Care about this
At a conference of the Canadian Media Lawyers Association on the weekend, a colleague asked the very good question: "What would it take for Canadians to care about freedom of expression?"
No one could give him a good answer. Freedom of expression is a right we too often take for granted, unless of course you're a right-wing ideologue who is obsessed with the belief that it's under threat from immigrants, Muslims and the politically correct.
I believe Canadians should care about the current bitter dispute between Quebecor Inc. and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Why? Because it has the fingerprints of Stephen Harper's Conservatives all over it, and they seem to be acting to further a political agenda that may have serious implications for freedom of expression.
In case you missed it, Conservative-friendly organizations like Quebecor-owned Sun Media and the Canadian Taxpayers Federation have filed hundreds of requests for details about CBC spending through the Access to Information Act (actually all but a handful were filed by Sun Media). Some of what they received was redacted. The CBC has exemptions under the law that allow it to protect records related to its journalistic, creative and programming activities. Sun Media disagreed and appealed to the federal information commissioner, demanding that she review whether the CBC was within its rights. Nothing wrong with that.
But then things started getting nasty. Sun Media' chain of newspapers, its QMI news service and its Sun News Network television channel mounted a very public editorial campaign against the secrecy of what they call "Canada's state broadcaster" and attacked the unfairness of taxpayers subsidizing a television network to the tune of more than $1 billion a year.
I don't mean to suggest the CBC is a totally innocent victim. After all, it refused to allow the information commissioner to see the original documents, forcing her to take the case to the Federal Court for a ruling.
Last week the dispute got a lot more serious, and here's where the Tory fingerprints became apparent. Conservative MPs on the House of Commons ethics committee met in closed session and voted to demand all the outstanding financial information from CBC in its uncensored form, even though the issue is still before Federal Court. It doesn't seem to be information vital to the national interest. The documents contain details about employee income and transportation expenses, as well as what the network spent on its recent 75th anniversary celebrations. Amazingly, Heritage Minister James Moore approved of the move, saying: "The truth is the CBC receives a lot of money. Our government has been clear: if it is going to receive that money then it needs to be accountable for it."
That's exactly what Sun Media is arguing. A coincidence? I don't think so.
It's no secret the Tories despise the CBC, which often holds the government to account and has a good record of public-interest investigative reporting. Sun News Network is at the opposite end of the journalistic spectrum, if you can really call what they do journalism at all. Its prime time is filled with jumped-up stunts and bitching about political correctness, the CBC and pinkos in the press.
I believe the public discourse is best served if we have both the CBC and Sun Media, and both of them are kept free of political interference. But the Conservative MPs are giving the CBC until Nov. 14 to hand over the documents, and I believe they are interfering with the network's legal rights, as well as aligning themselves with the yahoos who Sun News insists on putting on air.
New Democrat MP Charlie Angus said as much, accusing the Tory MPs and the minister of waging a concerted campaign against the network aided and abetted by the cheerleading journalists of Sun Media.
Is he right? Just consider the following facts:
Heritage Minister Moore says the CBC will be facing a minimum 5 percent budget cut this year. “The CBC has to do its part. The idea that the CBC can’t find 5% efficiencies within the CBC to give back to the broader economic framework is silly. Of course the CBC will be part of this overall process.” Friends of Canadian Broadcasting quotes internal CBC memos saying it is bracing for cuts of about $56 million, meaning news and cultural coverage will be affected.
In a letter sent out to Conservative membership, the party asks whether the more than $1-billion Ottawa spends on the CBC is "good value" or "bad value." A "P.S." to the letter notes: "This survey is very, very important to our legislative planning."
Meanwhile, the Globe and Mail reported two Conservative MPs — Rob Anders and Ed Holder — are taking it a step further, asking their constituents in surveys whether the government should keep funding the CBC at all. Anders is even promoting a petition to "defund the Canadian Broadcasting Co."
Sun Media denies its anti-CBC campaign is politically connected, but its actions seem to call that into question. A new poll done exclusively for QMI Agency says more than 80 percent of Canadians do not know the CBC will get $1.1 billion from the federal government this year. When informed of the amount, 60 percent of people polled by Abacus Data said it was too much. David Coletto, who is in charge of Abacus Data's team of strategists and consultants, said "Liberal party supporters are more likely to either believe it is not enough or about right compared to too much, whereas Conservative party supporters overwhelmingly - 79% - believe that it's too much money."
CBC and Sun Media may be acting like two little boys fighting it out over marbles in the schoolyard, but Sun Media is the aggressive, bratty one. Sun Media CEO Pierre Karl Peladeau has a $750,000 defamation suit against CBC executive Sylvain Lafrance in which he alleges being called a punk damaged his reputation.Lafrance made the comment after Quebecor’s cable subsidiary stopped paying into the Canadian Television Fund. Quebecor had objected to the fact that more than a third of the CTF’s funding went to the CBC. Strange logic. If CBC is drawing from the fund, it's because it's developing Canadian content for television, which Quebecor is not. Isn't that in the public interest?
When the CBC struck back, charging that Quebecor secured around $500 million in direct and indirect taxpayer subsidies over the last three years, Quebecor threatened to sue again.
The Tory ties to Quebecor's head office are many, and they raise the possibility that Harper's Conservatives are using friendly media to wage a campaign against the CBC, which would be a direct threat to freedom of expression. The chief executive of the Sun News Network is Kory Teneycke, who used to work in Harper's Prime Minister's Office. Prime time shock jock Ezra Levant is an off-and-on Tory consultant who furthered the Tory agenda by coining the term "ethical oil" to defend exploitation of the Alberta tar sands. Former Tory prime minister Brian Mulroney is on Quebecor's board. Shortly before the last federal election, Sun Media ran two questionable stories making damaging allegations against Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff and NDP leader Jack Layton, and one of them was traced directly to Patrick Muttart, once Harper's deputy chief of staff.
The most important thing to remember is that the CBC has a special mandate, one eloquently described by Globe and Mail TV critic John Doyle: "It is mandated to be Canadian, and mandated, among other things, to put the Canadian arts, both high and low, on the airwaves. It is Canada's most important cultural institution. We all pay for it in the same that we pay to have clean water and an education system. Canada is located next door to the great behemoth of U.S. broadcasting and the country needs a distinct cultural institution anchored in its public broadcaster."
We should ask ourselves what should be protected more by public opinion -- that mandate of the CBC's, or the mandate of Sun Media, which recently pulled all its newspapers out of the country's two largest press councils on grounds that "the editorial direction of our newspapers, especially our urban tabloids, is incompatible with a politically correct mentality."
And Sun Media has the gall to accuse the CBC of a lack of accountability? This graphic proof of just how much more accountable CBC is than its competitors should put that notion to rest.
Please, if you value freedom of expression and the press, keep a close eye on how the Conservatives and Sun Media are working together to try to cripple the CBC.