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  (Curtis Lantinga)

 

(Curtis Lantinga)

Margaret Wente

Games people don't play: It's ulcer time at the CBC Add to ...

Toronto’s Mayor, Rob Ford, is no fan of the CBC. Especially now. Early Monday morning, as he was about to take his daughter to school, he was accosted in his driveway by a shrieking, middle-aged woman in scarlet breastplates, waving a microphone. He probably had no idea that she was a comedian named Mary Walsh, doing her Princess Warrior shtick, and that he was supposed to recognize her. Quite sensibly, he retreated behind a bush and called 911. “I’m open to games, but when they come to my private house in the morning and ambush me, I think that crosses a line,” he said later.

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Sophisticates sneered at Mr. Ford for not playing along and allowing himself to be ridiculed on national television. Just good fun, harrumphed a spokesman for the CBC, who pointed out that Ms. Walsh’s brand of ambush journalism “has become part of public life in Canada.” But other people took his side. City councillor Adam Vaughan, normally the mayor’s harshest critic, said that politicians – even right-wing politicians – are entitled to a private life.

Personally, I think most Canadians would agree with that. The Princess Warrior (who should have been put out to pasture years ago, in my opinion) crossed the line. Not even bona fide investigative journalists are entitled to harass whoever they want on their own property.

The fans of Rob Ford and the fans of Mary Walsh tend to be on different sides of the culture wars. And the CBC can no longer assume that most Canadians are on its side. Its $1.1-billion budget is under serious threat, and its enemies are more powerful than ever. They include Quebecor’s Pierre Karl Péladeau, a pugnacious, union-busting business magnate who is using his newspaper chain and his right-wing cable channel, Sun TV, to mount a frontal assault on what he regards as the CBC’s unfair market clout. (Not coincidentally, his Quebec television interests are in direct competition with Radio-Canada.)

Then there are Conservatives, emboldened by their new majority. Even moderate Conservatives believe they have long been slighted by the CBC’s squishy left-of-centre journalistic mindset. In Ottawa this week, a number of them challenged CBC president Hubert Lacroix to “show the relevance of the investment we’re making.”

“Your approach to news tends to be one-sided and viewers are tuning out because they’re looking for a good debate and they’re not getting it,” New Brunswick MP John Williamson charged Tuesday. “CBC is, in fact, becoming a caricature of itself.” He went on to point out that the audience for CBC News has steadily declined. Its flagship nightly news show draws only half the audience of Global or CTV news. “I’m not sure taxpayers are getting value for money if eyeballs are going elsewhere,” he said.

The CBC is also on the outs with Suzanne Legault, the Information Commissioner, who once gave it an “F” for disclosure. She says the public broadcaster is far too secretive about its own affairs, and that it should be up to her, not CBC bureaucrats, to determine what information should and should not be disclosed. Not coincidentally, the CBC has been bombarded with hundreds of information requests from Quebecor journalists, who insist the public has a right to know such things as how much money Peter Mansbridge makes, or what Strombo’s expense tab is. These juicy details would no doubt provide endless fodder for populist ranters like Sun TV’s Ezra Levant (who’s even more grating than Mary Walsh).

The bad blood between the CBC and Mr. Péladeau just keeps getting worse. Mr. Péladeau insists that only his journalists are in a position to investigate the CBC, because the CBC has everybody else in its back pocket. (Disclosure: I’m on the CBC payroll, too, as part of a biweekly media panel.) Now the CBC has produced a rather dubious “fact sheet” on its website claiming that Mr. Péladeau himself has been heavily subsidized by taxpayer dollars. He says the CBC is wrong, and is threatening to sue.

Meantime, the public broadcaster is trying to find its place in the thousand-channel universe. Television audiences everywhere are in steep decline, and even some of the CBC’s flagship shows are flagging. As the head of scheduling said recently, “It’s ulcer time.”

My advice is to stock up on the Pepto-Bismol. They’re going to need it.

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