Who says we should defund the CBC?

Canada’s public broadcaster vital for access to information

A sizeable portion of Canada’s right wing believes the CBC should be defunded. Perhaps the most vocal is the leader of the Conservative Party of Canada, Pierre Poilievre, who promises to defund the broadcasting corporation if elected prime minister.

In late February, instead of answering a Canadian Press reporter’s question, Poilievre accused them of working for a “tax-funded media outlet and spreading Trudeau’s message.” Was he confused, uninformed or deliberately spreading misinformation when he said that?  His opinion on the CBC is well-known at this point, but the Canadian Press is not a publicly-funded national news outlet. It’s a news wire service owned privately and paid into by a number of Canadian daily newspapers. Compared with the CBC, the Canadian Press’ funding model and mandate don’t come close to what some critics of the broadcaster argue.

The statement may not have malicious intent behind it, but the fact that Canadians cannot rely on politicians to relay correct information to the public, and the fact that his statement was accepted as true by many, demonstrates how strongly we need reliable access to information. Poilievre does all Canadians a disservice by perpetuating narratives that any remotely-publicly-funded media is corrupt.

Aside from being inaccurate, the party leader’s promises and comments on the outlet are downright dangerous for a free and functioning Canadian democracy.

Poilievre’s position isn’t just backed by empty threats. The Conservative party’s website includes a petition supporters can sign that calls on the Liberals to defund the CBC. Part of its argument is that the CBC provides coverage and opinions that are available in a “free and competitive media marketplace.”

But Canada’s media environment can’t be classified as free and competitive, and it certainly shouldn’t be cultivated as a “media marketplace.”

There are some independent outlets in Canada, including Winnipeg’s own Free Press. But largely, news media in the country is owned by one of a few major companies. One is Postmedia, which owns roughly 130 titles and routinely shuts down its acquisitions, many of which are local and community newspapers, leaving those communities without reliable access to information. Another is Bell Media, which owns multiple TV and radio stations. It recently laid off 4,800 employees, and plans to sell around half its radio stations and end its weekday noon newscasts on every CTV station except in Toronto.

That doesn’t seem like much competition, and, given Postmedia’s history of endorsing Conservative candidates and discouraging editorial views that criticize Conservative leadership while the publication endorses the party’s leader, it doesn’t seem very free either.

The Conservative’s petition to defund the CBC relies on the premise that these opinions and coverage will be widely available elsewhere, but the media landscape is increasingly constricted by corporate ownership,  and public opinion polls clearly show that corporations cannot rely on readers to fund these opinions and coverage. As demonstrated in a 2022 report by Statistics Canada, they certainly can’t rely on advertising dollars.

If Poilievre’s Conservatives and Canada’s media conglomerates want to treat access to information like a failing business, we need an organization that won’t.

A common misconception about the CBC — one parroted by Poilievre and past Conservative leaders — is that, being publicly-funded, it acts as a biased mouthpiece for Justin Trudeau and the Liberal party.

CBC has existed since long before Justin Trudeau. It existed during Harper’s tenure as prime minister, and Mulroney, and Diefenbaker, going as far back as Mackenzie King. Point 46(5) of Canada’s Broadcasting Act affirms CBC’s independence when it comes to freedom of expression and journalistic independence. So, while the broadcaster receives funding from the government, even the financial provisions of the act acknowledge and respect the outlet’s journalistic independence and integrity.

What Poillievre has said isn’t just misinformation, it’s an active effort to stifle one of the country’s most accessible sources of information.

Complaints that the CBC leans left are taken out of the Canadian media context. Situated in an environment where the majority of news media is owned by conservative corporations that prioritize profit over information, it certainly may seem like it leans left. The truth is, though, the CBC’s content is broad, and while it publishes a significant amount of political content during elections, its news reporting critical of government is limited, no matter which party holds office. There is no more bias than any other Canadian outlet when it comes to the CBC’s news reportage.

First, the distinction between opinion and fact must be distinguished. This confusion often comes from wilful ignorance, or a lack of media literacy. CBC has a responsibility to foster a variety of viewpoints, including those that Conservatives — as well as Liberals — disagree with. That does not make the broadcaster biased. In general, publications do not automatically endorse the opinions they publish.

That distinction aside, there is no obligation for an op-ed to cover “both sides” of an argument. Publishing an opinion that doesn’t acknowledge arguments for and against an issue is a frequent occurrence in publications worldwide. That includes the CBC, but it also includes national Canadian newspapers like the National Post and the Globe and Mail.

But even in news writing, objectivity in reporting is virtually impossible. There will always be a person — whether it be a reporter or an editor — making decisions about what to cover, what angle to take and who to interview. This remains true for outlets beyond the CBC. That does not mean that there is no responsibility, respect and care involved, and it certainly does not mean that there is inaccuracy or bias in reporting.

The CBC is not pro-Liberal, nor is it anti-Conservative. The Liberal party has held federal office more often than not throughout Canadian history. Historically, the Liberal party — just like the rest of the major Canadian federal political parties — has been, and continues to be, vastly centrist. The way news is reported doesn’t necessarily reflect an institutional bias, but rather, Canadian culture at large.

But accepting that the CBC, just like any other Canadian publication, cannot be fully objective in its reporting, there are broader consequences to treating the country’s media sphere as a marketplace.

The term “marketplace” assumes Canada’s media outlets are primarily supposed to generate revenue, and that news must function as a product. Given the perpetuation of misinformation from the people vying to lead the nation, profit cannot be the main goal of those who fund our media outlets. If it is, editorial standards and mandates are more likely to appeal to advertisers, which can find themselves in conflict with journalistic standards and responsibility.

A Leger poll from this past September suggests that a majority of Canadians think news should be not only widely accessible to all, but free as well. This is a fantastic trend, but the problem is, only six per cent of the poll’s respondents would actually pay directly for a subscription to a news outlet.

Considering both the journalistic standards and autonomy of the CBC and Poilievre’s documented history of misinforming Canadians to suit particular narratives regarding the media, and considering the alternative being corporations treating what is supposed to be information like a product that advertisers can buy, it is entirely possible that, maybe, Conservative talking points just don’t line up with the facts. That’s no reason to defund Canada’s most accessible and long-standing broadcaster.