Thursday, 2 May 2013

Remote Control: The Harper Broadcasting Network? Not Quite


It's been a busy week few weeks for conspiracy theorists and 'secret agenda' discoverers. The official opposition continues to insist that the Supreme Court is furiously at work in the Court's archives, shredding documents related to constitutional patriation. The tabling of the budget implementation bill (C-60) on Monday has, as usual, prompted a number of extreme reactions about the controlling nature of the Harper government, its overt plans to undermine democracy and it attempts to shape Canadian society in its image. The budget implementation bill moves us, yet again, one step closer to North Korea.

Take, for example, provisions in the budget relating to the Crown Corporations including the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Canada Post and Via Rail. Reaction varies depending on the media outlet and source consulted.
Harper tightening the reins on CBC, Via Rail and Canada Post - Globe & Mail
Budget bill gives Harper Cabinet new powers over CBC - The Hill Times
Feds threatening journalist independence of CBC under new power over wages, benefits, collective bargaining, say critics - The Hill Times
As usual, it is helpful to read more than the headline and understand the full story (and perhaps read the legislation!). Much commentary, particularly among those predisposed to distrust the Harper government and anything it does, naturally leapt several fathoms forward in their think. Take for instance one organization calling for concerned citizens to complete a pointless petition to the Finance Minister and the Prime Minister. The petition claims:
This week, the Harper government snuck sweeping changes to the CBC deep into the last section of the budget -- on page 109 -- granting it disturbing powers to directly control and interfere with our national broadcaster.
The government would be able to have dictatorial control over terms and conditions of employment of non-union staff -- and any collective bargaining among unionized staff -- at the CBC and Radio Canada, even forcing the CBC to accept a member of the Treasury Board at the bargaining table. Let’s be honest, there’s no other good reason to make these changes unless your goal is to take over programming [emphasis added]. This is just one part of Prime Minister Harper’s plan to control the Canadian media landscape and shift it to the right: clamping down on the CBC while his allies help Sun News get national carrier status. 
So, the only 'good' reason to make these changes is to take control of the CBC and move it to the right?

First of all, many Canadians are working under the assumption that that CBC is (a) neutral or (b) to the Left of the spectrum (a myth propagated by opponents of the public broadcaster specifically and against public ownership of anything generally). The reality is that the CBC has, under its own volition, been moving to a programming schedule more in line with maximizing ratings and profits than in 'telling our stories' and reflecting any sense of Canadian identity (were one to be so easily distilled). The result has been changes in programming (with a particular emphasis on television and music streaming away from radio programming). This has been an ongoing process, regardless of directions and budget considerations emanating from the PMO or finance department.

Second, one would be hard pressed to find a television station on the Canadian airwaves more in-tune with the present government's stated philosophy. Ironic, then, that the 'state broadcaster' (as the right call it), is more committed to free market ideology than Sun News (which, has to much humorous effect, sought mandatory carriage). Look to the popular shows. One of the most astoundingly popular - and longstanding - personalities is a man in the suit, pinning for the good ol' days and pushing a form of Canadian identity that celebrates violence, war and xenophobia. The network's other big brand is centred on a bald capitalist spewing vile. The tenor of the news coverage has changed markedly, again, without outside prompting. No news department in the country goes further to naturalize and hype the market economy than the CBC. Other popular shows include token Northern content which, for all intents and purposes, is a show where a plane crashes and a forest catches on fire every week.

To return to the question, are changes to the collective bargaining, benefits and salaries prompted by a desire to control programming? No, there are two motivations that make much more sense, particularly given that the CBC was not 'targeted' in isolation. First, from an administrative perspective, the changes bring Crown Corporations more in line with broader changes in the public sector stemming from a desire to achieve cost savings and reduce overhead (read: labour). In short, the changes are entirely consistent with a government that sees wages and benefits as the largest liability of the federal government and, as a result, the largest continual drain on the public purse. These changes are designed in an attempt to bring public sector wages in line with the private sector. Cost cutting, not editorial control, is at play here.

Yes, Crown Corporations are designed to be independent and work at arms lengths from the government of the day. However, they are ultimately accountable for their policies to the government (and through the government to the public). In this case, the government sees Crown Corporations (not unreasonably) as an extension of the public service and, as such, subject to the same oversight and constraints faced by public servants, deputy ministers and others. Moreover, the fact that the changes target the big three public holdings - including Canada Post and Via - indicates that this is part of a broader shift and realignment in the public sector and not an attempt to take a hands-on role in operations. Does anyone seriously think that changes at the other two corporations will result in the Cabinet dictating train routes and postage stamp art?

The underlying sinister motive here is not a desire to shift the CBC to the right - it will get there on its own - but part of the campaign against organized labour and collective bargaining rights. Again, they are part of a broader trend in government, but nevertheless a trend which is manifested in an undercutting of labour. This is a hardly an item 'buried' in a budget bill, rather it is something continuous and overt. The government is now looking to finish the job it began through back to work legislation two years ago.

Crown Corporations face a number of challenges, not the least of which is an ideological position opposed to any public ownership. They also face market pressures and - in the case of Canada Post (as numerous, and not entirely unfriendly voices have suggested) large structural challenges as Canadian's move further away from traditional mail to electronic or alternative forms. Under these conditions labour is an easy target. It's visible, it's costly and it can be attacked with relatively little cost.

The discourse surrounding these changes to the CBC is hackneyed and reactionary as usual. Instead of rational deliberation and acceptance that a Conservative government is entitled to its own public policy - even if it is unpalatable - we are subjected to more paranoid conspiracy theories of hidden agendas and authoritarian control. These changes are anything but positive - particularly for bargaining rights and organized labour - but they do not constitute and attempt by the government to seize control of programming at the national broadcaster, nor are related changes elsewhere attempts to control train schedules or postage fees. The reality is bad enough. There's no need for hyperbole. More to the point, we need to stop thinking of the CBC as if the entire news division was staffed by Terry Milewski. Why would the Harper government want to run a television network when that network already provides a home for softball interviews, hockey (and hockey biopics!*) and market-oriented family entertainment? The network hardly needs to be prompted to reflect the ideals of conservative Canada.





*Note: No, the Jack Layton biopic is not evidence that the network is leftist/left-leaning. Quite the contrary, it illustrates that it can/will commodify anything for ratings.


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