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john doyle: television

Another week, another skirmish in the culture war that centres on the CBC.

On the weekend, an outfit called the Free Thinking Film Festival presented a documentary called The Biases of the CBC at an event in Ottawa. It cost $15 to attend. (Fifteen bucks! Jiminy. You can read any amount of online accusations against the CBC for free, 24/7.) The event followed closely on the release of a Harris-Decima survey done for the Canadian Press, which suggests that 46 per cent of Canadians would like the CBC's funding to stay at the current level and 23 per cent would like it to be increased.

The poll and its release by CP was immediately attacked by one of CBC's most relentless critics, Brian Lilley of Sun News Network, a TV channel owned by Quebecor, a direct commercial competitor to CBC/Radio-Canada. As the Sun News site summarized a video of Lilley's attack, "Brian Lilley looks at why a CP poll showing most people support the CBC is riddled with hidden bias and self-interest."

And what, pray tell, is all this hidden bias and self-interest from a respected polling firm? According to Lilley, "Most people don't know how much the CBC gets." This makes the poll dubious, he says. But that's not all. On TV he attacked The Globe's story about the poll on the basis that the story came from "The Globe-owned CP." Which is odd. Canadian Press Enterprises is now a for-profit national news-gathering agency with joint investment from The Globe and Mail, Torstar and the parent company of La Presse.

Further, in his onscreen attack, Lilley found fault with the fact that the story about the poll was written by Jennifer Ditchburn – "The story is by Jennifer Ditchburn, a regular paid contributor to CBC." He continued in characteristic harrumph mode: "Ditchburn writes about the CBC, normally in very positive manner but doesn't disclose her influence, her own financial relationship with the CBC." By that he means that for occasional punditry on CBC or CBC NN, Ditchburn might get paid about $250.

Nowhere did Lilley point out that he's a paid employee of Quebecor, a company that stands to possibly make a fortune from the diminishment of CBC/Radio-Canada, a competitor in the French-language media here. The debate about the CBC, its alleged biases and its funding has now reached the level of farce encapsulated by Lilley's hooey, a bizarre blend of hypocrisy and paranoia, about "hidden bias and self-interest." CP can't even have a Harris-Decima poll about the CBC and report on it without allegations of rampant bias. By the way, I've never met Jennifer Ditchburn, but I know for a fact that her favourite shows are The OC, The Sopranos and Kath & Kim, none of which has ever aired on CBC-TV.

And, according to her, other broadcasters – CTV, CPAC, Global – pay her a small fee for punditry too. Ditchburn also says nobody from Sun News has ever contacted her for comment or information.

It's the money thing that matters, though. At the core of the Sun News Network attacks on the CBC (and the CBC's reluctance to release certain information under the Access to Information Act) is the knee-jerk assertion that any exchange of money means the person taking the money is automatically and abidingly beholden to those who give it. (Me, I cannot accept any fee from CBC or any broadcaster because, well, I'm the TV critic. At the same time, I don't think a reporter can be bought by a small fee in return for work, any more than I'm compromised by free T-shirts from the Fox network.)

This belief also extends to the issue at the heart of the battle over the CBC. It is always assumed, by any government, that because the CBC receives public funding, it is beholden to the government of the day. Scrutiny by a body that receives public funding, via the government, is deeply resented. There is a base political presumption that a public broadcaster should not scrutinize the doings of a government. Money buys you love is the central belief.

There is nothing unique about this Conservative government's loathing for the CBC and the hatred directed at CBC by Conservative MPs and their supporters. The latter approach the CBC the way the zombies on The Walking Dead approach the living characters – hungry for blood. But it was a Liberal government that wreaked the greatest havoc on the CBC's funding. First, remember, the Conservative government of Brian Mulroney cut CBC funding, promising that it was a temporary measure. But then the Liberal government of Jean Chrétien, after promising stable long-term funding, cut more than $350-million from the CBC's operating budget in 1995.

If there were an NDP government in power, it's a safe bet that it would cast a cold eye on the CBC, see unwarranted scrutiny and attack the CBC too. Public money buys you love from the public broadcaster is a belief shared by all parties. You can bet your bottom dollar on it.

It's the nature of politics, one supposes. But, right now, one warped into mind-boggling paranoia by Sun News, some Conservative MPs and their followers. Everybody needs to calm down and acknowledge that every government loathes the CBC.