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Stephen Harper, the CBC, and the art of jumping to conclusions

Is this how we really see Harper? Illustration part of The Portrait Project Toronto by artist Brian Chauvin Bolli

250 Front Street is about to get a makeover.  Soon, the delightful red accent colours decorating the exterior of the CBC building will be painted a fresh Tory Blue. Security guards will greet the public, manning metal detectors and X-ray machines while giggling at rendered images of our genitals.  David Suzuki’s The Nature of Things will be replaced by a multi-part documentary of indefinite length on the virtues of “ethical oil.”  Meanwhile, branch offices in Quebec will be closed for permanent renovations and the French language will never again be spoken on the airwaves, or even mentioned. The newsroom will be relocated to Ottawa, where party members will decide what is fit for reporting, and what is better left unsaid.  “Freedom of the Press” is about to be curtailed for reasons of “national security.”

This is the impression one might be left with after viewing the adorably-hyperbolic “Free the CBC” petition.  The website features an editing bay with a dozen television screens filled with images of our dear leader, and a woman, presumably a CBC journalist, with her mouth censored by duct tape. The site warns of Harper’s intent to “silence” the broadcaster which may as well be called “The Conservative Broadcasting Corporation” after the federal government is through turning it into a “politically controlled broadcasting machine.”  A similar petition warns that soon “Harper’s cronies could control the newsroom.” Even ACTRA has joined the discourse, warning that the CBC will go from public broadcaster to state broadcaster.  It’s a clever bit of word play, but if I wanted to hear what actors had to say about freedom of the press, I’d watch a hologram of Wolf Blitzer defend a government spying on investigative journalists. That’s the kind of infotainment that doesn’t require over a billion dollars in annual subsidies to stay on the air.

The policy, which has rallied over 100,000 staunch activists to sign an online petition, is new legislation included in the latest omnibus budget bill which would give the federal government expanded powers over crown corporations. The new rules will place a member of the Treasury Board at the bargaining table with employees and management, and will require the Board’s approval before any collective agreements are finalized.  Additionally, the government will be able to introduce its own demands into the negotiation.  Although this will affect over forty federal crown corporations, three of which were explicitly named by Board President Tony Clement, opponents to the changes have largely focused on the CBC, tacitly implying that it is the prime target.  And why not?  Combined, VIA Rail and Canada Post employ over 10,000 people, but not a single one of them have the smoldering eyes and affable manner of George Stroumboulopoulos.

To be fair, this legislation has invoked outcry that is not entirely hysterical, and there are legitimate concerns over the government’s new powers over publicly funded news media.  Harper has distinguished himself by running a peculiarly information-averse administration.  There’s a seven-year-strong track record: scrapping the long form census; preventing government scientists from speaking publicly about their work and burying climate research; fraudulent robocalls; poor compliance with access to information requests; and even getting into scraps with the parliamentary budget officer, a government watchdog born of the Conservative Party’s own legislative puppy mill. The ruling party has abandoned any pretense of forthrightness. 

A case could be made for democratically elected representatives to exert more influence over the finances of crown corporations that require tax dollars to operate.  However, since the government is in control over the distribution of these subsidies, it calls into question why such changes are necessary.

The “Free the CBC” campaign also points out that Harper has stacked the broadcaster’s Board of Directors with financial contributors to his Party.  Here, at last, is something tangible, an example of cronyism at work.  Although, if this is the case, one wonders why the Prime Minister would need the Treasury Board Secretariat to control the news. Back in 2000, Friends of Canadian Broadcasting, the group behind the current petition, were complaining of the Chrétien government loading the Board of Directors with Liberal supporters and cutting funding, much like Stephen Harper. It seems that the price of government power is corruption.  If we want a nationally-owned media, we’ll have to live with politically-motivated appointments.  Or elect an honest politician, if we want to get serious about this. 

Meanwhile, this story needs a villain, not context. Stephen Harper has been cast and he’s perfect for the role.  He is awkward, strange, and seems like the type of man who wouldn’t even look you in the eye if he were about to kiss you.  Yet another online petition has fingered federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty as the ne’er-do-well trying to conquer the CBC, but this is wrong.  You can’t have a man recently diagnosed with an autoimmune blistering disorder play the bad guy, people might feel sorry for him. There is no anti-villain part to play in political activism — this is not the morally ambiguous world of G.R.R.’s Game of Thrones, this is the high-fantasy good versus evil of J.R.R.’s Lord of the Rings.

Political discourse could be divided into two broad, overlapping categories: that which intends to persuade, and that which attempts to mobilize.  The “Free the CBC” campaign is clearly aiming for the latter, but that does not require them to be disingenuous.  Partisanship is toxic and polarized as it is, there’s no need to inject more vitriol.  Perhaps the country could benefit if left and right were to learn how to talk to one another as adults, perhaps not.  Consider, however, that Stephen Harper may not be a crypto-fascist with a hidden agenda — he may just be a really bad Prime Minister.

The Canadian Media Guild has contributed some worthwhile arguments to the discussion. They say that the integrity of CBC’s news reporting has been ensured through previous collective agreements.  Protection for journalists from political interference, from any fear of retribution for the stories they report, and assurances that they work in the public interest have all been enshrined by negotiations with management.  With the Treasury Board able to tailor future contracts to its own will, all of this could be threatened.  The question is whether it will be or not.

A government seizing control of news media is a serious violation of what it means to be a free country, far more serious than all of Harper’s previous misdeeds combined.  It is so serious, in fact, that we should be willing to let his government actually attempt it before we accuse Harper.  The principle of “innocent until proven guilty” is another defining feature of a free society, and though it doesn’t apply to the court of public opinion, it should generally be considered an effective rule-of-thumb for reasonable people. 

If, after Justin Trudeau became Prime Minister, the Sun News Network warned us that he wanted to invoke the War Measures Act and pirouette atop a tank outside of their offices, we can similarly dismiss their claims as premature, if not altogether ludicrous.

The problem here is that these campaigns are, in their attempts, obscuring the real story.  That is, the government is undermining the traditional arm’s-length relationship between executive power and crown corporations.  It’s a safe assumption that any intervention in future negotiations will not be to give these agencies more money.  The Harper government is giving itself more muscle to push public sector unions into a corner in pursuit of questionable austerity measures

Kenneth V. Georgetti, president of the Canadian Labour Congress argues that 97 per cent of bargaining in the federal jurisdiction leads to an agreement, and that the government is already empowered to give management at crown corporations both  a mandate and direction for negotiations.  The expanded powers therefore, are possibly intended to bring about harsher than usual cuts to wages and jobs in the public sector.  This will not only affect the livelihoods of public servants during these extended times of economic uncertainty, but will likely undermine the quality of the services federal crown corporations provide.  The CBC may be the favourite crown corporation of Canadians – after all, it is on TV and the Internet, the hallmarks of modern society – but it may not be the only one Harper has his eyes on. 


Anthony Matijas lives and writes in Toronto. Follow him on twitter at @A_Matijas.

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