Melanie Joly was beaming like a proud parent on Tuesday morning as she stood in the foyer of the House of Commons and introduced Catherine Tait as the new president and CEO of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.
Joly had reason to be pleased: After announcing last summer that every Canadian with access to the internet and a smidgen of chutzpah could apply for the top CBC job – it was democracy in action! – the Liberal government had managed to sift through the online chaff to pluck a winner who was actually worthy of the position.
Better yet: Joly had found a kindred spirit. Tait, 60, was one of the first TV producers of her generation to move into digital production as a creator of early web series. So she was speaking from experience as she moved through the lines of her prepared speech and noted the ways in which the broadcasting industry has been disrupted. “Never before has content been in such demand on a worldwide basis, and never before have Canadians had the power to choose from such an abundance of content, to be accessed on any device, and to be viewed or listened to at any time,” she said.
Looking over Tait’s shoulder, Joly smiled coyly and nodded. This, after all, has been Joly’s core message since she was named Minister of Canadian Heritage in the fall of 2015: Creators in this country have unique voices but they’re frequently hobbled by market forces; the old regulatory solutions (Cancon quotas, etc.) are pointless in a global marketplace.
Still, diagnosing an ailment isn’t the same as treating it. And while many champions of public broadcasting in Canada cheered Tait’s appointment – largely, one suspects, because it means the imminent departure of Hubert Lacroix, whom they regarded as a toady of Stephen Harper – it’s not immediately clear that either Tait or Joly recognize the unique role of public broadcasting or why Canadians value it.
Tait spoke about “partnerships with Canadian stakeholders … private broadcasters, press organizations, networks such as (the Indigenous-run) APTN,” which seems to position the CBC as a central hub of the creative economy.
But during a brief question-and-answer that followed the upbeat speeches, a reporter asked Tait what she saw as CBC’s greatest challenge. “Listen, it’s not just the challenges that CBC faces, it’s the challenges of our entire industry,” Tait replied, speaking again about the “enormous disruption” of our times. She said the CBC has “an important role to play as a public broadcaster,” but would go no further beyond a tactful mention of its mandate to “inform, enlighten and entertain.”
The CBC’s challenge goes beyond that, though: Public broadcasters across the world are being battered by critics who believe the private marketplace provides all we need. And while two years ago the Liberal government pledged an additional $675-million in funding over five years, it has still not given the CBC the ability to plan for the long run by promising stable, long-term funding. In the meantime, a wholesale rewriting of the Broadcasting Act – which gives the CBC its mandate – is in the offing.
And while Tait has worked for production companies such as Halifax’s Salter Street Films, which sold programs to the CBC (and private networks as well), she has no experience in the one area of the CBC’s activities that even the broadcaster’s fiercest critics usually acknowledge is indispensable: news production.
On Tuesday afternoon, my colleague Laura Stone, in The Globe’s Parliamentary Bureau, spoke with Tom Clark, the former newsman who headed up a temporary committee struck last June to ensure Heritage wasn’t missing any promising candidates. He acknowledged that Tait’s lack of experience in news was something he had needed to mull.
Eventually, he recognized that the CEO’s job is to set strategic direction rather than to get into the day-to-day details. “I don’t mean this to sound corny, but in the end what I believe is, she has spent all her life telling stories,” he told Stone. “And that’s what journalists do. It comes down to the fact that there are a number of ways to tell stories: There’s what you and I do, and then there’s what scriptwriters do. And I’m not saying that they’re the same. I’m saying there are different ways of doing the same thing.”
That’s a good story. Now Tait has go out and sell it.