Like The Hub?
Join our community.
Join

Steve Lafleur: The case for keeping the CBC

Commentary

I’m a supply-side guy. Not necessarily in the monetary policy sense (that’s not my area of expertise). But many of our key problems from housing to energy stem can be solved by producing more units or more gigawatts. It’s not just that we need more, it’s that we need more variety. People have different lifestyles, preferences, and locations. Hydro-powered condos in Downtown Toronto aren’t going to work for everyone. 

I view the news media through the same lens. The economics of traditional media have been under severe pressure with the rise of Google and social media, which have captured a lot of the advertising revenue that media outlets used to count on. That has decimated local reporting, thinned out newsrooms, and created a vacuum where misinformation thrives. We need more, better-staffed newsrooms in more places. And that includes CBC.

I understand that a lot of people aren’t wild about legacy media right now. The internet has allowed for a proliferation of new sources of information, many of which are very good. And a lot of people don’t feel represented by the type of people who work in newsrooms or write opinion columns. But as imperfect as it may be, we’d miss legacy media if it was gone. 

Make no mistake: local news is disappearing in some parts of the country. Since 2008, 470 news outlets in 335 Canadian communities have folded. While Canada’s biggest cities still have several local news sources, newsrooms are getting thinner. Canada’s biggest print news organization announced another round of layoffs, and even the biggest media markets aren’t being spared.

Pressure on ad revenue isn’t the only challenge facing private news outlets. Canada’s size also makes it hard to provide coast-to-coast media coverage. I don’t think it’s possible to truly understand the scale of the country without spending some time out west. Winnipeg is about two thousand kilometers from Toronto. Vancouver is another 2300 or so kilometers further. And there are a lot of towns in between.

Keeping boots on the ground in sparser—especially northern—parts of the country isn’t cheap. Private news media probably isn’t viable in some parts of the country where CBC operates. Some parts of the country don’t have reliable internet and cellular coverage, let alone local media. Eliminating or privatizing CBC would effectively end news coverage in many communities.

One of the ironies of Canadian life is that despite the size of the country, most of us live in a few large metro areas. Influencers and decision-makers are even more concentrated in the core of those cities. New coverage seems relatively fine if you live in Yorkdale or Yaletown. It’s understandable that a lot of people don’t see the problem.

A recent experience really brought this home for me. I was driving through western Ontario. I stopped to get gas somewhere. I honestly can’t remember precisely which town it was. I saw a sign protesting a proposed local project (waste disposal, I think). I was bored, so I decided to Google it. I didn’t find anything. There didn’t appear to be any local media in the town. All I had to go by was a sign. It’s hard to hold local officials accountable without information. And the truth gets easily distorted when news spreads by word of mouth, or on Facebook. 

While the CBC isn’t a substitute for having a local newspaper, it at least helps fill in gaps in regional, national, and international news. They may not have the budget to cover local issues in every town, but at the very least they provide some level of news coverage where none might otherwise exist.

One of the reasons that CBC is such a flashpoint is perceived bias. I don’t think this is entirely unreasonable (the CEO’s recent comments did not help). I think it would be fair to say that CBC has a leftward valence compared to other Canadian news media. But I think it’s important to distinguish between news and opinion. News coverage tends not to vary much by outlet. 

Right-leaning U.S. print outlets like the Wall Street Journal have editorial pages with distinct conservative perspectives. More left-leaning outlets like the Washington Post tend to publish more liberal perspectives. The news coverage, though, isn’t much different. Well-staffed newsrooms have editors, fact-checkers, and copy editors. They also have legal departments (and longstanding reputations at stake). This all ensures that the content is defensible and accurate to the greatest extent possible. There may be some bias involved in deciding which stories get covered at the margins, but you’d be hard-pressed to tell the difference in straight news coverage between the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post. Or, for that matter, the Star or the National Post

Opinion writing is a very different beast than straight news reporting. The opinion page is where you see the difference between publications. Often that brings out polarized reactions. But we shouldn’t toss out the baby with the bathwater. The news is good and useful whether you like the opinion side. And, frankly, a diversity of opinions is good. Even if you don’t agree with the CBC’s editorial direction, it’s good to hear a variety of perspectives.

Now, CBC isn’t beyond criticism. One big mistake was allowing CBC to compete with private media for advertising dollars. I used to like the idea of CBC advertising to reduce the overall subsidy level. This was short-sighted. The CBC took in roughly $420 million of advertising revenue in the 2021/22 fiscal year. That’s money that might have otherwise been spent advertising through other media outlets, many of which are struggling to remain viable. 

CBC should be a complement to rather than a substitute for private media. Given the tough economics of media today, letting it compete for advertising dollars with other media outlets makes little sense. It’s a practice we should end. If we’re going to call that defunding CBC, fine. I am in favour of that. But if we’re talking about effectively ending local news coverage in parts of the country and hollowing out an already depleted Canadian news media, that’s an entirely different story. 

We’ve got to get away from thinking in zero-sum terms. This has been a depressing tendency of political discourse over the last decade or so. There is no reason why legacy media, public media, and online media can’t co-exist. Each brings good things to the table. Rather than talking about how to scale back one or the other, we should be focused on how to make them all work. And that includes CBC.

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.