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Sean Speer: It’s time to move on from the CBC

Commentary

CBC president and CEO Catherine Tait’s recent announcement that the public broadcaster intends to shift from traditional radio and television broadcasting to solely an online streaming service over the coming decade was made against a backdrop in which Conservative Party leader Pierre Poilievre’s high-profile commitment to “defund the CBC” has catalyzed a broader debate about the Canadian media landscape and the role of public policy to support news content and information in our society. 

Hub contributor Steve Lafleur has weighed into this debate with a defence of the CBC in general and its role in filling a gap in the marketplace for local news in particular. Readers will find Lafleur’s line of argument worthwhile even if they ultimately disagree with him. They should. 

The original case for the CBC as a public good dates back to the launch of radio communications and concerns on the part of the Conservative government of R.B. Bennett that the market wouldn’t provide radio services to small communities across the country. The basic argument was that these markets were too small to recoup a return on private investment and the risk was that they’d therefore go underserved or neglected altogether. The same thinking extended to television broadcasting roughly twenty years later. 

The CBC has persisted ever since without much self-reflection about its original rationale. In the intervening years, the case has evolved from a basic market failure to amorphous arguments about elevating Canadian content and telling national stories. The size, scope, and public subsidies for the public broadcaster have nevertheless grown largely unabated. 

Poilievre’s case for defunding the CBC has thus far tended to stay high level. The insinuation is that the CBC is unbalanced and tilts too far left which is broadly correct. A 2017 poll for instance found that respondents viewed the CBC as the most biased national media outlet in the country. But the principal case for getting rid of the CBC in 2023 isn’t merely about its perceived bias. It’s that it’s no longer needed. Ninety-year-old concerns about the market’s failure to deliver broad-based content, including Canadian news and information, have since been resolved by the positive-sum effects of the internet. 

The case for reconceptualizing the CBC is the same as the one against the Trudeau government’s Bill C-11 which would extend the heavy-handed CanCon regime to online streaming services such as Netflix and YouTube. We no longer need to use the levers of public policy—including mandates, quotas, subsidies, and even state ownership—to ensure that Canadian content is produced and disseminated. There are plenty of successful Canadian content producers succeeding in today’s highly-competitive and highly-global online market. As I’ve written before, Canadian cultural producers and Canadian stories are reaching larger and broader audiences than they ever have. 

Lafleur would probably agree with parts of this argument. He opposes the CBC competing with private broadcasters for scarce advertising dollars and makes a narrow case for its ongoing role similar to the original purpose of a public broadcaster in a large, sparsely populated country. He implicitly argues that while the CBC’s national scope may no longer be justified according to a clear definition of market failure, the market-driven decline in local news—particularly in smaller Canadian communities—justifies an ongoing role for the CBC. 

This argument is more conceptually persuasive than a full-throated defence of the CBC. But in practice, it’s similarly lacking. The CBC isn’t really aiming to deliver meat-and-potato local news of the kind whose demise Lafleur laments. 

His concession that “they [the CBC] may not have the budget to cover local issues in every town, but at very least they provide some level of news coverage where none might otherwise exist” fails to fully contend with the actual news coverage that the CBC tends to provide. Presumably because of organizational preferences and the self-selection of its journalists, so much of its local coverage today is highly-niche content that’s neither representative of the broad-based local experience nor particularly informative of important national or international developments for local audiences. 

The problem lies with the CBC’s tendency to prefer micro over the meta. While it’s undoubtedly true that the news media has historically excluded marginalized voices, including racial and sexual minorities, the CBC’s solution to essentially put them at the centre of its understanding of local news, overreaches far too much in the other direction. Its legitimate efforts to rebalance who tells the stories and whose stories are told has devolved into a caricature of identity politics. 

This point is worth underscoring: the ideological and partisan bias that Poilievre and other Conservatives raise at the national level might be tolerable if the CBC’s local news coverage was mostly about town council meetings, local sporting events, and other civic developments, but it’s most definitely not. It instead feels like a version of the news curated by a boring and predictable left-wing undergraduate student group. One only needs to listen to or watch a local CBC affiliate for a half hour to realize how narrow and unrepresentative its conception of Canada’s community life is. 

The upshot: the future of the CBC and the problem of so-called “news deserts” ought to be seen as two separate and mostly unrelated policy questions. Defunding the CBC as Poilievre has promised is, by and large, justified according to the market and technological developments that have occurred since its original creation. How that is ultimately carried out involves a spectrum of policy outcomes as Stuart Thomson recently outlined for The Hub. Canadians should increasingly demand the Conservatives provide more details about their plan. 

As for expanding public support for local news, Lafleur is right to raise concerns. Yet the policy response ought to be far more market-based and decentralized than merely throwing a $1 billion per year to a single public broadcaster. 

One simple idea is that the government should expand access to its “registered journalism organizations” status. This would permit more news organizations to sit institutionally in a unique space somewhere between traditional for-profit models and charitable status. It would give them the scope to access new sources of funding, including philanthropic support, without being hamstrung by some of the editorial constraints faced by a traditional charity. 

The government should also promote and expand public support for Canadians’ individual subscriptions. There are currently dozens of news media organizations for whom print or digital subscriptions can be eligible for a non-refundable tax credit. One option would be to make it refundable so that it essentially functions as a cash voucher to be used against subscriptions from Canadian-based sources. It would ensure the distribution of public dollars is democratized and therefore follows Canadians’ preferences rather than the diktats of bureaucrats and large tech firms. 

An immediate step would be to follow Lafleur’s recommendation to bar the CBC from directly competing with private, for-profit news entities when it comes to the selling of advertising. It’s indefensible that successive governments have permitted the public broadcaster to undercut the revenue model of private news organizations which are risking shareholder capital to provide a public good in the form of local, regional, or national news and ultimately live or die on their advertising sales. It’s even more egregious that in recent years the CBC has gone well beyond traditional advertising to try and become a major player in the manipulative world of “branded content” where advertisers’ messages are seamlessly mixed into CBC on-air and online content. All this needs to stop. It’s lousy public policy and toxic for the CBC in terms of its journalistic reputation. 

That’s a long way of saying, I suppose, that Lafleur (who we’re honoured to publish at The Hub) is right to raise concerns about the state of the modern media landscape but wrong to think the CBC is part of the solution. After more than 90 years, the public broadcaster has outlived its usefulness. It’s time to rethink its place in the Canadian media landscape, including possibly winding it down altogether. The future ought to lie in putting dollars in the hands of Canadians and letting them determine the country’s broadcasting future. 

Richard Shimooka: The cost of sending fighter jets to Ukraine is not worth the risk

Commentary

Ukraine’s minister of defence claimed in the last few weeks that he expects NATO allies will provide fighter aircraft “as soon as possible.” Unlike the Leopard 2 tanks debate, however, where the supporters of Ukraine were largely united in their support (with the brief exception of Germany until its recent reversal), the debate over fighter aircraft has been much more mixed. Most of Ukraine’s key backers, the United States, Germany, and the United Kingdom are fairly dismissive of the idea in the short term.

To start, the Ukrainian air force has been an important part of the country’s remarkable defence of its territory over the past year—improving its capabilities should be a priority for the Ukrainian government and its backers not just now but also after the war concludes. The reticence behind the Western governments’ decision is a combination of several major factors: the challenges of such a transition, its cost, and its ultimate efficacy.

Fighter aircraft are extremely complex capabilities, among the most difficult to operate and sustain for a modern military. A typical NATO training system requires roughly 18 months of fairly intensive training to produce a combat-ready fighter pilot, albeit with a very basic level of ability. A squadron requires a mix of a few highly experienced veterans with over a decade of experience that can effectively employ new recruits. While there might be a tendency to believe that Ukrainian pilots, many of whom are year-long combat veterans, would easily adapt to new aircraft and play this role, this is not the case.

A key part of the challenge is that NATO and other European fighters operate significantly differently from their former Soviet counterparts. The pilot-vehicle interface is a critical component for any training regime, as pilots often need to make split-second decisions based on muscle memory in order to be effective; as such, unlearning existing habits and relearning new ones is a critical part of an effective transition. Overall, Western aircraft controls operate under different logics and operations—for example, Ukrainian aircraft use Cyrillic and metric symbology and controls. 

Existing Ukrainian Air Force pilots would need significant retraining to just achieve a basic level of proficiency, much less one that would allow them to take advantage of NATO fighters’ capabilities. Thus far, the United States and the United Kingdom have only agreed to provide basic flight training to Ukrainian pilots, not the year-long advanced fighter and conversion training required to transition pilots to a specific aircraft type.

While pilots garner much of the popular focus, in reality, the true bottleneck for a transition is the sea of nameless maintenance technicians. Their tireless efforts are critical to keeping any aircraft operating. Each generic Western fighter, like the F-16 or CF-18, requires eight to 10 frontline maintainers to keep an aircraft operating successfully around the clock. They are essential for various subsystems, including avionics, radars, electronic countermeasures, structures, engines, and various weapon types. In total, a fully staffed NATO squadron of 18 aircraft requires 20 or so pilots, and approximately 300 maintainers and other staff members.

Moreover, these individuals are almost certainly at a high premium within the Ukrainian armed forces, considering the wide variety of Western armoured vehicles they currently employ in the field. There simply isn’t a reserve of underemployed technicians sitting idly by waiting for work. This means a large number would need to be trained afresh, which in some cases could be a years-long process.

Part of the issue is that Ukraine is at war, which complicates any assistance. Traditional models of transitioning an airforce to a Western type are not available. Typically, contractor support is deeply embedded in new users of Western fighters in order to build up the necessary expertise until it is no longer necessary. However, this approach is politically and militarily problematic when the entire country is in the midst of fighting a war.

Thus, most firms would be extremely reticent in providing such support in the country. An alternative is to operate a two-level model, with the frontline squadron work undertaken at airbases in Ukraine and more complex work provided inside NATO countries. This too would be politically problematic, as these new fighters would be using bases in NATO countries as sanctuaries of sorts. While many Ukrainian capabilities utilize this two-level model, such as armoured vehicles, it would be much more visible and problematic having these aircraft crossing regularly back and forth for maintenance work. 

While a common refrain is that wartime necessity and expediency should trump safety, this is a problematic argument due to the resources required to operate a NATO standard fighter fleet. Each fighter, even a type that has been declared surplus, is costly to operate, and older airframes require more work to keep flying than new ones. This would add to the significant maintenance burden faced by Ukrainian forces. The resources required to sustain a single fighter could support multiple armoured vehicles, yet there is no guarantee that the former can be a decisive instrument. 

For Ukraine to win, it must be efficient with the resources it has and find avenues to make highly advantageous exchanges. That does not mean replicating the entire panoply Western capabilities in miniature, no matter the cost. Russia still possesses a highly potent air defence system that has denied their airspace to Ukrainian combat aircraft—even NATO Air Forces would face significant difficulty overcoming their capabilities. A Ukrainian Air force operating older Western aircraft with hastily trained personnel will be at an even greater disadvantage.

Instead, Ukraine has already adapted to this reality, much along the lines of cutting-edge U.S. and NATO doctrine. Since the promulgation of the U.S. Army and Marine Corps’ multi-domain battle concept in 2017, Western militaries have increasingly moved towards achieving airpower’s battlefield effects using non-traditional means. As air superiority could not be assured against new Chinese and Russian air defence capabilities, the United States sought alternative approaches, like long-range artillery and surface-to-surface missiles to conduct strikes. 

Ukraine already illustrates this approach. With the use of a persistent battlefield intelligence collection system, provided by Western or Ukrainian capabilities, it has effectively employed those very same long-range strike capabilities, most notably the HIMARS rocket system, to achieve similar effects to what air superiority would provide. A better approach would be to reinforce these capabilities, including the provision of the much-longer range ATACMS system. 

In addition, Ukraine’s allies should try to improve the capability and serviceability of its current fighter fleet for the immediate future. Of particular note is the incorporation of a number of specialized NATO systems into the Ukrainian fighter fleet, like the High-Speed Anti-Radiation Missile. Integrating other precision-guided, stand-off weapons, such as the Small Diameter Bomb, Standoff Land Attack Missile, or Joint Stand-off Weapon, would be immensely helpful in improving their existing aircraft’s ability to play a more substantial role in the conflict, without creating a capability gap that a transition would entail

Airpower is a critical component of any modern war, and Ukraine has illustrated that. However, its application must be carefully calibrated to the resources and opportunities available. Undoubtedly the Ukrainian military will eventually transition to NATO standard fighters, much like other former Warsaw Pact countries have. Kyiv’s effort may well be aimed at that objective, preparing its air force for what comes after the immediate war with Russia. Nevertheless, the West should focus on tangible improvements that will improve its current fighting capability, and then start a transition after the conflict is over. The risk of attempting such a transition at present is far too high and could have deleterious consequences for its ability to succeed against Russia.