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CBC’s leaders bring it to the brink of an existential crisis


CBC’s leaders bring it to the brink of an existential crisis

CBC president Hubert Lacroix unveiled the corporation’s latest five-year plan this week in a performance as disingenuous as it was depressing.

If there was any doubt that Canada’s public broadcaster is confronting an unprecedented existential crisis, it vanished Thursday. CBC President Hubert Lacroix unveiled the corporation’s latest five-year plan at a “town hall” meeting of staff in a performance that was as disingenuous as it was depressing.

The CBC’s enemies are not only circling their prey from the outside, including the Conservative government with its unrelenting budget cuts. Its enemies are also working from within. The CBC has a compliant board of directors overwhelmingly stacked with Conservative party donors and a president, also conservative, who appears ready to implement any budget cut in virtual silence.

Lacroix delivered for the government Thursday. Although confirming the CBC will cut up to 1,500 more jobs in the next five years, including CBC’s renowned documentary unit that produced Canada: A People’s History and other groundbreaking programs, he described it as “a good day, it’s an important day. This is a plan that’s going to work.”

But what this “plan” will actually accomplish in the long-term is the burning issue, not only for CBC staff but, more importantly, for Canadians everywhere who value public broadcasting.

Let us not be fooled. In the dead of night across this country, cut by cut, in small towns and large cities, in newsrooms and documentary edit suites, Canada’s public broadcaster is being destroyed.

According to the new CBC plan, priorities will be shifted from television and radio to digital and mobile services. This will reduce staff and affect a variety of programs, including local TV newscasts in many regions.

Although an increased emphasis on digital mobile services makes sense — and it’s a direction that was started 10 years ago when I was still at the CBC — this plan is really code for deep cuts. It is part of the determined march toward a more privatized, outsourced CBC.

Beyond the digital theme, what is depressing about the new plan is the CBC’s continuing resistance to the radical change that would make it a genuine public broadcaster again. Why wouldn’t the CBC completely dump commercials like its counterparts elsewhere in the world? Why should its English TV service still look like a cheap version of its commercial rivals, or a fading sports channel?

The only promising part of Thursday’s CBC meeting was the aggressive pushback by staff. Lacroix was pressed on why the CBC would kill its award-winning documentary unit, which has produced programs that, for many Canadians, justify the existence of the CBC. And he was criticized for being woefully ineffective in building public support for the public broadcaster, and instead acting as an “enabler” for Conservative government budget cutting.

I have only met Hubert Lacroix once. In 2010, when I was the head of Al-Jazeera English, I attended a media conference in New York City. On the first day, while waiting at the elevator, I was flipping through the list of who else was attending, and there I saw Lacroix’s name — and his picture. “So that’s what he looks like,” I thought to myself. I then looked up, and there he was.

We immediately went to lunch together. He quizzed me about working with Richard Stursberg, former executive vice-president of CBC Television. Lacroix had fired him a few months earlier. He said that he had heard that Stursberg and I didn’t get along.

My only problem with Stursberg, I told Lacroix, was that he was a “wannabe commercial broadcaster” who, sadly perhaps, was working for a public broadcaster. I told him the CBC needs to have genuine, passionate, innovative public broadcasters in leadership, or it is doomed.

But I had the impression then that Lacroix didn’t have a clue what I meant. After the lunch, I saw him walking across the street slapping his head as if he was muttering to himself, “Why did I have to meet this guy?” Listening to him Thursday at the CBC “town hall” meeting made me conclude that he hasn’t learned much in the intervening four years.

But that’s his problem. Our problem is much worse. More than ever, our challenge now, as Canadians, is to grab back the future of our CBC before Lacroix and his patrons destroy it. There is not much time left.

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