TORONTO – It’s been a heck of a year for the CBC — a scathing report denounced managers for their handling of the Jian Ghomeshi affair while former anchors Amanda Lang and Evan Solomon faced controversies of their own.
All the while, the CBC continued to grapple with steep budget cuts that slashed news broadcasts, gutted sports and documentary divisions and put for sale signs in front of aging facilities.
But with a more CBC-friendly Liberal government now holding the purse strings, could things finally be looking up for the beleaguered public broadcaster?
Many observers seem to think so.
“The people that are the custodians of this publicly owned institution no longer seem to hate it,” said former “Fifth Estate” host Linden MacIntyre, who retired from the CBC in 2014 amid a round of cuts.
“In the same way that the darkness seeped into the institution during the (former prime minister Stephen) Harper era, the light is now going to seep through. And it does have a warming and enlightening effect.”
Newly-minted Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has promised to restore $150 million in annual funding that was cut from CBC/Radio-Canada during the Harper years
Years of budget and staff cuts have taken a toll on employees, said MacIntyre, who pointed to “an ever-increasing morale problem.”
A series of embarrassing scandals haven’t helped, with Lang’s final year tainted by allegations of impropriety concerning her ties to a Royal Bank of Canada board member. A CBC review concluded the host of “The Exchange with Amanda Lang” abided by journalistic standards and Lang said her journalism was not affected. CBC’s ombudswoman, however, said “there was a violation of conflict of interest policy because of the personal connection.”
CBC severed ties with Solomon in June after a Toronto Star report alleged the host of CBC News Network’s “Power & Politics” had “secretly been brokering lucrative art deals” with people he dealt with through his job. Solomon said he never intentionally used his position at CBC to promote a private business partnership he was involved in.
And then there was the damning third-party report that chastised CBC managers for mishandling complaints about Ghomeshi’s alleged workplace behaviour. The former “Q” host was fired in 2014, and will face trial starting Feb. 1, 2016 on four counts of sexual assault and one count of overcoming resistance by choking. He’s also facing one charge of sexual assault to be tried separately in June. Ghomeshi has said he has engaged in rough sex but that it was consensual. He has pleaded not guilty to all charges.
Although the scandals were high-profile, they were limited to English services, suggesting “this is a management problem,” said Ian Morrison, a spokesman for the pro-CBC group Friends of Canadian Broadcasting.
Mark Critch of “This Hour Has 22 Minutes” agreed, noting no such controversies seem to occur in the regions.
“None of that happens anywhere else but in Toronto where it’s kind of like its own little bubble of ego and pretend stardom,” Critch said from his Halifax set, suggesting “CBC kind of created their own monsters.”
Critch said he hopes the back-to-back-to-back debacles will spur CBC to refocus its goals.
“Maybe it’s good that we assess things, shake the place up and go, ‘OK, why are we really here? What the hell are we trying to do?'” said the comic, reached before the October election swept the Liberals to a majority win.
“(They’ve spent) so much time just trying to come up with some really clever way to survive and deal with things … and a lot of other things that they should be focused on kind of get ignored.
“Hopefully moving forward things will be a little bit better.”
Morrison questioned whether the extra $150 million in annual funding would be enough to turn things around. And MacIntyre said he’d want to know what CBC would do with the funds, noting that the board of directors is still “stacked” with Harper appointees.
CBC/Radio-Canada president Hubert Lacroix doesn’t complete his term until the end of 2017, while three of the remaining 11 board members have terms lasting into 2020.
MacIntyre said a perceived political bias has been an issue in the past.
“I have spoken to people from (the executive) level who routinely have to appear before directors and have to justify what’s being done, and have to put up with the kinds of ignorant observations that directors have been making about the ‘left-wing bias’ of the CBC,” he said.
“That’s really hard for serious people who are trying to run a national organization.”
CBC spokeswoman Alexandra Fortier said no one was available for a phone interview. In a statement, the CBC said any new government funds would be put towards the ongoing five-year “Strategy 2020” that focuses on digital initiatives.
Assuming the money comes through at all.
Aaron Wudrick, federal director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, said a harsh fiscal climate could force the Liberal government to reassess whether it can afford to spend more on the broadcaster.
“I’m not sure that most people would argue that spending another $150 million on the CBC is more important than many of the other priorities that the Liberals have identified,” Wudrick said from Ottawa.
“It’s not to knock some of the fine people at the CBC, but there are competing priorities for scarce dollars and I don’t know that the CBC is at the top of the list.”
He called on the CBC itself “to look at exactly what it’s best placed to do” while remaining nimble in an ever-changing media landscape that is increasingly shifting to mobile and online audiences.
“Mr. D” star Gerry Dee has found encouragement in an apparent commitment to developing new comedies, noting that Ivan Reitman’s daughter Catherine is creating a sitcom for the network, the hit Toronto play “Kim’s Convenience” is bound for the schedule, the Eugene Levy vehicle “Schitt’s Creek” is returning for a second season, and his new project, “My Scottish Family,” is also in the works.
“What they’re doing with comedy is amazing. No one’s doing what CBC is doing with comedy,” said Dee, noting an apparent dearth of homegrown fare on other networks.
Critch, meanwhile, bemoaned reductions to regional news coverage, noting that late-night news for all the Atlantic provinces is based out of Halifax. He blamed it on a misguided mission to chase audiences drawn to private rivals CTV and Global.
“In this split, shattered, fragmented, million-channel universe, you are a niche broadcaster. You can show Canadians Canadian programming. And people who want to see that are going to watch it if it’s good quality,” said Critch.
MacIntyre called for a return to top-notch investigative journalism, remembering a time when in-depth pieces on “The Journal” were routinely run on PBS and the BBC.
“CBC has just dismantled what was, once upon a time, one of the best documentary units in the world. It’s gone now.”
But mostly, he’s keen to see CBC become famous again for the right reasons.
“I want to go back to a time when the CBC was famous for its programs and where the fame of its personalities was secondary to the programs.”