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‘There’s some merit to the criticism that CBC has a left-leaning bias’: Expert panel sees a murky future for the CBC

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Canada needs some kind of public broadcaster, but the CBC isn’t currently doing a good job filling that role, a panel of experts agreed on Wednesday.

With competition from streaming services, a quickly-changing broadcast and news landscape, and diminished trust in the public broadcaster, the future of the CBC is as murky as ever.

On top of all that, Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre is leading a campaign to defund the CBC that has left the organization scrambling to respond.

The panel, hosted by the Macdonald-Laurier Institute and moderated by Aaron Wudrick, the director of the domestic policy program at MLI, explored the difficulties faced by the public broadcaster in winning back the trust of Canadians in a splintered media environment.

Tara Henley, a former CBC producer who now runs a popular Substack, said the CBC lost trust when Canadians started to see it as overly politicized.

“The most pressing issue for on-the-ground work at CBC where all of the editorial decisions are actually made is groupthink. And to that end, I do think there’s some merit to the criticism that CBC has a left-leaning bias, I think this dynamic, in my opinion, is both top-down from leadership and bottom-up from a workforce,” said Henley.

Henley argued that a public broadcaster is an important institution but that the CBC hasn’t lived up to its role and, consequently, the public has lost trust in it.

“I think it’s going to take some self-reflection and a refocusing on viewpoint diversity in both hiring and in coverage,” she said.

Globe and Mail columnist Andrew Coyne, who has long argued against the current model of the public broadcaster, said the government and executives at the CBC have to adapt to a changing world.

The CBC was created in an era of broad programming that was designed to provide advertisers with the largest possible audience. Now, in a world of streaming and niche programming that broadcasters can charge for, it doesn’t necessarily make sense, he argued.

“You could make a case for the CBC and regulation in that world. But none of those conditions now apply,” said Coyne.

Coyne argued for a version of the CBC that would charge its audience directly for content, similar to streaming services and a recently-announced plan from the BBC. The political attacks, Coyne argued, are just a distraction from the core issue.

“I’m really uncomfortable with the Conservatives saying ‘Well, the reason we need to defund the CBC is because they say mean things about us.’ That is not how we should be making important public policy decisions, based on basically vengeance,” said Coyne.

Peter Menzies, a senior fellow at MLI and former vice chair of the CRTC, argued that some version of a public broadcaster is vital in Canada.

“We need at least one broadcaster that will cover the Northwest Territories, Yukon, Nunavut, and Prince Edward Island elections instead of prioritizing American nomination races, and (a public broadcaster) that is capable of telling the nation’s stories to other parts of the nation, not so that we all agree with each other, but so that we know each other well enough not to hate each other when we do disagree,” said Menzies.

“We need in other words, a good public broadcaster. The problem is we don’t have one,” he said.

Poilievre made defunding the CBC a centrepiece of his leadership campaign, sparking raucous chants in support of the idea at his rallies across the country.

The Conservative leader hasn’t backed down from the promise since winning the leadership, but he has narrowed down his targets to the English-language side of the public broadcaster. Radio-Canada’s French services, Poilievre has hinted, would remain largely untouched.

Some experts think it would be extremely complicated to slash one side of the public broadcaster and not the other, though. Others argue that Poilievre’s plan wouldn’t save as much money as he expects, because Radio-Canada is more expensive than the English-language side.

The CBC has spent the last year responding to the assault from Poilievre. The public broadcaster’s CEO Catherine Tait launched a cross-country tour to promote the CBC and even accused Poilievre of “CBC-bashing,” which attracted criticism.

Menzies said executives at the CBC have to face up to the criticism, rather than assume it’s all conducted in bad faith.

“You have to deal with that. You can’t just pretend it doesn’t exist,” said Menzies. “But they seem so convinced of their own righteousness right now that I don’t see any evidence that it’s going to happen.”

New allegations and a full accounting of ski vacations. Here’s what we learned from David Johnston at committee

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David Johnston appeared before members of Parliament on Tuesday to defend his conclusion that Canada doesn’t need a public inquiry into foreign interference in the country’s elections, but found himself handling accusations of multiple conflicts of interest in his role as “special rapporteur.”

Opposition MPs went deep into his history with the Trudeau family and also targeted a new potential conflict after the Globe and Mail reported that his lead counsel for the election interference report had donated thousands of dollars to the Liberal Party over the last 20 years.

Here’s what you need to know about the new revelations and Johnston’s appearance at the standing committee on procedure and House affairs on Tuesday.

A new conflict of interest allegation

MPs from the three major opposition parties zeroed in on Sheila Block, a Toronto lawyer who served as lead counsel for Johnston’s investigation into foreign interference, for her recent donations to the Liberal party.

“The fact that the lead counsel has repeatedly donated to the Liberal Party and attended a fundraiser with the prime minister as late as 2021, this appearance of bias, to a reasonable person, would undermine the work that you’re hoping to do. That work cannot be achieved because of the appearance of bias,” said NDP Jagmeet Singh.

Conservative MP Michael Barrett pressed Johnston on the allegation of Block’s potential conflict of interest but Johnston rejected the claim.

“I do not see a conflict. Sheila Block is a preeminent counsellor… She is renowned for the quality of her work and it’s certainly important work that is done well,” said Johnston.

NDP MP Peter Julian asked Johnston whether he was aware of Block’s history of donating to the Liberal Party.

“I wasn’t aware of her donation history and it wouldn’t have occurred to me to inquire into that because her reputation and integrity is impeccable and continues to be so in my view,” said Johnston.

Canadians may not get a definitive answer any time soon: the Office of the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner is currently vacant.

The former commissioner, Mario Dion, stepped down in February, and Martine Richard, the interim commissioner, stepped down after controversy erupted because she was the sister-in-law of a cabinet minister.

Ski vacations and adjacent cottages

The committee kicked off with Conservative MPs cataloguing all the press clippings where Johnston spoke about his long friendship with the Trudeau family, going back to when Justin Trudeau was six years old.

Conservative MP Larry Brock contrasted Johnston’s description of his relationship with the Trudeau family in 2016 and, more recently, where he seemed to minimize his ties with the prime minister.

“What we have before this committee are two completely different descriptions of your relationship with Justin Trudeau,” said Brock.

“Those two different descriptions cannot be accurate at the same time. So my question is simple and direct. Mr. Johnston, were you telling Canadians the truth on May 23 or back in 2016,” said Brock.

Johnston responded that he has been telling the truth about his relationship with Trudeau and that the contacts reported in the media have been few and far between, over several decades.

Johnston doubles down on rejecting a public inquiry

Throughout the committee hearing, Johnston continued to argue against a public inquiry into foreign interference, on the grounds that too much classified intelligence information was involved.

MPs from all three major opposition parties argued strenuously in favour of the inquiry.

“The problem is Parliament has not been able to do its work because our hands have been tied by the government. We haven’t been able to get the answers,” said Conservative MP Michael Chong, whose family was the target of an intimidation campaign by the Chinese government that sparked the committee investigation and Johnston’s investigation.

“If Parliament hasn’t been able to get the answers over the last four years, and you’re not going to seek the answers in your upcoming hearings, and we’re not getting a public inquiry, all the powers of subpoena all the powers to call witnesses and to gather evidence then how on earth are we to get the answers we need to play our constitutional role and hold this government accountable?” said Chong.

Bloc Québécois Alain Therrien said there were precedents of public inquiries involving top secret information, such as the Maher Arar inquiry and the Air India inquiry. Therrien said the inquiry could allow for in camera sessions that would keep sensitive information secret.

Johnston said that an inquiry would take a long time, be very expensive, and be the wrong process for getting to the bottom of foreign interference.

“I’m blown away that we’re talking about price tag,” said Therrien. “Yes, it can take time, but we can live for a long time in the darkness.”

A long day for Liberal MPs

Although Johnston had to field tough questions for three hours from increasingly irritated MPs, perhaps the hardest job fell to backbench Liberal MPs on the committee who alternated between tossing easy questions to the special rapporteur and running out the clock.

Liberal MP Ryan Turnbull took some delight in quoting Conservatives who had praised Johnston in the past, most notably former prime minister Stephen Harper who called Johnston the “best of Canada,” and comparing that to recent comments from Conservatives questioning Johnston’s ability to conduct an impartial investigation.

Liberal MP Jennifer O’Connell accused the opposition MPs of preening for social media.

“They got their clips. That’s what this is really about,” said Liberal MP Jennifer O’Connell, who pointed out that one Conservative MP had already posted a clip of the meeting on Twitter.

The consequences of foreign interference

Therrien also said that he has been hearing from voters on the doorstep that they are worried about the integrity of Canadian elections.

“Unfortunately, when we see these foreign interference threats, people’s trust in democracy and in our institutions falls and it’s this lowering of trust that can lead people to say, ‘Okay the dice has already been cast, why should I vote? It seems like foreigners are deciding for us,'” said Therrien, who reiterated that it would take a public inquiry to soothe the fears of Canadians.

Johnston agreed with Therrien on the nature of the threat of foreign interference but disagreed with his conclusion that the matter requires a public inquiry to investigate.

“What we’re seeing around the world is a diminishing trust in democracies all over,” said Johnston.

“With respect to the question of a public inquiry, we thought long and hard about this. The dilemma is that we’re dealing with classified information and it is not possible to discuss classified information in public.”