The CBC has bowed to government demands that it turn over internal documents that a competing broadcaster had unsuccessfully tried to pry loose using access-to-information laws.
The documents, originally requested by media giant Quebecor, were reluctantly provided by the public broadcaster on Monday to the Commons ethics committee.
Pierre Karl Péladeau, the president of Quebecor, has made no secret of the disdain he holds for the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. and the $1.1-billion in funds it receives every year from the federal government. And many Conservatives share the belief that the Crown corporation has an unfair advantage over the private networks.
The fight over the documents comes at a time when the CBC – like all federal departments – is facing cuts to its budget to meet deficit-reduction targets. The CBC's reluctance to release them is more fodder for critics, who would like to see the broadcaster's budget trimmed and who complain it is not being transparent to taxpayers.
Some of the documents that were given to the committee arrived in a sealed envelope, and CBC president Hubert Lacroix pleaded with committee members not to look at them. To do so, he said, would violate the broadcaster's journalistic independence.
Mr. Lacroix said the CBC has been told by its lawyers that the forced release of the documents crosses critical constitutional boundaries.
"It is also important to consider the precedent that this sets – not only for ourselves as an independent Crown corporation and media company," Mr. Lacroix said in a luncheon speech to the National Press Club, "but potentially for any broadcaster or indeed anyone concerned with the proper separation of power within the various branches of government."
Parliamentary Law Clerk Rob Walsh has also said the committee could be violating the Constitution by forcing the handover of the documents at a time when the CBC is engaged in a court case with the federal Information Commissioner to determine what can and cannot be protected by federal access laws.
The documents released to the committee were demanded by Dean Del Mastro, the Conservative who represents Peterborough in the House of Commons.
Mr. Del Mastro asked that the committee have a chance to review them after Mr. Péladeau told the committee in October that the public broadcaster has been deliberately withholding information requested by reporters in his media chain.
The Conservative government has repeatedly been given a failing grade by the Information Commissioner for its own unwillingness to release documents requested under access laws. But Mr. Del Mastro had threatened that refusal on the part of the CBC to release the documents could put the corporation in contempt of Parliament.
He said Monday that he was satisfied that the documents were now in the committee's hands. It was always the committee's intent that the documents be viewed in camera, Mr. Del Mastro told reporters, "so I am satisfied that the CBC has complied. That's great. It's great for Parliament. It's great for Canadians."
Mr. Lacroix said the CBC, as a public organization, is accustomed to criticism. He said Quebecor's negative reporting about the CBC had spiked when the creation of Sun TV was announced in June, 2010.
"You have to ask yourself whether this is journalism in the public interest," he told the luncheon, "or a self-interested campaign from an organization that thinks it can gain from our loss."