To serve or preserve
The future of the CBC is uncertain
For some, it is hearsay; for others, fact.
Speculation that the CBC will continue to face a series of programming and employment cuts is causing disdain among members of the Canadian media and points to a larger issue: the fabric of Canadian journalism may eventually be sacrificed to save a quick buck.
In 2009, CBC announced it would cut 800 jobs as part of a plan to reduce a $171 million deficit.
“The CBC has been really squeezed financially over the past while,” said Arnold Amber, President of the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression. “Right now, it’s all about reducing size –everyone took a hit at the CBC.
“Before the cuts, producers were working with an $85,000 budget, and now they have $50,000 to do the same thing.”
The federal government has made no attempt to hide its agenda of cutting funding to the CBC. According to the Friends of Canadian Broadcasting website, in 2004, Prime Minister Stephen Harper made a comment during a speech to the Canadian Association of Broadcasters stating that the Conservative government “would seek to reduce the CBC’s dependence on advertising revenue and its competition with the private sector for valuable dollars, especially in non-sports programming.”
The website also reports that during the 2004 election campaign, Stephen Rogers, the Conservative candidate for Vancouver Quadra, told a Canadian broadcasting supporter that he calls CBC, “The Communist Broadcasting Corporation.”
Today, speculation surrounding what programs will be axed at the CBC continues to cause frustration and confusion among its employees and listeners.
“Nobody wants to talk about it openly,” said Jeffery Dvorkin, a former managing editor at the CBC. Dvorkin, who is also a visiting Professor of Journalism at Ryerson University in Toronto, is worried about the state of Canadian broadcasting in today’s high-stakes media environment.
One of the latest financial casualties at the CBC, he said, is the well-known investigative journalism news magazine, The Fifth Estate.
“Its funding has been cut by 20 per cent,” Dvorkin said. “Also, The Fifth Estate was moved from its Wednesday slot, during prime audience hours, to a Friday slot when nobody is around.
“Apparently, when it happened, they approached The National to try and find a way to showcase the stories from The Fifth, but the producers wouldn’t have anything to do with it. In my mind, the media is in a crisis state in this country.”
Amber said part of the decision to move the longstanding program to the Friday timeslot was made by former vice-president of the English TV division of the CBC, Richard Stursburg, who was fired from his position in 2010.
“He envisioned turning the CBC into more of a private broadcasting style outlet, and felt that investigative reporting was too serious and didn’t get the same response as lighter programs, so he moved it to Friday nights, when there were fewer viewers likely to watch it,” Amber said.
“His successor Kristine Stewart has the same views – that ratings come first – so even after he left, nothing changed; it’s a double whammy for the network”
According to Dvorkin, the presence of advertising in Canadian news is growing rapidly. “There is fierce competition to get the story first and an incredible amount of pressure on the media to be quick about it,” he said. “ Documentary-style journalism is slower and more expensive to produce, but there is also a need to appeal to the audience and keep ratings up,” Dvorkin said, referring to the possible cuts to The Fifth Estate.
“Most news agencies in Canada are owned by businessmen,” Amber said. “Businessmen don’t want investigative-style journalists – like those in The Fifth Estate – poking around their papers.”
It is said the job of the media is to be the eyes and ears of the public. However, these days public ratings dictate what the media will report about, Amber said.
“Ultimately, ratings are the driving factor behind the news, and ratings come first,” he said. “Because of the high amount of advertising and opinion in today’s media culture, the Canadian public mistakes opinion for news and that is what it wants to watch.”
“Journalism is about the facts, but people today are addicted to opinions, not facts, and that has changed what we cover in the news today. Part of it has to do with the Internet and advertising, where people profess to be ‘experts’ when actually they are often misinformed. The news will only be saved once the public starts holding sources of information more accountable and becomes re-addicted to the facts.”
The attitude shift of the Canadian audience from factual news combined with the phenomenon of advertising and the harsh financial realities of the global recession means there are tough times ahead for the Canadian media.
According to a March 2009 article in Trente, the official magazine for Federation des Journalistes Professionnelles du Quebec, one in six Canadian journalists will lose their jobs in the current job market because of cuts to funding and programming. At the time of that article, over 1,300 Canadian media jobs had been lost in Canada since the beginning of the recession.
UPDATE (13:47 21/12/11): This article is currently under review. Quotes from CBC Manitoba’s Cecil Rosner have been removed for the time being.