I'm Mad as Hell

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and I can't do a thing about it

CBC: Failure at the top

It is all too clear that no matter what you think of the cuts to the CBC in last week’s budget, the people who run the Corpse have been missing in action in the process. Sure they will tell you how hard they have been working behind closed doors in offices and boardrooms across the country for the past while to figure out how to cut $200 million from their budgets over the next three years. The problem is that the real work they should have been doing was never done.

It seems, and this is according to CBC President Hubert Lacroix, that the government came to them a few weeks ago and asked them how they would cut 5% or 10% of their budget. I want to first say that this should be none of the government’s business. Yes, they can cut the CBC’s stipend any way and any amount they want to, but there is supposed to be an arms-length relationship between the national broadcaster and the government. The purpose of this is to make certain that there’s no political interference in the running of the CBC. By asking the Corpse how they would make the cuts the Finance Ministry and the Heritage Ministry crossed a line that should never be crossed for the protection of all Canadians.

Just as important though, the President of the CBC should not have provided the government with the answers they asked for. This was the time for Hubert Lacroix to take a stand, in fact many stands, against a government that recognizes no rules unless it suits them.

The first thing the CBC president should have said to the government was that the CBC could not deal with any cuts at all. The broadcaster is already underfunded and cannot do the job it has been mandated to do with the money it is already getting. I don’t know whether this is true or not, but it doesn’t matter. Lacroix is there to protect the CBC’s budget and mandate not to give it away whenever the government comes calling.

Certainly the Harperites would have cut anyways, but at least Lacroix should not have made it easy for them.

Second, Lacroix and company should have appealed publicly to all Canadians. He should have held a media conference to say that the Tories were planning to cut the CBC budget. He should have explained the consequences to his organization and to all Canadians. In other words, he should have put up a fight. It’s his job to make it difficult to hurt the organization he runs, not to make it easy.

Third, Lacroix should have told the government it is none of their business how he will make any cuts if they are forced on him and the CBC. Once again, that’s his job, to protect the CBC not to help the Finance Minister balance his budget.

In the end Lacroix committed the biggest crime of all. He told CBC staff and all Canadians that CBC could not only absorb the cuts, but that his 2015 plan would still be able to go ahead. He made the cuts look like it was no big deal to the average Canadian. He gave Canadians no reason to protest, no reason to care.
If you don’t believe me, just check out what the Heritage Minister, James Moore, said when he was questioned about the cuts in question period. He said:
“I would encourage my honourable colleague to look at the speech that was given by Hubert Lacroix, president of the CBC, that outlines it in greater detail, and as a matter of fact the member opposite has it exactly wrong,” he said. Moore then used his time to explain that the budget allows for the “funds necessary for the CBC to fulfill their obligations under the Broadcasting Act.”
The network will still be able to fulfill its 2015 plan which, he said, includes maintaining coverage in all areas, maintaining its official language “footprint,” more “digitization,” and to become “leaner”. The plan “serves the interest not only of the cultural communities but also of taxpayers.”

Talk about an easy out. Thank you very much Hubert Lacroix!
From the performance I have seen over the past week from CBC brass I find it near impossible not to believe that Lacroix, Kirsten Stewart and French V.P. Louis Lalonde appear to be far more interested in keeping their jobs by making the government like them, than they seem to care about the future of the CBC.
It’s too bad really, just when the CBC needs strong leadership most, it becomes obvious that the folks running the corporation are petty bureaucrats whose only interest is self-preservation. Past CBC presidents have resigned their posts over far less.
As far as the actual cuts are concerned, there is little specific information available at this time. Lacroix and his hench-people promised more information soon. What is clear is that $43 million is going to be cut from English programming. Kirsten Stewart refuses to say, at this time, whether that will come from entertainment, sports, or news. We do know that the doc unit is gone, at least as far as making documentaries is concerned. CBC will basically become a buyer of docs in the future.
We were also told that 10% of managers will be cut. We were not told whether this referred to salary or numbers. CBC is still massively over managed. Few managers have been cut over the years. I, and almost anyone who has ever worked for more than one network in Canada, am amazed that CBC honchos can’t cut far more from management to protect programming and the people who actually make the shows.
Lacroix estimates that 81% of the cuts will come from the networks (French and English) and 19% from the regions.
All-in-all a sad time for the national broadcaster: unloved by government and un-led by it’s bosses. If there is any justice in the world, Lacroix will not have his contract renewed. Nobody likes a suck up, not even the folks he’s sucking up to.

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Canada’s Own Evil Empire?

Most of the blogs I write are born in a news story or an event that grabs my interest and all but twists my arm forcing me to write something about it. This one is different. This blog is the result of an accumulation of upset that has taken years to come to terms with. I ask you, anyone who reads this column, is there a huge corporation in Canada that is more anti-consumer than Rogers?

Let me start with the easy stuff. Rogers brought the mobile phone industry to Canada, does anyone remember Cantel? They created a mobile telephone system that was ludicrously expensive and then created fictitious fees to gouge their customers even more, fees that we are still paying, for services that do not exist and never have. Sure Bell and Telus came along afterwards and jumped on board to overcharge Canadian consumers, but it was Rogers that created the pricing policies that make this country one of the most expensive in the world to own and operate a cell phone.

Canada was a leader in creating cable television. We were the first country in the world to use this system for disseminating TV signals. Many Canadians have a short memory about this industry. In fact Rogers bought into the industry, they had little to do with creating it. What Rogers added was higher prices and the inability to chose the stations you wanted. They bundled services so that if you want The Movie Channel, you have to buy a whole whack of stations you may not have any interest in. Worse, if you want Turner Classic Movies, you have to pay the big bucks for The Movie Channel to get it. It’s been close to two years since they promised the CRTC that they would give the consumer the choice to pay for only the stations they want, yet nothing has happened. The Rogers people gift to Canadians: little choice, higher prices and if I may add here, long telephone waits and poor service.

I will only mention Rogers internet service in passing. Canadians pay way too much for internet service, again, amongst the highest in the world. And, if that’s not enough Rogers has added insult to injury by using throttling to slow their service when it gets busy. You pay for fast service, but Rogers slows it down on purpose. While U.S. companies race to install fibre optic wire to help make their service better and quicker, Rogers uses old fashioned coaxial cable that in many cases is as much as forty years old. They claim the high prices are to increase bandwidth and new technology…where do we, the consumers, see the results of that money?

Don’t get me started on their television services. In a previous blog, The Rape of CITY-TV, I discussed how Rogers ruined one of the most unique and innovative television franchises anywhere. When was the last time anyone noticed CITY-TV? They also own Rogers Sportsnet. This started as a regional sports network with four channels, each aimed at a different part of the country. Then the tricky bastards at Rogers added Sportsnet One, put a lot of the most watched content on the new station exclusively and made us pay more to see the channel. Rogers also owns Omni, the multicultural channels with bases in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver.
What did they do with those licenses? First they got rid of most of the multicultural content and replaced it with cheap U.S. game shows and sit-com reruns. They do news in Italian, Chinese and Hindi and run some movies in those languages but they produce very little else. What you may not know is that when you see a Russian show, an Arabic show or any other minority show, the minorities buy the time from Rogers and then have to find their own advertising dollars to pay for their work and what they owe Rogers for the airtime. Many actually lose money to provide their poor communities with a service while Rogers makes millions off them and billions in total.

Rogers also owns the Toronto Blue Jays. They should be embarrassed by their involvement. They have managed to turn the largest market for any single baseball team, 33 million in Canada and 5.5 million in the Toronto area into what they call a small market. Year after year they have underfunded the Jays, in fact the Jays’ budgets are the same today, about $60 million U.S., as when Rogers bought the team. What that doesn’t take into consideration is that the Canadian dollar was at 65 cents when they took over and is close to par today. That means they are actually spending 30% less today then they spent when they bought the team. No need to ask why the Jays have never gone to the post-season under Rogers’ ownership, the answer is all too obvious.

Now Rogers wants a piece of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Toronto Raptors, TFC, etc. Here they see an opportunity to parlay ownership of the teams into television content for their channels. If past performance is any example of future performance, don’t plan for any parades on Yonge Street…ever.

Over the decades Rogers has set the example of greed and gouging that has been seen and followed by the folks at Bell, Shaw, Telus and the rest. They could have been leaders in customer service, competitive pricing, quality television and performance excellence. They never chose those routes. All they have ever shown an interest in was maximizing their bottom line at the expense of their customers.

Who do I blame? Ted Rogers of course, but I also blame the CRTC and the Canadian government for allowing them to get away with the worst of their actions. How could the CRTC allow them to create phony charges for cell phone service? How could the CRTC have allowed prices to grow out of all proportion to other countries? How could the CRTC change their own rules to allow cable companies to own television stations? How indeed?

The people who ran and run Rogers should be ashamed of what they have wrought. The CRTC should be ashamed of what they have allowed to pass. Finally, successive governments of Canada, both Liberal and Conservative should be ashamed of standing by while the CRTC allowed Rogers to gouge the Canadian public.

I invite anyone from Rogers who wants to rebut anything to contact me. I will make space available to them to explain their side. I’m sure all Canadians would like to hear any explanation from Rogers.

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Another Prime Ministerial Love-in

Every year around this time I look forward to the annual CTV News and CBC News interviews with the Prime Minister. They have become as much a part of the festive season as Christmas trees, carols and indigestion. Each year I hope for the kind of interview I remember from the past, but as time goes by I wonder if these sit-downs were ever any good. Is this a case of false memory syndrome on my part? I wonder.

This year’s first Prime Ministerial gabfest was with the new anchor at CTV, Lisa LaFlamme. Anyone who is a regular reader of my blog knows I have been a fan of Lisa’s since long before she came to network television. I was looking forward to some real journalistic third degree. Lisa has always struck me as fearless, therefor I thought she would be all over Stephen Harper. Sadly it was not to be.

Look, I know it was head and shoulders better than last year’s anemic effort where Robert Fife and Lloyd Robertson tossed softballs at Harper and never asked a follow-up question when it was obvious the prime Minister was dodging or ignoring the original query. The two senior CTV reporters embarrassed themselves and their network by skipping many of the most controversial subjects of the year.

A year ago, Peter Mansbridge’s one-on-one with Stephen Harper was only slightly better. He got around to all of the important issues, but you may see a pattern developing here, he too missed every opportunity to ask a follow up question when the Prime Minister was fudging or refusing to get specific.

So this time it was Lisa LaFlamme’s turn. Her first. I knew it was going to be painful almost from the start. Her first few questions were about the economy, immigration and health. Every question was too long, most double-barreled, and each one contained a way out for Harper. LaFlamme seemed to be saying, before I ask this question, and please forgive me for asking it, understand I am a nice person and I won’t force you to get specific. She looked like she was there to please the Prime Minister, not the Canadian public. It hit bottom when she prefaced an economy question by pointing out how tough a time it is to govern before she moving on to say that Harper is seen as a strong fiscal manager by most Canadians. Hello, who wrote this stuff, the P.M. press aides?

Needless to say Harper’s answers were typically long on generalities and almost completely devoid of specifics. Also, needless to say, there were never any follow-ups and at no time was he asked to explain.

From here the interview got a little better. Peter MacKay’s seeming spendthrift ways, and the Arab Spring were broached. These were the kinds of subjects Fife and Robertson ignored a year ago. Here the questions were asked at least, even though Harper’s explanations were never questioned.

The came Kyoto and the environment, on this subject LaFlamme developed a backbone. When Harper tried to explain that he got out of Kyoto because the biggest polluters had not signed on, she asked if he was blaming China and India for the environmental problems. She also asked Harper whether it was incumbent on Canada to show a little leadership on the subject.

LaFlamme followed this up by pressing Harper on the Eurozone crisis and the global economy. There was good stuff here about selling Canada’s oil to China and India, the Keystone Pipeline and the Canada-EEC free trade talks. When Harper said the negotiations were proceeding towards an agreement, LaFlamme asked what the Harper Government had put on the table. She didn’t get an answer, but she did ask the pertinent question.

Then it was back to the love-in. Harper was congratulated for endorsing a state funeral for Jack Layton and was seriously let off the hook for his government’s handling of the Attawapiskat situation.

The final quarter of the interview was with Laureen and Stephen Harper together. This section was filled with the usual People Magazine material: Harper’s kids (they seem so normal), life in the age of Facebook (the kids can’t post there for safety reasons), Laureen’s ability to comment (Stephen is almost always right but we do talk at breakfast), Christmas shopping and who cooks the Christmas dinner.

All-in-all a very pedestrian interview that shed little or no light on the troubles of the past year or the government’s expectations for the year to come. To prove how un-newsy the interview was, on a night when re-gifting and the World Junior Hockey Championships took up a too large portion of the newscast, CTV couldn’t find a single clip or highlight for their national newscast.

We get so few opportunities, especially from this Prime Minister, to spend the kind of time it takes to do an in-depth interview, it seems criminal to me to waste it without asking the really tough questions and demanding answers, or at least pointing out when the answers are not forthcoming.

I will give Lisa LaFlamme another chance because it was her first solo try, but my expectations will be for a much better effort next year.

P.S. The production values left a lot to be desired too. The camera pointed at Harper was too high and therefor always looked down on him and the camera was placed so that Harper was always in ¾ profile. Lisa’s camera was pointed directly at her, they should have done the same for the Prime Minister. Also, as the interview went on Harper started to sweat, especially above the upper lip, and he became shiny in the TV lights. I’m certain they could have paused to powder his face. They didn’t.

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Monopoly…a Canadian way of doing business

A lot of you will look at the deal to buy Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment (MLSE) by Bell and Rogers as simply a sports deal. You may be questioning what this means for the future of your favorite sports franchise, be it the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Toronto Raptors, TFC (the soccer team), maybe even the Toronto Blue Jays or one of the other six NHL teams in Canada. If you are a sports fan in this country and whether you love the dismal Toronto franchises, or love to see them fail year after year, there are real sporting implications…the truth though, whether you like to hear it or not, is that the future of the Leafs success on ice is mostly irrelevant in this deal.

The sale of MLSE is about content rights, who will control the television, radio, internet, mobile, etc. rights to the sporting content generated by these teams. In those terms this is a very frightening deal. Bell and Rogers are already the two most powerful media conglomerates in Canada. They own and manage, some would say mismanage, 80 television stations including all of the major sports stations on TV. They own 88 radio stations including all of the major sports-talk stations. They will pick up an additional three television licenses that MLSE owns. Together they own the vast majority of Canada’s online and mobile services. You think that it’s just Bell and Rogers? Think again. They also own Virgin, Solo, ChatR and Fido, and of course the largest satellite and cable companies too.

It’s hard to believe that a few short years ago it was deemed illegal for a cable or satellite company to own a television station, let alone a network. Thank you CRTC.

This concentration of power will be bad for everyone. While Bell and Rogers are busy divvying up the nation, they leave little room for their competition. This means they can do with sports content what they have done with mobile technology and cable and satellite delivery. They can control access and they can control price. All you have to do to see the future is to look at what these to companies have done in the past. Canadians pay among the highest rates in the world for mobile service and internet access, and Bell and Rogers continually strive to keep competition out through influence on government and regulatory bodies and with unfair discount practices that disappear when the competition is wiped out. To quote Ellen Roseman in the Toronto Star, “Rogers and Bell bludgeon customers into accepting a flurry of extra charges for wireless phones. They hit them with unexpected bills for data roaming and third party text messages.”

Roseman goes to describe some of the dirty practices of Bell and Rogers that include discounts that evaporate before the subscriber ever sees them, raised prices that make the discounts offered moot, and of course, some 8000 complaints from Canadians to the government last year about how they are being treated by telecommunications companies like Bell and Rogers.

I expect to see access to Toronto’s sports franchises on radio and television to change in three ways, first, you will see far more games on Rogers Sportsnet and TSN and expect to see fewer games in which let’s say the Calgary Flames or Winnipeg Jets own the rights. Why pay the owners of a third party NHL club when you can pay yourself and fill the same amount of air time? Second, I see fewer opportunities for non-MLSE affiliated channels like CBC and Global to get the rights to the most popular sports entertainment. Finally, I see the possibility of a new pay channel that replaces Leafs-TV and Raptors-TV with a new sports channel that forces the public to pay big subscription fees to gain access to games that will no longer be available on any other channel, think MSG Network (Madison Square Gardens) or YES Network (Yankee Entertainment) two very profitable networks in the United States that control all of the most popular sports franchises in the New York City area.

Lastly I want to make a point about the way sports journalism will be affected. Since the owners of MLSE will now control virtually all of the sports broadcast media who will be left to criticize the missteps and worse the arrogance of this new sporting monster?

Will the guys at The Fan or TSN Radio take on their corporate bosses? Will they lose jobs and be punished for doing so? Does anyone see the conflict of interest here? Does anyone at the competition bureau or the CRTC care?

In the past few months Rogers and Bell have been busy buying the services of dozens of the best print sports writers to fill slots on radio and television and to write for new magazines. Most have quit their print jobs like Stephen Brunt, some like Damien Cox keep a foot in both camps. It is my contention that just about every sports writer in Canada is at least partially beholden to either Bell or Rogers. Sure you may write for a local paper in Vancouver that’s owned by the Post group or an independent in Toronto like the Toronto Star, but you all supplement your income, your reach and your popularity with appearances on one of the Bell or Rogers sports television and radio channels. Do you want to blow your chances for more guest shots? I think not. So, when the Toronto Raptors decide to spend less money and refuse to sign a free agent that’s available and who might make the team competitive, or merely watchable, will you write about it or just keep it to yourself? When TFC charges more for tickets than Manchester United (this is already a fact) will you shout about it in your column or is discretion a better road to take? For those of you who haven’t seen it, The Globe and Mail, which should stop calling itself Canada’s national newspaper, barely noticed this story. Why?

Sports journalism is for the most part an oxymoron in Canada. The last bastions were the daily newspapers in the major cities. Bell and Rogers have figured out how to co-opt even this small amount of opposition. Now it can only get worse.

Canadians in general and sports fans in particular will be the big losers if this deal is allowed to go through. The only way to stop it is if all Canadians get up of their backsides and scream at their political representatives. There’s one thing more powerful than the money and influence Bell and Rogers can and do wield, that is the threat of losing the next election.

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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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Diagnosis: Shoddy Journalism

As a born and raised Quebecker I always felt I had a better understanding of that province than most in the ROC (rest of Canada). I predicted the first PQ victory when all the English Canadian experts were saying that was impossible. I understood the angst felt by Quebecois in both referenda. While I am a federalist, I have a soft spot for Rene Levesque and his crusade to clean up Quebec politics.

That being said, I am truly amazed at the drivel that is being egested by the press in the province of my birth.

Here in Ontario, and I suspect in all of English Canada we have been told about a strange story that is making some headlines in Quebec. Andre Picard and Lysianne Gagnon, journalists I have admired in the past, are ranting in The Globe and Mail that Jack Layton should have come clean about his cancer before the campaign. They say he should have told the public he was in much more serious medical trouble so that we, the public, could have decided whether we wanted to vote for a man who may not be able to serve us in Parliament, and his party as leader.

Gagnon writes further that La Presse Columnist, Patrick Lagace, “didn’t mince words.” She quotes him as writing, ““Mr. Layton ran for the highest office knowing that the crab was gnawing at his bones. We should have been told. This would have changed the vote of thousands of people, that’s clear. And it’s someone who voted for the NDP who’s telling you this.”

This is what Andre Picard had to add via Gagnon, “the public was owed “full disclosure” and that hiding the kind of cancer affecting Mr. Layton constituted “unacceptable fudging.” Mr. Picard noted that, in those cases where prostate cancer metastasizes, “it tends to move to the bones – the pelvis and hips in particular.” Then, he said, “the survival rate drops below 10 per cent.”

Gagnon, Picard and Lagace are calling for a U.S. style full disclosure that would open up party leader’s medical files to the public before election campaigns.

Hey these people are from the same province that wants to register those they consider real journalists and card them, thus keeping the “fake” journalists out of their media conferences. So why am I surprised?

First let me point out the obvious. Gagnon, Picard and Lagace do not, that I know about, have medical degrees. And, even if they had, no serious medical doctor would or should ever diagnose a patient that they themselves had not personally examined. In fact I am certain that 99% of the complainers in Quebec, the ones who voted NDP and now feel cheated, do not have medical degrees.

So the question is obvious. How do they know Layton’s cancer was evident and diagnosed before the campaign started? Heck how do they know Layton’s cancer returned even before the campaign ended?

They don’t. This is the kind of journalism that should give all journalists a black eye, and shame on The Globe and Mail and La Presse for publishing these, so far, baseless accusations.

It seems obvious to me that unless you have hard facts from credible sources that prove otherwise, you have to believe Olivia Chow and Jack himself, that the cancer he died of was neither diagnosed nor evident before or during the election period.

If Gagnon, Picard and Lagace have that evidence, why have they not published it? If they don’t have the proof they should just shut up. That’s how journalism used to work. That’s how journalism is supposed to work. Based on what I have seen so far, it is clear that Picard, Gagnon and Lagace will not qualify for their shiny new Quebec Journalist I.D. cards and neither should the publishers of The Globe and Mail and La Presse.

I am going to give the last word to a comment on the Globe and Mail website by R. Carriere: “As to the column title ” What if Quebeckers had known the whole story about Jack?”..’.what if’ is a game anyone can play and the almost demonization without pure and credible fact is unbecoming of any responsible columnist.

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CBC: Fade to Black

Every time someone writes a blog condemning the new CBC, like the one last week by Tim Knight that caused a small stir, there seems to be less and less interest in it. There was a time when a piece like Tim’s would have caused a tremendous reaction. CBC backers would have taken to their computers and their writing implements to shout him down or to join him in the chorus of complainers. The fact that this is not happening speaks volumes about where the CBC is today in the conscious minds of Canadians. It is in fact not a pretty picture.

The CBC move to become ultra-light in an effort to woo younger viewers and boost its ratings has been a dismal failure. The age of the average CBC audience has not declined appreciably. The audience numbers have not risen, especially in comparison to the gains made by CTV and Global since the rating system was changed. Shows like Little Mosque on the Prairie and Insecurity have served to turn loyal CBC viewers away from the network. The National’s weak efforts since it was revamped have served to cut anywhere from 20 to 40 percent of the CBC News audience. The dismal treatment of current affairs mainstays like The 5th Estate and Marketplace have eroded both their numbers and their positive affect on how we view the work and importance of CBC TV. All of this is regrettable, and most important each small failure has led to the Corp’s biggest problem: too few people care enough anymore to fight for the CBC’s future.

I just returned from a trip to the east coast. When I lived there many years ago the CBC was a mainstay. It was top of mind if not top of ratings. The National’s news anchor was a star. There were programs that everyone watched and talked about. Yes, it was mainly in news and current affairs, but under brilliant people like John Kennedy the CBC was producing excellent movies and series that made a difference.
Today, I couldn’t find anyone who called himself or herself a CBC viewer. Most of the people I met don’t watch The National at all and seldom see anything on CBC. I know this is not a scientific survey, but I did see a lot of people in social group situations. The Maritimes, like Manitoba and Newfoundland were where the CBC picked up its biggest per capita audiences. That’s not true anymore for the Maritimes.

As if all this is not bad enough, at least three people questioned why the CBC should continue to exist and be funded by the taxpayers. One man from New Glasgow, a bookshop owner, went so far as to say he would not vote for any political party that would not sell off CBC TV. The general argument they make is that CBC TV programming is the same sort of stuff we see on CTV and Global. When I talked of Canadian content and jobs in the TV industry they laughed, saying if you can’t produce quality shows that I want to watch, you don’t deserve to have a job in the industry.

While many of these people’s feelings are extreme, what I see is a general malaise. People just don’t care anymore about the CBC and its future. When Parliament asked CBC to look for five percent in cuts to a budget that is already far to small to do the job, I didn’t hear a peep from anyone complaining about our cultural heritage or the need to have a national broadcaster. The silence was deafening.
CBC TV, it seems, has finally lost its standing as an important Canadian institution. Twenty-five years of budget cuts and six years of management dumbing down the content have worked their magic to make CBC TV just another station, and an unpopular one at that. The fact that the CBC costs Canadians a billion dollars per year only serves to make citizens care more about the money and less about what the network has to offer.

In the best of all worlds there would be a groundswell of opposition to what the current managers have done to a venerable institution. There would be a demand for watchable local news and a more serious National. There would be an outcry demanding a few high quality shows to counterbalance the froth. Alas, none of that is happening. What we are witness to is a slow fade to black at CBC TV. The very people who are responsible for a 75 year old legacy are either asleep at the wheel or have no idea what they are doing to the reputation and standing of the CBC.

Stephen Harper will not have to sell off the CBC, he won’t even have to do anything drastic. All he has to do is stand aside and let the CBC drift further and further into irrelevancy.

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Quitting Solves Nothing

Okay, okay, enough already, for three days I have been getting calls, emails, posts and pleas to wade in on the Kai Nagata story. Kai’s the former CTV reporter who worked in, or should I say was, the Quebec City bureau. He has walked away from his job at the naïve young age of 24 but not before writing an impassioned essay on why he left and what is wrong with broadcast, no, all of journalism.

Kai’s screed has been an internet sensation among those of us who call ourselves journalists. Not just because it was passionate and well written, but, because there are too many sorry truths to ignore in his ramblings.

Kai says he quit his job “…because the idea burrowed into my mind that, on the long list of things I could be doing, television news is not the best use of my short life.”

Nagata’s main criticisms of his former profession are all right on the mark. He decries the need for good looks as a television reporter and says that sometimes, perhaps many times, looks are more important than the ability to report, write and produce top quality stories. He felt he could not do the kind of reporting he thought was necessary. He especially thought reporting on the Harper Government was a non-starter because his bosses did not want to tackle what he saw as the flaws in policy, those include Harper’s foreign policy which Kai believes has diminished Canada on the world stage, the lack of funding for science and research which he calls a “war” on science, and the Harper plan to increase prison sentences at a time when the crime rate is falling.

It appears that Kai was especially upset by the wall-to-wall coverage that Will and Kate got for more than a week on their Canadian tour. The royal romp across Canada seemed to upset him for two reasons, first, that while so many major stories were percolating all over the world, TV journalist wasted their efforts and broadcasters wasted their air-time on what is after all a very unimportant story. Second, he was disappointed to see and hear some of televisions best journalists stoop to become breathless groupies gushing over the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.

As I said, Kai was right on all counts. So I ask myself, why am I not as impressed with Kai as it seems most of the rest of my world seem to be?

First and foremost Kai answers my question by reporting that he had lots of journalistic freedom to cover the Quebec Assembly and Quebec politics. This was after-all his job and by his own admission he was allowed to do it and do it reasonably well. When he took the job in Quebec City he did not expect, or did he, to cover federal government policy.

Second, and probably most important, while it is true that broadcasters and newspapers sometimes abdicate their job, that of covering the most important stories, this so that there will be more room for the most popular stories of the day, the stories that will bring in many, many more eyeballs and perhaps help pay for the expensive services that journalists provide, it should be pointed out that over time journalists have done an excellent job of breaking extremely important news. On the 40th anniversary of the Watergate break-in, I should not have to tell people what kind of work journalists can and do accomplish. Ask the starving people of Ethiopia if Brian Stewart’s expose of the drought was effective journalism? What about the coverage of Chretien government’s sponsorship scandal that may have brought down a political party? From tasers to tainted tuna we have all witnessed some excellent journalism by broadcast journalists who didn’t let the coverage of Princess Diana or the Bollywood film awards get in the way of the vital news they had to deliver.

I see people like Terry Milewski and Craig Oliver continuing to hold authority up to scrutiny. I see a new young guard of people like Omar Sachedina and Adrienne Arsenault who deliver the kind of stories that Kai says he wants to see. I see what could have and should have been an opportunity for a bright young man to take on the system and make it better. Alas he quit. He walked away when there was work to be done.

This is a case where being right doesn’t mean you are doing the right thing, I know because I made the same mistake once. I was news director at Global TV when the Oka Crisis was happening just outside Montreal. My boss, the vice president pulled my crew out of Oka without asking or informing me. I was shocked. I stormed into his office and asked him how he could pull our news crew away from the most important story in Canada? His response: Howard, we don’t have to cover it anymore. We got our license renewal on Friday.

I went down to my office and wrote a letter of resignation leaving 75 people to deal with an ignorant boss and a new toadie who would take over the newsroom.

To this day I regret the rash decision because I was in the process of turning Global News into a serious force in Canadian journalism. My departure left the wolves in charge of the hen house and it took a decade and new leadership at Global before they could start to claw their way back to credibility.

Kai Nagata seems like just the kind of young journalist the industry and the profession need to survive and prosper. Nobody has ever changed things for the better by walking away. By leaving he has in fact, helped those that seek to trivialize broadcast journalism and ceased to be of aid to those who want to make it better.

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The CRTC Must Die

Every time you think the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, the CRTC, has finally been chastised and in the process, learned a lesson, the bozos who run the circus come up with a new and silly act meant to help the broadcasters. And, as is usual with these folks, somehow ends up diminishing our choices as consumers and costing us more money in the long run.

Last time the genius’ at the CRTC had the brilliant notion that behemoths Rogers and Bell should have the right to tell their sub-buyers like Teksavvy what they could charge for internet use. This blew up in the CRTC’s face when most Canadians saw through the money grab by the big providers and began a protest that made the suggestion disappear faster than a Liberal leader in the 21st century.

At just about the same time the sages who run the CRTC suggested that the need to tell the truth by broadcasters should be somehow loosened so that less honesty and less truth could become the norm. This was at a time when Sun TV was on the drawing board. Either they, the CRTC, were too stupid to make the connection, which is highly likely, or they were attempting, as some suggested, to pander to the Tory government by making it easier for a Fox-north like entity to succeed. Either way, it blew up in their collective faces.

Oh, and let’s not forget the plan to allow CTV and Global to charge cable and satellite companies to rebroadcast what is by license and by law a free service. Somehow this notion was approved but has disappeared from the landscape. It was left to the broadcasters and the distributors to somehow work out the charges. My guess is that Rogers said no way, we won’t pay and the entire issue went poof. If it had any legs after that I suspect the acquisition of CTV by Bell and Global by Shaw doomed the concept. Now the broadcasters are the distributors too. Funny the CRTC didn’t see these events coming even after they broke their own rules years ago by allowing cable and satellite companies like Rogers and Bell to own TV stations. It was inevitable. Only the egg-heads at the CRTC didn’t see the end of competition coming.

So, now that all their recent plotting has failed miserably, the brainiacs at the CRTC have come up with a new plan to strengthen the oligarchies that run broadcasting in Canada while at the same time diminishing the viewers’ options. This time the CRTC is asking interested parties, there will be no public hearings so interested parties mean those who are stakeholders, the people who will make more money, to comment on how new media should and could be forced to provide Canadian content and contribute to those people who provide Canadian content.

On the surface this sounds so sensible. Who’s against more money for Canadian shows and who wouldn’t like to see more and better Canadian TV? Apple pie and ice cream right?

Wrong! When looked at more closely the CRTC is attempting to regulate an industry that it has no right to regulate. Sure I can see why CTV, Rogers and Global want to make it more expensive for Netflix and Apple to do business. If Netflix has to charge more for their service, there is less likelihood that my fellow Canadians will sign up. In the end this means more customers for the broadcasters and distributors. Why not ask? I would if I owned CTV or Global.

Instead of looking at the apple pie and drooling, think of it this way: Netflix and Apple are really no different than your local video store. They provide access to content that is not delivered by cable, satellite or over the air. Their content, like the video store is mostly TV series’ and movies, the stuff you can buy at Walmart or rent at Blockbuster. Interestingly, Rogers provides this rental service in big video stores and Bell and Rogers both offer pay-per-view movies. Ask yourself whether Blockbuster or your corner video store should be forced to provide Canadian content or help pay for Canadian production? Obviously, this is a ludicrous idea. Well the concept is no more ludicrous at the Netflix store.

The latest argument by the broadcasters is that Apple and Netflix have begun to fund and buy programming that will go directly to their service and bypass TV, cable and satellite. Please, someone, explain what the difference is between this and videos that are made to be sold directly to the public without ever being broadcast? There are thousands of them. Disney is a big producer of this sort of content. Perhaps we should go after Disney to provide Canadian content and money for Canadian production. Hell, you can buy the Disney videos in Canadian stores. It’ll never happen. I can hear the guffaws coming from the Magic Kingdom just at the suggestion.

Seriously folks, I think we can all recognize a protectionist scam that is being devised by the broadcasters in Canada along with the CRTC. Hurt the new guys and you help yourself. Luckily the Tory government has already come out against the idea. Tony Clement has said, “…it is a way to strangle the competition.”

The time has come to scrap the CRTC. They are tools of the oligarchs who own and run broadcasting and telecommunications in this country. They have succeeded in providing Canadians with one of the most expensive mobile phone systems in the world, one of the highest cost internet systems in the world, and a national television system that is ruled by three owners who have steadfastly fought every initiative to make Canadian programs and play them in prime time. All they, the networks, really care about is their bottom line. Fair enough, they are businesses. But isn’t that why we created the CRTC? To regulate those businesses so that they serve Canadians. So far all I see is a CRTC that wants to regulate Canadians in the service of Rogers, Bell and Shaw.

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Free Press

Sorry for the long layoff, I have just returned from China. This was my fifth or sixth trip to China, and the second in just over two years. The country never ceases to amaze. The rich in the country appear to be super rich. A walk along Nanjing Road or in the French Concession reveals half a dozen auto dealerships. I saw an Astin Martin dealership, a Maserati dealership, a Jaguar dealership, and the cheapest car I could see to buy in downtown Shanghai was a Land Rover.

In the big cities the people you see on the street are for the most part very smartly dressed. There are far fewer beggars than I would see on the Danforth in Toronto.

According to the people I met and talked to, mostly guides and middle class family people, things are just terrific in China. Yet on two occasions I had conversations that amazed me. They were both about the same thing. I was asked what I do for a living in Canada. I said I was a retired journalist. The people asking the question seemed overly interested in this fact. The next question I was asked is whether as a journalist I could write the truth. They wanted to know whether I could write about what I see or whether the government tells me what to publish.

Interestingly, the Chinese were actually surprised that the press was basically free to tell the stories they wanted to tell, and more important to them, the truth. It is a concept that they can get their heads around logically, but something they have never seen, or at least believe they have never seen.

When asked to describe their television news or their newspapers, the Chinese people I spoke to said there was no point in watching or reading. There was too little truth in their media and everything was censored. They went on to describe their news media as a propaganda arm of the government, telling me that Chinese journalists garner no respect from the populace at large. Of course they are correct.

I was not surprised by the lack of free press in China. Heck we all know the regime is tyrannical and controlling. What did surprise me was the fact that everyone seems to know the situation. I have never lived in a totalitarian nation so I have nothing to compare it to. Hey, but most Chinese have never lived in a democracy with a free press. So how did they become so savvy to their own situation? This is a question nobody could answer. I got shrugs and remarks like: everyone knows what’s going on. I guess it is the equivalent of an underground economy, in this case an underground information system that passes on the truth to better informed citizens.

What this experience and these discussions raised in me was the strong realization that we in Canada and the West take our press freedom for granted. We seldom give it a second thought. Perhaps that’s a good thing. It speaks to the freedoms we do have. But it also makes me wonder when outlets like Fox News in the U.S. and now Sun TV in Canada play fast and loose with the facts. How much does this demean our system and worse how does it affect the perception of the people who were raised to believe in the facts presented by a free press. And to be fair, it’s not just the Fox’s and the Sun’s. The Iraq War was a textbook case of the major U.S. networks refusing to report the facts of both the political and the military situation leading up to and during the conflict.

The bottom line question all journalists should ask themselves is whether we are killing a good thing and where that will lead in the future. While I was away I actually got to see the now infamous Sun TV interview that Krista Erickson did with the Tory Heritage Minister James Moore. The minister made minced meat of Krista mostly because she would not let the facts get in the way of her story idea. The best line for me in the interview was when Moore said to Erickson that she had very different ideas when she spoke to him as a CBC employee and all she could do was blubber for 20 seconds about where she works today. Had she had her facts right, she might have been on the way to making a reasonable point about the CBC’s dumbed down programming initiatives, but she was far more concerned about spreading misinformation to make a stronger point. It reminded me of Donald trump and the “birthers.”

Two things are happening at the same time and neither one is good. First, journalism is being subverted and dragged down by manipulative practitioners who are only interested in using the media to spread a point of view. If this continues it will bring all journalism into disrepute. Second, an increasingly ignorant population is being fed false information and accepting it as fact. This results in a vicious cycle of increasing ignorance that allows the purveyors of misinformation to be more and more effective.

I wish all of those so-called journalists who refuse to cherish fact based reporting could spend a little time in places like China and Cuba. If they could see how valuable and important free journalism is, perhaps they would be less inclined to subvert it.

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

About the Author

Howard Bernstein is a former TV producer. He has worked at CBC,CTV, Global and has produced shows for most Canadian channels as an independent producer.

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