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Sean Speer: We no longer need the CBC

Commentary

This past weekend, I was a guest on the CBC’s weekly call-in show, Cross Country Checkup, to discuss and debate the question: do we still need the CBC?

I was there in particular to make the case that the news media market has evolved over the past decades such that a public broadcaster of the size and scope of the CBC is no longer justified. Others argued in favour of preserving the CBC. And then there was a combination of callers and experts who found themselves somewhere in the middle. 

The premise behind the episode was that there are a few big developments looming over the CBC that threaten its ongoing existence. The first is that Conservative Party leader Pierre Poilievre has promised to defund the CBC and seems committed to delivering on his commitment. It remains one of the most popular applause lines in his speeches to party supporters. 

The second is growing polling evidence that CBC is not only losing its salience with the Canadian public but that even a majority of non-conservatives believe that the public broadcaster has an anti-conservative bias in its news reporting. 

The third is the broader disruption in the media industry itself including the decline of legacy news media organizations and the rise of web-based start-ups that are experimenting with new and different business models to reach their audiences and sustain their operations. 

In light of these developments, there were various arguments put forward during the episode in favour of the CBC including the need for a single public institution to connect Canadians from coast to coast, that it represents a bulwark against the rise of so-called “misinformation” and “disinformation”, and that its listeners and viewers like its content. 

Due to the number of guests and callers, I didn’t have the opportunity to address these arguments as directly and fully as I would have liked. Let me respond to them now. 

The first one speaks in part to a conservative concern that in a world of growing fragmentation and diversity, there are few sources of common citizenship and identity in Canada and the risk is a gradual drift from what Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has referred to as a “home society” to a “hotel society.” That is to say, in an absence of common stories and shared understandings of ourselves and the country, the danger is that we devolve into a loose collection of individuals merely living in the same geography. 

This is a legitimate concern that we’ve written about and discussed at The Hub. Yet the notion that the CBC is a key source of common identity belies the facts—including its relatively small audience, divided public opinion about its ongoing purpose, and growing tendency towards micro-narratives at the expense of a broader national story. 

The latter point is worth addressing more fully. Although the CBC should be lauded for concerning itself with diversity and representation within its organization and content (including news reporting), there was a sense among many of the callers that it has overcorrected for the historical underrepresentation of different stories and voices. 

This is consistent with my own experience as a listener and viewer. The network’s emphasis on identity issues can cause it to lose the forest for the trees. It has increasingly contributed to a narrow and unrepresentative conception of Canadian civic life that undermines its ability to still play a nation-building role.  

The next argument that the CBC is needed to contest misinformation and disinformation (which has been advanced by CBC’s president and CEO Catherine Tait herself) isn’t a self-evident one. It may be that these issues ultimately require some form of collective response—though the past several years have demonstrated the risks of groupthink and so-called “established narratives”—but it doesn’t necessarily follow that it requires a public broadcaster in general or the CBC’s current size and scope in particular. 

One might even argue that the right lesson is that centralization and consolidation are a threat to overcoming misinformation and disinformation. They can cause bad ideas and wrong information to calcify in the public discourse and undermine the ability of others to challenge them. The COVID-19 “lab leak” story is a powerful example. The CBC (which referred to the lab leak theory as a “conspiracy theory” and “one of the most persistent and widespread pieces of disinformation during the COVID-19 pandemic”) and other major media organizations plainly got it wrong. Smaller, less established, and typically less liberal outlets were generally the ones prepared to pursue the story and its facts. 

The key point here is that today’s fragmented and more decentralized media landscape may be messier and more complicated than the old one, but it’s not obvious that the trade-offs are inherently bad or that it necessitates an ongoing role for the CBC. 

The final case that the CBC’s content is good and well-liked by its audience members was both the most common one cited during the episode and the most counterintuitively unpersuasive. No one doubts that the CBC produces good programming or that some Canadians enjoy listening to or watching it. But that’s not a justification for the current level of public resources dedicated to the CBC or a public broadcaster in and of itself. 

There are a lot of claims on the public purse that might be popular but that doesn’t make them a good idea. Public policy needs to be rooted in something more principled than “Some people like it.” Even the show’s host, Ian Hanomansing, who deserved credit for his fairness and neutrality, seemed to miss this point. 

During the conversation, I observed that The Hub’s podcast is the eighth most popular Canadian-based one in the “culture and society” category and that six of the seven ahead of us are CBC productions. It strikes me as an odd use of scarce public dollars since it’s hard to argue that there’s a market failure in the production of podcasts. 

Yet Hanomansing’s reaction was that the relative popularity of CBC’s podcasts is somehow market proof that its content resonates with Canadians and therefore a justification for its ongoing role. The reality is that the CBC has a huge financial advantage (which is based on public subsidies rather than market competition) and is able to cross-promote its content across its well-established channels, including its internet, radio, and television assets. That of course doesn’t mean that its podcasts aren’t good or worth listening to, but it does mean that it’s not a fair measure of the CBC’s true competitiveness or a compelling case for maintaining it. 

I don’t mean to be presumptuous but I’m reasonably confident that if we received $1.24 billion in annual public funding (which suffice to say is considerably more than The Hub’s total budget), we could probably climb to higher than the eighth-most popular Canadian-based podcast in our category. We wouldn’t presume however that it was necessarily evidence of our real public support or entitled us to ongoing government resources. 

I guess the upshot is that while I was glad to participate in the conversation and think it generally speaks well of the CBC that it permitted such a discussion on its network, I came away no less convinced of the case in favour of “right-sizing” and even defunding the CBC. What that means in practice is still an open question and, as I said on the program, there will soon be a growing onus on Poilievre and the Conservatives to bring greater definition to their plans. But their basic instinct is right as a matter of principled policymaking.  

Do we still need the CBC? My answer is still no. 

Richard Shimooka: Canada’s military is being left behind

Commentary

Looking back, one of the most difficult periods for the Canadian Armed Forces in recent history was the late 1970s and early ’80s. Successive governments had cut into the military’s budget, downsizing and reorienting the forces while also delaying modernization. By the 1980s the CF faced obsolescence in the face of significant advances by Warsaw Pact forces. 

But while downsizing had cut the military’s standing forces, it still retained a capable administrative system with enough institutional memory to execute the new programs. By 1990, the military had replaced a number of its key systems with platforms (like the CF-18, CP-140, and the Leopard 1) with other major ones, like the Halifax Class frigates and the North West Warning system that was on the cusp of delivery. 

On the surface, Canada today looks like it is in a similar situation to the 1980s, and may even seem to be on the same trajectory if 2017’s Strong Secure, Engaged is executed as envisaged. Unfortunately, looks are deceiving. The reality is far worse now than it was then.

Many of the same systems we acquired in the 1980s are now far beyond their rust-out date and are not anticipated to be replaced for another decade or more due to failing program execution. While defence spending has increased over the past eight years, much of it has gone to operational accounts due to growing international commitments. This has masked the growing dilapidated state of the military’s capital base.

In other words, our system of procurement is fundamentally broken. Deliveries of major capabilities can now be counted in decades where years should be the norm. The Remotely Piloted Air System (RPAS) program, which will deliver a medium-altitude unmanned aerial vehicle, is about to enter its 17th year of existence without delivering a platform. By comparison, many of our allies, such as the U.K., Germany, and France have brought equivalent systems into service in under four years.

These failures have occurred at an inopportune moment, as the international security environment has deteriorated rapidly in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and China’s destabilizing efforts in the Indo-Pacific. Our allies have increased spending and launched broad modernization of their forces, whereas Canada’s efforts have largely stalled by comparison. 

The system of acquisition is fundamentally misaligned from the focus of delivering critical defence goods to our soldiers. Over the past four decades the system has become progressively slower and less able to meet our national defence needs due to several factors. First has been the increase in non-defence objectives in procurement, most notably delivering economic and social benefits to Canadian society through these purchases. Second, a number of perceived failures, such as the initial cancellation of the F-35 acquisition in 2012, resulted in ill-considered reforms. It added layer upon layer of unnecessary processes, diluting individual accountability, and increasing costs and delays in programs.

While our present situation is suboptimal, the real cause for concern is the CAF of the future (which in reality, is already here). Reflecting the rapid and fundamental evolutions our societies are experiencing due to the confluence of new technologies, warfare is undergoing a similar shift. What I outlined earlier reflects a 20th-century approach to war fighting and procurement. Canada must move into the 21st century. 

A core consideration is the information dominance strategy. In the United States this exists under the Joint All-Domain Command and Control approach, or JADC2. Simply put, this doctrine seeks to aggregate and integrate information from all available sensors, then analyze and disseminate it to units that can affect action. Canada’s major allies, including Australia, Germany, and the U.K. are implementing similar approaches and have already drastically affected force structures and doctrines among all of their services. On a granular level, a platform’s connectivity and integration to existing networks and command and control systems are often as important as its physical attributes.

Canada has not adjusted to this new reality. While Strong, Secure, Engaged did contain verbiage that acknowledged joint intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance’s utility for the battlefield, the Canadian Armed Forces has lagged far behind its allies in this area. For example, when we look at RPAS, the misalignment of focus is clear. The procurement was largely focused on its physical capabilities while minimal consideration was given to how the platform would play in a broader networked environment. It would be akin to buying a top-of-the-line smartphone and only using it to make phone calls. 

In many ways this shift, when it comes, will be a fundamental one for the department and the government. Its implications will be profound and widespread, affecting not only military operations but how we procure systems. For some systems, such as software-enabled capabilities, how we develop them will directly affect their military utility. It requires procurement approaches that are flexible and innovative, delivering capabilities rapidly to our soldiers in order to face unanticipated new threats. 

If there is one point to start, we need to develop a strategy and doctrine that clearly identifies the importance of this emerging revolution in warfare. While, ideally, this should have occurred in the Defence Policy Update, even some level of guidance would be a start. By identifying these first principles, the military, the Department of National Defence, and the government as a whole can start the process of aligning its thinking around this problem. That is the crucial initial step that must be taken before further reforms can follow.

The 21st-century battlefield is already here. It’s time our leaders seriously engaged with what that means. We must enable the military to field the systems it needs to operate and succeed there. Nothing less than our security and global standing are at stake.

This article was adapted from remarks given as testimony before the Standing Committee on National Defence. A recording of the remarks can be viewed here.