I'm Mad as Hell

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and I can't do a thing about it

CBC 0: The Government 0

There is a strange, bordering on weird, fight going on in Canadian broadcasting. Interestingly, few Canadians seem to even know about the battles taking place between the CBC, the Federal Information Commissioner, the courts and a group of Conservative Members of Parliament.

In the past few years, since CBC has come under the purview of Freedom of Information (FOI) legislation the “corpse” has been deluged, their words not mine, with hundreds of requests for information. Depending on which side you listen to, the CBC is either dodging those requests, slowing the process deliberately, or attempting to keep up with an ever increasing number of FOI demands, most from the same source: the Sun media group owned by Quebecor.

It is completely clear to any sane observer that the producers of Sun TV and the owners of the Sun newspaper group are doing everything they can to harass the CBC at every turn. Most of the FOI requests are probably shots in the dark looking for any tidbit that may serve to embarrass the CBC. Somehow Pierre Karl Peladeau and his minions seem to think the best way to reduce funding for public broadcasting is to embarrass CBC so much that the government will find it hard to keep paying for CBC and Radio Canada.

The problem has grown to the point where the CBC has refused to open some of its books for the FOI requests forcing the Privacy Commissioner to get involved and demand the material being asked for be made available. So far the CBC has said no and have as a result of this been taken to court. They lost the original court battle but have now appealed to a higher court. The CBC says they are willing to take their fight all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada.

Okay, while I agree that Quebecor is acting distastefully or worse, they are acting within their rights and within the law. The CBC, on the other hand, is handling this case very badly. Look, it’s a Crown Corporation that gets billions of taxpayer dollars and that alone should be enough reason to be completely transparent. Further, CBC journalists themselves are regular users of FOI to gather facts on the government and other Crown Corporations. How can you deny what you ask for on a regular basis?

The CBC’s argument is that there is proprietary information being asked for that puts them at a competitive disadvantage. Nonsense. First of all, if they give the information to the Privacy Commissioner, they could ask her for an exemption if the information is detrimental to their competitive situation. But so far they will not even trust the Information Commissioner. More important, the TV business is a small one in Canada, almost more of a club than a business. Most of us have worked for more than one network. Many CBC employees have come from CTV or Global and the reverse is true, many Global and CTV employees once worked at the CBC. Everyone works in similar ways and we all know how a television show is financed and put together.

The real story is that CBC is afraid some of its bungles will come out. They are afraid of how the information will then be used to portray them as bunglers.

This is a big miscalculation on the CBC’s side. By withholding information the CBC already looks guilty. They look like they have something to hide. Also, since we don’t know what CBC is hiding the management at the national broadcaster has no way to explain away the perceptions. Those who don’t like the CBC have all the ammunition they need without a single fact coming to light.

The CBC should just come clean, open its books, and then take the time to explain to the public when Sun TV takes a fact or a number out of context and attempts to blow up its significance (as we all know they will).

Every large corporation stubs its fiscal toe on occasion. The public will be willing to understand and forgive if there are explanations that make sense to them and actions are taken to correct the error.

Further, airing some of the internal mistakes and financial errors will make it easier for management to actually fix those problems. When I worked at the CBC I saw misspending being swept under the rug time and again. This led, most commonly, to a repeat of the mistakes and very little being done about the institutional problems that lead to inefficient and sometimes illegal use of CBC funds. For a corporation that in its news department demands transparency and clarity from everyone else, the CBC has been most efficient at burying its own skeletons.

Now add to all of this turmoil, the fact that a group of Tory Members of Parliament are attempting to take sides in an action that is still before the courts. The Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics have taken it upon themselves to take the CBC to task for refusing to succumb to the requests of the Privacy Commissioner and Quebecor. Is this the most important use of their time and efforts considering the fact that the Canadian Government is near the bottom worldwide in providing information about itself to its citizens and its media? Here are a group of people who are prime players in one of the most secretive institutions in Canada, our government, belittling the CBC for not being completely open. Can they not see the hypocrisy? Can they not see that we see the hypocrisy?

The issue is before the courts, thus it is being handled. Why pile on? One can only jump to the conclusion that going after the CBC is good Tory policy. It plays to their voting base. Any chance to hurt the dreaded left-wing CBC cabal cannot be passed up. Oh, and it doesn’t hurt to help a strong supporter like Pierre Karl Peladeau.

Add this all up and it is easy to see this as comedy of errors. The unwittingly silly CBC falling into a trap constructed out of their own fears and the Keystone Kops from Parliament Hill chasing the perceived bad guys that they hope to find.

Welcome to Canada in the 21st Century…the land that leadership forgot.

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Filed under: Media Commentary, Political Commentary, , , , , ,

6 Responses

  1. David Akin says:

    Hey Howard — CBC is fighting a directive of the Information Commissioner, not the Privacy Commissioner. The CBC is appealing, in court, a decision of Info Commish Legault who ruled that some requests made by our organization should be released.

  2. David Akin says:

    I am informed that there are precisely 16 ATI requests that are the subject of the court case, some of which are from our organization but some of which come from unknown requesters.

    The requests were all made in 2007, before I joined Sun Media.

    Since then, reporters in our bureau have made and continue to to make ATI requests of CBC and many other Crown corporations and government departments and agencies, something I suspect reporters in every other newsroom in Ottawa does on a daily basis.

    Hope that helps.

  3. iNudes says:

    The one thing you left out is that it’s not just commercial but also journalistic material CBC wants only a judge to see. I don’t think CBC should have to turn over all of a reporters notes on a story to the commissioner for him and his staff to read just because someone files a request and then appeals the denial. Thats the sort of thing a journalistic organization guards closely internally, nevermind allowing an arm of the government to review it

    • hlbtoo says:

      That may be true but giving the material to the Information Commissioner does not mean it will automatically be handed over to the requester. CBC can have input and it can be deemed an exception if the material contains information that can hurt CBC’s ability to do its job. I have never heard anywhere, by the way, that journalists’ notes are being asked for or questioned. The way I read the FOI legislation, journalistic information of that sort is a clear exception and shouldn’t have to be handed over, even to the Information Commissioner. The same is true of information regarding future planned programming, scheduling and bids for buying new programs.

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