Peter Menzies: What Could Poilievre’s Promised ‘Defunding’ of the CBC Look Like?

August 29, 2022 Updated: August 30, 2022

Commentary

We will find out in a couple of weeks if the survival of the CBC—the organization conservatives most love to hate—will be at stake in the next federal election.

The vow to “Defund the CBC” has been prominent in Pierre Poilievre’s campaign to be the next leader of the Conservative Party of Canada (CPC) and, possibly, Canada’s next prime minister.

Given that the CPC’s weighted electoral system has about as much in common with first-past-the-post democracy as witchcraft has with Catholicism, there is no guarantee Poilievre, the assumed front-runner, will win when the votes are tallied on Sept. 10.

But let’s say—for the fun of it—that he does.

And let’s say, just for giggles, he’s still promising to give me back control of my life and “Defund the CBC.” How should he go about it?

First of all, he can’t back out. The Canadian news media industry is a mess that no politician can ignore. And he’ll have to start with the CBC because it is the biggest, fattest, mushiest, wokeist, weirdest Frankenmedia out there.

How big, you ask?

The CBC/SRC produces national broadcast television and specialty news channels in English and French. It operates four terrestrial radio networks—CBC Radio One, CBC Music, Ici Radio-Canada, and ICI Musique, specialty channels Ici Explora, Documentary Channel, and Ici ARTV.

It serves Canada’s North through CBC North and Radio Canada Nord, offers digital services through CBC.ca, Radio-Canada.ca., CBC Radio 3, CBC Musi, Ici.TOU.TV, and owns 20.2 percent of satellite radio broadcaster Sirius XM Canada. Somewhere in there, it has turned the once renowned Radio Canada International into an ethnic radio station.

Through all that, according to Harvard University’s The Future of Media Project, it attracts 25,273,000 unique digital visits each month—more than the Globe and Mail, National Post, and Toronto Star combined, and 10 million more than the entire Postmedia network.

And the main reason it can do that while scooping up advertising dollars is that the government gives it $1.3 billion every year to eat the private sector’s lunch. And it gets that subsidy because, since 1936, the CBC has been the national public broadcaster. Except, as things have evolved, it is only the national public broadcaster when it suits its purposes.

Otherwise, because it is allowed to sell advertising on television and online (but not radio), it is for all intents and purposes a commercial network propped up with public money. Why—a sensible person operating a competitive news organization might wonder—is the government using my taxes to subsidize competition that is driving me out of business?

Just speaking menacingly about possibly defunding the CBC is no longer an option. (The Harper government always left about $50 million “at risk” which, back in the day, prompted the CBC to occasionally interview economists from—OMG imagine—the Fraser Institute. These days, it pretty much sticks with the more agreeably progressive Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.)

So, what could Poilievre actually do?

Well, he could eliminate the entire $1.3 billion subsidy which, barring a last-ditch appeal by CBC to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) for a subsidy from fees charged to all cable, satellite, and internet subscribers, would be the end of it.

Closing down would be particularly tough on the North, which is dependent on CBC for territorial news no one else covers. But Canadians don’t seem to care about the North.

In Quebec, it was always assumed that Radio-Canada was needed to balance TVA, the most popular French network run by Quebecor, and its separatist CEO Pierre-Karl Peladeau. But the emergence last year of Noovo Info, backed by the deep pockets and resources of Bell Media, altered that dynamic considerably.

Another option is to defund more gently by eliminating CBC’s ability to sell advertising or receive funds from Facebook and Google, as the government is planning through the Online News Act.

The response to losing the loot—$253.47 million in 2021—would presumably be to lay off journalists, which while likely to be wildly celebrated by some, would be just as loudly mourned by many others. Quietly, though, this would be well received by other media owners as the net effect would be to “level the playing field” by forcing CBC out of the fight for dollars.

The idea that the CBC might die or, more likely, be returned to its non-commercial radio roots sounds like a radical shift in the Canadian media landscape, and it is. But whether through Poilievre or someone else, it’s long past time for changes. After all, apart from driving conservatives nuts, the CBC’s status quo is causing as much commercial harm to Canada’s left-wing media as it is to its right.

If I ever get control of my life back, this will be something to watch.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Peter Menzies is a senior fellow with the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, an award winning journalist, and former vice-chair of the CRTC.