Reporters’ associations and the CBC’s unions say the integrity of news gathering would be affected if the federal government is allowed to participate in contract negotiations between the public broadcaster and its employees.
They are asking that the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation be exempted from the provisions of federal budget legislation that would open the door to direct government involvement in the bargaining process.
But the Harper government counters that it has an obligation to ensure that tax dollars are spent efficiently.
What is the government trying to do?
A new omnibus budget bill includes a provision that would allow the federal cabinet to tell Crown corporations, including the CBC, how they should negotiate with their employees. The bill would also allow the government to have an official sit in on collective bargaining negotiations at the Crown agencies.
The government, which is looking for ways to reduce a multibillion-dollar deficit, has the ultimate financial responsibility for the Crown corporations. And it says the CBC should not assume it can do whatever it wants with the roughly $1.1-billion it receives every year from the federal government.
“We are ensuring that public service labour costs align and that taxpayers’ hard-earned dollars are used efficiently,” Matthew Conway, a spokesman for Treasury Board President Tony Clement, said in an e-mail. “We will also ensure consistency throughout government on this plan.”
What are the objections?
Some journalists – especially those who have worked for the public broadcaster –argue that giving the government a direct say in the CBC’s collective agreements would remove the arm’s-length relationship between the state and the public broadcaster.
Bill Gillespie, a retired CBC journalist, told a news conference Monday that CBC reporters need to know they can report stories about the government without “some sort of blow-back on your media organization at the bargaining table.”
In addition, Mr. Gillespie said, many provisions in the CBC’s agreement with its employees relate to journalistic independence and allow the broadcaster’s journalists to do their job freely and independently. “When you throw that collective agreement down on the table,” he said, “every single clause is open to negotiation.”
How could the CBC’s journalistic integrity be affected?
According to a letter that was signed by 18 journalists and former journalists, many of whom worked for the CBC,the collective agreements prevent journalists from being pulled off assignments without good reason.
The agreements also ensure that journalists do not have to fear retribution, including losing their jobs, as a result of their reporting. And the CBC is required to protect the authority of producers over the content of stories, the letter says.
Those who object to the measures included in the bill say the government already has ample control over the CBC’s budget. because it decides how much public money the broadcaster receives in its annual grant.
Does Canada really need a public broadcaster?
In a country that has many private, independent broadcasters, newspapers and other media, and ready access to the Internet, is the journalism of the CBC and Radio-Canada still essential?
Arnold Amber, the president of Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, who is also a former union leader and a former executive producer at the CBC, said he believes the news generated by the public broadcaster is less fettered by commercial considerations than that produced by private media.
And he chafed at the notion that CBC staff should be paid on a scale equivalent to bureaucrats in federal departments. “The people who work for Radio-Canada/CBC are not bureaucrats,” Mr. Amber said. “We are not civil servants.”
With a report from Bill Curry