CBC – Enough is enough, a first-person account

Retired Radio-Canada journalist Pierre-Léon Lafrance published the following article, in French, in the Lambert Express, a local community newspaper in the Montréal. region. (Translated by Gérard Malo, national vice-chair of CWA/ Canada Retirees Council.)


After enduring countless painful stomach cramps while doing long and hard thinking, I will do here what I’ve never done during a 40-year-long career in journalism. I will speak in the first person

Pierre-Léon Lafrance
Pierre-Léon Lafrance

to publicly discuss the situation at Radio-Canada/CBC. I have spent 37 years at Radio-Canada as a local journalist, parliamentary and international correspondent, columnist, and with Radio-Canada International, as Chief Editor.

As we know, our national public broadcaster is now in the eye of the storm, and will come out of it seriously disfigured and wounded to the core. Many things have been said in the last few months about the long series of budgetary cutbacks at Radio-Canada/CBC. It all began, let’s not forget in the 1980s under the Brian Mulroney government. But I will focus on  three points : Public service, the shift to digital media, and what happens next.

Public service

Radio-Canada/CBC is not a business, it is a public service. It’s easy to understand the difference. A broadcasting business seeks profits
through advertising ratings, and considers its audience first and foremost as consumers. A public broadcaster, on the other hand,  reaches out to citizens by offering programs with intellectual and artistic integrity.

Radio-Canada/CBC is also the largest cultural agency in the country. This is not without importance in light of the world in which the two main Canadian communities find themselves. Québec, needless to remind ourselves, is a “francophone island in an anglophone sea” whereas the rest of Canada, and Québec to a point, try to survive and strive culturally next to the American giant with whom we share our continental bed.

Therefore culture, be it Canadian or Québécoise, is more than music or the arts or the language we speak or intellectual niceties. Those are the ways we express our culture. Culture is the DNA of a people. It is what helps a people to find their rightful place in the world’s cultural diversity. Culture is the gift of a people to the world, a gift in constant evolution since the beginning of time.

As a public service, Radio-Canada/CBC fulfils an essential role in our society, and in our democracy. History provides dazzling evidence of that.

The shift to digital media

A lot has been said lately about this digital shift, and how it has become a crucial and central part of Radio-Canada/CBC’s new plan of action. Let’s not fool ourselves, the shift to digital media is first and foremost a technology issue. It is not about reducing content, in fact it has the potential to increase it.

An example of that, La Presse + offers content and links on tablets, which present more complete news and information features, than those to be found in traditional newspapers.

La Presse, is able with its digital edition, to use all the tools provided by this new technology in order to offer a very high quality product to its subscribers. But La Presse had to pay the price for that by hiring new employees familiar with the new technologies. A necessary investment in order to fully enjoy the potential of this digital shift.

In broadcasting, this does not mean less content. Rather in means a change in the listening and viewing habits of subscribers. I personally know more and more people who, thanks to the Netflix, and the Tout.tv of this world, now watch entire televised series in a day or two, instead of over 13 weeks like they used to.

I also know people who cancelled their cable TV subscription, before hooking up their TV sets to their computers. And they are not complaining about a lack of programing choices. That is what the digital shift is all about. A broadcaster who wants to survive must recognise this and adapt technologically. This is equally true of content because the viewers, who are becoming more and more demanding, have the ability to go from one site to another at the first sign of boredom.

It is therefore difficult to understand why a corporation like Radio-Canada/CBC slashes its staff at a time when it imperatively must renew its workforce in order to respond to a growing and more selective demand. That being said, I do not believe for one second that most people are going to discard their television sets to watch series , documentaries, and movies on their smartphones. I rather believe that those smartphones will be connected to TV sets, in order to show the content to subscribers on a bigger screen. Viewing and listening in comfort remains rather important.

The matter of funding poses several fundamental questions. What is  the cost of investing in a public service? To what extent are we willing to fund schools, colleges and universities? How much are we willing to pay for public health, for our cultural community wellbeing, for the preservation, and the broadcasting of our DNA?

Impossible for me to answer, but I do know that the answer is not in the actual funding model of Radio-Canada/CBC which is bound by the political diktats of the day, calling for management practices where the notion of public service is lost in the imperatives of profitability, as relative as this may be. A solution could possibly be found in the creation of a foundation to fund Radio-Canada/CBC, which is the case with the BBC, a foundation managed by a board of directors elected by the users, the managers, and the professionals providing content, rather than friends of the Party in Power who are appointed by the Prime Minister’s Office.

As things stand, the funding of Radio-Canada/CBC, and the obligations it imposes upon the corporation’s management, make it impossible in the mid-term to fulfil the public service mandate of the broadcaster, with what it implies in terms of content, just when it embraces the shift to digital media.

With an emptied resource of creators in constant reaction to the lack of appropriate funding, abandoned by national, regional, and local audiences that no longer recognize themselves in its programs, Radio-Canada/CBC is heading for a gigantic brick wall. The worst part, this itinerary is politicaly motivated.

What now?

Miserably, and this article is proof of that, the protest against what’s happening to Radio-Canada/CBC and the efforts to defend it, are only made by intellectuals and journalists, who have no power other than having influence on other equally powerless intellectuals and journalists. This battle is a political one and politics are all about power relationships.

Where are the cultural organizations? Where are the Union des Artistes and ACTRA? Where are the labour unions? Where are the advocates and the champions of individual and collective rights? It seems to me that freedom of expression and the free circulation of ideas in a democracy are important issues. And finally, where is the public?

Ordinary citizens have not not, meaningfully and collectively reacted, to the Charbonneau Commission’s revelations. They have not taken to the streets in protest against the scandalous frauds and corruption being exposed. Why would they take to the streets for Radio-Canada/CBC?

And yet this is what needs to happen. This is how the political game is played, by showing our leaders that they have extended the mandate given to them by the voters, beyond what serves the public good. By showing them that you can’t play around with the people’s DNA. This is not about making noise banging on pots and pans. Rather, it is about protesting in silence, in massive and heavy silence. A silence which could become the silence of Radio-Canada/CBC. The silence of dead air.