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Peter Menzies: Is the CBC embarrassed by its government funding?

Commentary

Sometimes the fog of war reveals as much as it hides.

Such could very well turn out to be the case for the CBC which, having taken up arms with Opposition leader Pierre Poilievre and the Conservative party, pretty much lost its mind this week when Twitter applied the label “government-funded” to its government-funded tweets.

OK, OK, Twitter’s definition of “government-funded” implies a level of political interference that’s questionable, but such nuances are of little interest to the Marthas and Henrys of this world who may have caught wind of the controversy.

All they saw was the CBC’s damsel in distress response—faint, vapours-laden pleas concerning journalistic independence followed by a huffy withdrawal from the highly political social media platform. And then, of course, there was its protagonist, Twitter owner Elon Musk, perfectly adapted to the role of Bond villain, achieving peak smartass status with his replies whilst twirling a rhetorical moustache.

Sorting through the wreckage, the National Post’s Tristin Hopper dug out a chart from the CBC’s 2018-19 annual report. While the numbers themselves are accurate, the graphic presentation clearly misrepresents/understates the extent to which the CBC is dependent on government funding.

Which raises the question: is the CBC embarrassed by its government funding?

Does it harbour a desire to be a powerful, commercial news and entertainment provider? More NBC/MSNBC than BBC? Before its executives fall asleep at night do their eyelashes flutter at the thought of dominating the media landscape and crushing the competition?

There’s certainly evidence to support the idea that CBC executives are a lot more interested in leading a successful commercial entity than they are enamoured with the far less cool kids’ concept of running a competent public broadcaster.

Just ask the once passionate staff of Radio Canada International, who have been forced to watch as (in clear violation of the Broadcasting Act) the service that once took Canada to the world has been converted to, essentially, an ethnic radio streaming service competing against the nation’s private-sector (in other words, not government-funded) ethnic radio services.

Or those who reel in horror at the idea of Tandem—a new revenue line being developed to sell (there are less kind descriptions) “sponsored” advertorial content under the CBC banner as if it was standing on a street corner in fishnets, smoking a cigarette.

After all, the CBC’s executives once described themselves at a CRTC public hearing as not so much representing a public broadcaster but a “publicly-funded commercial broadcaster.” And that is exactly what the CBC has become: a subsidized behemoth rolling over its private-sector competition. It is exactly as predicted by Globe and Mail publisher Philip Crawley when he appeared before the House of Commons Heritage Committee in 2016.

The playing field is “not level if taxpayers’ dollars directed to the public broadcaster make the competition for digital ad dollars more difficult,” Crawley told the committee at the time. ”The CBC is The Globe’s largest competitor in the digital ad space among Canadian-based media. My colleagues and I in the industry do not support the notion that handing out more money to the CBC helps local or national newspapers.”

Indeed, as the Globe reported at the time, “the CBC is increasingly described as a great disruptor of the media landscape, with its recent budget increase of $675-million over five years coming as losses are growing and newsrooms are closing in the private sector.

“The CBC is specifically facing criticism over the expansion of its presence on the Internet, including the recent creation of an opinion section on its website with columns and op-eds that are in direct competition with several newspapers.”

Brian Lilley, now with the Toronto Sun/Postmedia, was before the committee in 2016 as a co-founder of The Rebel. He too asked the committee to rein in the CBC’s campaign to dominate online audience.

“You can’t have a level playing field when the public broadcaster…wants to be all things to all people,” he said. “There is no reason that they should be expanding digital-only platforms of opinion.”

At the time, the response from the CBC was pretty much “Oh pshaw, our digital advertising is only one percent of our revenue.”

But, hey, half a dozen years later, and, according to the CBC’s 2021-22 annual report, those digital revenues are more like $86 million or almost 20 percent of the company’s $440 million in advertising revenue. For context, that’s roughly the amount of money the Parliamentary Budget Officer estimates will be generated for newspapers from web giants if the Online News Act (Bill C-18) is successfully implemented. And he also estimates that CBC will be the biggest recipient of C-18 loot.

Little wonder then, that CBC was so embarrassed by the label “government-funded” being slapped on it by the vulgar likes of Mr. Musk.

Matt Spoke: Don’t listen to the AI doomsayers

Commentary

As artificial intelligence (AI) becomes increasingly integrated into our society, we’ve seen a surge of criticism and fear-mongering around the technology. A few weeks ago, a group spearheaded by the Future of Life Institute, and supported by big names like Elon Musk, Steve Wozniak, and over 2,000 other signatories, penned an open letter calling for a six-month pause in the development of AI technologies. Similar letters were published in 2015 and 2018, signed by thousands of AI and robotics researchers. All three letters warn of the potential dangers of AI and call for caution in its development, and most recently a mandated pause. 

Now, every newspaper and online publication is filled with doomsayers singing from the same hymn sheet. A recent Substack post by Diane Francis particularly caught my attention.

While it’s true that there are certainly risks associated with AI, it’s important to recognize that all of these critics are overweighing these risks while completely ignoring the significant benefits that AI can provide to humanity.

Although it would be futile to try and predict the potential of AI and how industries will be reshaped in the decades to come, you don’t need much imagination to foresee its potential in industries and fields that are in desperate need of innovation. 

From medicine and health care to energy efficiency and abundance, AI can help solve some of the world’s most complex problems. It can aid in the discovery of new drugs, improve surgical precision, and enhance patient care. In energy, AI can optimize systems to reduce waste and increase efficiency, while also unlocking new ways of generating and storing energy. And in fields like transportation and logistics, AI can help reduce traffic, increase safety, and streamline supply chains.

All of these benefits without possibly conceiving of the industries it will help create. Rewind 25 years and try to imagine the industries made possible by the modern internet. A similar economic shift is coming, and humanity will stand to greatly benefit if we take full advantage.

Despite some of these clear benefits—and some of the undefined creative opportunities—many observers and commentators jump straight to the doom and gloom risks of AI, completely overlooking the obvious potential for meaningful life-improving innovation. For every “evil person” who might use AI for harm, there are 100,000 good people looking to use it for good. It’s also worth noting that any risks posed by AI can ironically be most effectively mitigated by using AI itself. 

Take the often-used example of a DNA sequence of a deadly disease, created by AI, and sent to a lab for production to infect humanity. In this dystopian scenario, how better to counter that risk than with powerful AI tools for detection, prevention, and cure? In order for those positive tools to be built and available to us, we need to allow the responsible use of AI in fields like medicine and immunology today.

The recent global COVID-19 pandemic is a good example of the potential benefits AI could have represented. While the virus may have originated naturally, powerful AI tools (if they existed at the time) could have been used to better understand the virus, predict its possible evolutionary paths, and identify effective treatments and cures faster. As we continue to face similar global crises in the future, we’ll need to rely on AI to help us navigate and overcome them.

All this said, I won’t ignore the risks associated with the development and use of AI. Critics have pointed to job displacement, privacy concerns, and the potential for AI to be weaponized by governments or malicious actors. These risks are real, but they can be effectively managed and mitigated through responsible development, ethical guidelines, and transparency. We need to establish clear ethical standards for the development and use of AI, but this should be done in a way that emphasizes human prosperity and flourishing, rather than stifling innovation. In short, any effort that calls on government intervention in this field, rather than industry-led standards, should be looked at with skepticism.

It’s important that we don’t let fear and pessimism prevent us from realizing the full potential of AI. Governments and politicians should be cautious not to act too quickly and reactively to fears on the topic. Instead, they should be looking inward to see where AI can be used to augment their own capabilities in delivering services to their citizens. Countries that rush to constrain or ban AI development will ultimately lose out in the long-term cycle of innovation. We’ve already seen this trend starting with some notable European countries moving to ban AI tools like ChatGPT.

Looking inward to the opportunity this presents for Canada, we need to be extremely thoughtful in how we approach this topic as a country this decade. Canada already stands out as a known hub for AI research and education and should have a unique opportunity to play a significant role in shaping the future of AI. If Canada seizes this once-in-a-generation opportunity, it could fundamentally improve the prosperity of our country. Particularly while Canada suffers from stagnating economic growth, we’ll need a new wave of productivity to get us out of the rut we’ve been in for some time. 

AI might be the catalyst of Canadian economic growth that we need.