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Richard Stursberg: Defunding the CBC but not Radio-Canada defies fairness

Commentary

Pierre Polievre has argued that CBC television should be eliminated; he has proposed to leave Radio-Canada’s TV service intact. He appears to believe that since CBC’s audiences have declined significantly, there is no point in continuing to support it. He is certainly right that CBC TV has lost audience share over the last decade (now just 5 percent of prime time) and performs very poorly compared to its French counterpart, Radio-Canada’s Ice Tele (25 percent of prime time).  

Why is this?

First, the English broadcasting environment has always been much more competitive than the French one. Over the last 30 years, CBC has had to compete not only with dozens of Canadian rivals in its home market (CTV, Global, CITY, TSN, etc.) but multiple American ones as well (ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, etc.). This has never been true in the French market, where Radio-Canada has only one significant rival, TVA. It has been insulated by language. The Americans do not broadcast in French.

The result is that it has always been a challenge to make English Canadian entertainment shows that Canadians will watch in large numbers. Producing dramas, comedies, and documentaries that can compete against the flood of expensive, attractive U.S. programs has historically been very difficult. It can be done, but it requires proper financing, creative talent, fine producers, and luck. Of these, the only one in the control of the government is money. For many, many years, CBC has been one of the most poorly financed public broadcasters in the world. 

Second, CBC’s advertising revenues have fallen substantially, like those of all the other broadcasters. Advertisers prefer Google and Facebook’s digital ads because they are more efficient. More than 55 percent of Canadian ad revenues now flow south to Silicon Valley rather than staying in the country to support the creation of Canadian content. The losses are much more significant in English than in French. 

Third, the arrival of the big foreign streaming services (Netflix, Disney, Amazon, etc.) has further eroded the market share of CBC TV, as well as that of the private Canadian broadcasters. With their enormous budgets, the streamers have created huge quantities of high-quality programming. Unlike Canadian broadcasters, however, they are not required to spend any of their revenues commissioning Canadian shows. This not only gives them substantial financial advantages over their Canadian competitors, but it also erodes the money available to finance Canadian drama, comedies, documentaries, and kid’s shows.

Finally, and perhaps most significantly, CBC suffers from chronic underfunding. The government provides roughly $1.25 billion to CBC/Radio-Canada. That works out to about 33 dollars per capita for CBC and Radio-Canada combined. The split of the $1.25 billion is not, however, the same for CBC and Radio-Canada.

About 44 percent ($550 million) of the public subsidy goes to the French services and 56 percent to the English side ($700 million). This split does not reflect the relative size of the two major language groups in Canada. French is spoken by only 21 percent of the Canadian population. Given that Canada’s population is roughly 38 million people, this means that the 8 million French-speaking Canadians receive a per capita public broadcasting subsidy of almost 70 dollars, while the rest of the country receives 23 dollars. In effect, this makes Radio-Canada one of the better-financed public broadcasters in the world and CBC one of the worst.

This disparity is compounded by the fact that the costs of producing programs in French and English are dramatically different. An average Canadian English language drama costs $1.7 million per hour; its French equivalent costs almost exactly half that. The situation is even starker when it comes to children’s shows. An hour in English has an average cost of $850,000 and in French $200,000, a more than four-fold difference. 

This is a very strange situation. Radio-Canada gets almost three times more money per capita from the federal government than CBC, although it faces dramatically less competition in its home market and enjoys very significant cost advantages in program production. It is hard to understand how this is either fair or reasonable.

Television is the most important cultural medium in the world. In English Canada, the only broadcaster that has consistently made Canadian entertainment shows is the CBC. If Pierre Polievre were really concerned about CBC television’s poor performance, he should concern himself with these disparities. He should argue not for eliminating CBC but for financing it at the same level as Radio-Canada. This would require an injection of $1.4 billion to the English side. If he also considered the different program production costs, the number would be significantly higher still.

Pierre Polievre’s attack on the CBC and not Radio-Canada seems to defy the test of simple fairness. Why would he choose to go after the side of the public broadcaster that faces the more challenging environment and that has been systemically disadvantaged by the federal government? If French Canadians were receiving almost three times as much per capita for health care or education, he would surely object and argue that the money going to French Canada should be reduced. Or better still, that English Canada should be put on the same footing.

Sean Speer: Chinese interference in our elections is a political scandal—and must have political consequences

Commentary

Last week ended with a huge and unexpected bang in the ongoing political controversy over allegations of Chinese interference in Canadian elections. The Globe and Mail took the extraordinary step of publishing an anonymous op-ed by a whistleblower who has provided details to its reporters about the Trudeau government’s failure to act in response to intelligence on China’s election interference. (Globe and Mail journalist Steven Chase described the op-ed’s author as “one of our sources.”)

Its release was the culmination of a hectic week on the file including reports that implicated an Ontario Progressive Conservative MPP in the federal interference scheme, new evidence that extended the cases of interference to Vancouver’s municipal election, and of course the appointment of former Governor General David Johnston as the special rapporteur to investigate these matters.

In light of these major developments, there are growing debates about the whole episode, including the permissibility, legality, and ethics of the leaks, the Trudeau government’s ongoing parliamentary stonewalling, and the outstanding questions about what the prime minister himself and other senior government officials knew about the intelligence and why ultimately the government chose neither to reveal it nor act on it.

One of the virtues at The Hub is that we’re not slavish to day-to-day politics. Our business model and editorial approach enable us to differentiate from other sources of news and analysis by seeking out unique takes and heterodox perspectives. We’re fortunate that we generally don’t need to concern ourselves with the sound bites and talking points on Parliament Hill.

Today’s edition may seem like a prime example. While other outlets have zigged, The Hub’s content zags. Instead of focusing on narrow politics, we’ve published two related yet different articles that deliberately take a broader view of the election interference story and its implications for Canadian society in general and Conservative politics in particular.

Our content editor, Amal Attar-Guzman, has written a reflection on how the Chinese election interference story is merely another case of Canada failing to treat its diaspora communities as little more than domestic political constituencies to be leveraged for electoral gain. As she puts it: “diaspora communities tend to be viewed by larger Canadian society in one of two ways: childlike and ignorant or dangerous and distrustful.”

(Former Canadian ambassador to China, David Mulroney, similarly lamented in a May 2022 episode of Hub Dialogues about Canada’s crass form of diaspora politics that, in his prescient words, “attracts foreign interference and mistreats and mischaracterizes people that we should be championing as Canadians.”)

We also have a provocative commentary from Mark Johnson, a 2021 Conservative Party candidate in a Greater Toronto Area riding, that cautions Canadian Conservatives to resist the political temptation to overstate the problem of election interference and, in turn, harm the party’s standing with Chinese Canadian voters.

It’s an important message for political actors across the spectrum. As David Frum powerfully argued in a recent episode of The Hub’s bi-weekly video and podcast series with him, Chinese Canadians aren’t a threat to Canada’s democracy. They’re the ones who are actually subject to threats of harassment, intimidation, and even violence.  

It’s also probably true that Canadian Conservatives at different points in recent years have been too loose in distinguishing between the Chinese Communist Party and Chinese Canadians. Johnson is right therefore to urge greater caution and circumspection as a matter of political interests as well as social cohesion.

Yet if these articles (which I’d encourage Hub readers to check out) have any flaws, it’s the rare case where their distance from politics causes them to miss something. Their appeals to high-mindedness risk obscuring the inevitable role that politics must necessarily play in adjudicating an issue such as this one. As we’ve been reminded in recent days, even the appointment of a special rapporteur—including someone as distinguished as David Johnston—is ultimately an expression of politics.

Politics tends to get a bad rap. It’s often characterized as biased, subjective, and prone to partisan excesses. But its messiness is mostly a feature rather than a bug. It reflects the invariable plurality of opinions and perspectives inherent to a large, pluralistic, and complex society. Canada, in this sense, is a big, messy macrocosm of the diaspora communities that Attar-Guzman aptly describes in her article.

American writer Peter Wehner wrote in his 2019 book, The Death of Politics, that “The task of politics is to live peaceably with our differences and for people to find appropriate outlets for their views to be heard and represented.” It’s how we reconcile competing normative priorities or conceptions of the truth. It’s also how we resolve public matters separate and apart from the coercive function of the legal system. The probabilities of politics are an intentionally lower bar than the reasonable doubt of criminal justice.  

Deferring to legal processes on this file, as Johnson recommends, therefore risks forgoing the crucial role of politics to grapple with the complexities of the issue. No one is accusing the prime minister or his government of criminality for failing to react to intelligence reports of foreign interference in our elections. The accusation is one of imprudence, short-sightedness, and even political self-interest. It’s not the RCMP’s job to render judgment on those charges. It’s the role of politics, properly understood.

That doesn’t mean political processes such as the parliamentary hearings on these matters won’t be messy or unedifying. Johnson’s calls for moderation and proportionality are well-taken even if they invariably go unheeded by both sides. But the ultimate solution is that we should demand better of our politicians rather than attempt to replace them with legalistic processes.

The late, great Charles Krauthammer (whose voice we desperately miss these days) once wrote: “Politics—in all its grubby, grasping, corrupt, contemptible manifestations—is sovereign in human affairs. Everything ultimately rests upon it.”

As we aim to look beyond day-to-day politics at The Hub, we cannot, for better or for worse, escape its foundational role in the ordering and functioning of our society. The same goes for the Chinese election interference scandal. Politics, not the police (or a special rapporteur for that matter), will ultimately judge the Trudeau government’s handling of the file.