
“The CAJ’s critical comments are not ad hoc but based on a legitimate concern for the public’s perception of the independence of journalism,” he said. “It is one thing for newsrooms to not interfere with journalists’ personal lives, but it is another matter when journalists benefit from taxpayer dollars. In addition, conflicts of interest also speak to the public’s perception of a possible conflict or influence on the reporter. In this case, it is not unreasonable for the public to wonder about a reporter’s independence when benefiting from her personal relationship.”
Erickson should not fly on taxpayer-funded flights as Richardson’s partner, Ward said.
“In this case, the CBC’s conflict rules should be extended to disallow such benefits,” he said. “As a public person and journalist, this is the ‘price’ that Erickson or any other reporter in this position should pay. The best policy is this: Drop the benefits and move on.”
Move on indeed. Perhaps it is time for CBC’s news management, if they agree with McGuire, to move on. Now wouldn’t that be positive move we could all get behind?