Recent debate about defunding the CBC often misses an important distinction — the problem isn’t that the CBC has a partisan bias per se, it’s that the organization has this bias while being a state broadcaster.
To expect neutrality from every publication would mean depriving citizens of access to specialized journalism which explores their interests, and ideology, with greater depth than afforded by generalist media.
Supporting ideologically-specialized media isn’t much different from supporting media that focuses on specific subcultures or ethnic communities. When you allow people to explore the niches that interest them, you create more variety and choice.
As a conservative writer, I could never imagine calling for any independent, progressive publication’s elimination on the basis of ideology.
I suspect that most conservatives feel this way. However much frustration there may be with “the other side,” there is no significant movement to eliminate independent or for-profit progressive publications, such as The Toronto Star and The Tyee.
Similarly, I believe that most progressives recognize conservative papers’ right to exist, despite ideological differences.
But the CBC is different. It’s not a regular media outlet. It’s a state broadcaster, which gets its mandate from the government, and is showered with public funds.
At $1.2 billion, accounting for two thirds of its budget, public financial support for the CBC far exceeds any funding private media receives. To make a comparison, last year Postmedia, owner of National Post, was eligible for $8.3 million in journalism tax credits, according to its financial statements.
That’s less than one per cent of CBC’s grant and only 1.8 per cent of Postmedia’s expenses for the year. The company was also eligible for a final $1.6 million from the now-ended Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy — but that amount is, again, trivial relative to the CBC’s public funding.
The CBC’s privileged relationship with the government creates special responsibilities — one of the most important of which is a dedication to political neutrality, where possible.
In an ideal world, a state broadcaster faithfully serves the public interest and refrains from cheerleading for a particular political party. To abandon this responsibility and become a partisan mouthpiece is to allow the state to effectively put its thumbs on the scales of democracy.
We see the most extreme examples of this in authoritarian-leaning regimes where political opposition, while technically permitted, is smothered by regime-friendly media.
Canada is not an authoritarian state, obviously, but that doesn’t mean that it is perfect. More importantly, the success of our democracy doesn’t absolve us of the responsibility to maintain democratic norms to the best of our abilities, including the neutrality of our state media.
A month ago, I wrote an article criticizing the CBC for its biased coverage of Beijing’s interference into Canada’s elections. I thought it was appalling that the CBC, unlike every other major news outlet, chose to platform a genocide apologist to imply that criticism of Beijing is “racist.” At the time, this narrative was widely being used by the Liberals, against the wishes of many Chinese-Canadian community leaders, to undermine critics who wanted to know why the Trudeau government had concealed the extent of Beijing’s influence campaigns.
The CBC’s decision to push Liberal talking points using a shady letter that no one else would touch reinforces the view that the corporation often functions as a Liberal party mouthpiece.
There have been some thought-provoking conversations about what “bias” actually looks like, as the CBC’s supporters have pointed out that the government has no control or involvement in editorial content.
While that’s important to know, it’s equally important to remember that publications can cheerlead for governments even if they don’t receive instruction from them. There are countless for-profit media outlets that, in virtue of their company culture, lean towards specific parties without direct collusion.
It’s arguable that the CBC, while free from direct control, has irresponsibly failed to maintain a culture that truly emphasizes partisan neutrality, and has allowed this to impact its reporting, commentary and public behaviour.
Last year, journalist Tara Henly quit the CBC after almost 10 years of working there and publicly excoriated the corporation for maintaining an environment where, according to her, radical progressivism is the norm and journalistic integrity is almost non-existent. Some journalists, such as Canadaland’s Jesse Brown, pushed back on her account and implied that she was exaggerating the issue.
Meanwhile, some of the CBC’s defenders have accused its critics of hypocrisy. For example, NDP MP Charlie Angus inaccurately claimed that Postmedia, receives around $35 million in government subsidies “every year,” and wondered why Postmedia isn’t considered “government funded” in the same way that CBC is.
The $35 million he alluded to was provided in 2020, and COVID-19 labour subsidies accounted for the majority of that amount. As mentioned earlier, Postmedia’s typical government funding is a drop compared to CBC’s ocean.
However, looking beyond the details of Postmedia’s financials, these accusations of hypocrisy, if thrown around wantonly, risk unfairly undermining legitimate critique.
In recent years, the federal government has widely subsidized Canadian media in light of declining readership and the COVID-19 pandemic. Does that mean that the majority of Canadian journalists aren’t allowed to criticize the CBC’s alleged partisanship? If yes, then what public accountability can there be on this issue? To accept some scraps of public funding shouldn’t put for-profit media in the same category as the CBC.
Of course, people can reasonably disagree on this point, and on the contours of the CBC’s biases. What’s less reasonable, though, is the argument that the CBC is allowed to be partisan just because other publications are, as well. State broadcasters can’t have their cake and eat it, too.