Linden MacIntyre is a former host of the CBC’s The Fifth Estate.
There is a struggle under way within the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and it’s becoming perilous to careers and to personal and professional relationships – as well as, in the end, the future of the public broadcaster.
It’s become a struggle for the soul of a venerable public institution. Hundreds of employees and ex-employees are at war with their former supervisors, bosses, their employer, even friends on an issue that, if unchecked, could compromise the corporation’s journalistic credibility – a priceless asset, nurtured and financed by many generations of Canadians.
For as long as I can remember, there has been debate about how to pay the bills for as daunting an enterprise as operating the CBC. Public funding has always been inconsistent and vulnerable, which makes the corporation hard to manage. Politicians, who control the public purse, seem to like the CBC only when it makes them feel good. The solution has been a mix of public money and commercial revenue. It has never been easy, and it has never been enough.
Commercial advertising on CBC Television has been contentious from the outset. Why the need for ads when there is public funding? But the current uproar goes far deeper than a debate about the legitimacy of advertising in a public-service medium.
It started when the corporation crossed what many journalists consider an ethical red line: moving well beyond old-fashioned advertising into a money-making scheme called sponsored content. Such content allows clients to pay the corporation to run commercial propaganda that might easily be mistaken for objective information, even journalism. To explicitly declare upfront the true nature of the so-called “branded content” would defeat the purpose of the sponsorship – and therein lies the peril of deception, deliberate or otherwise.
To make this bad idea worse, a CBC initiative called Tandem – another word for partnership – was explicitly designed to “leverage the credibility of our network,“ according to a CBC press release, a notion that was bound to raise hackles in a profession that has traditionally demanded unquestioned independence from the business side of media.
The venture into this grey area has generated more passion in the ranks than any issue I recall from my 38 years working for the CBC. More than 500 employees of past and present have signed a petition to stop the project before the “leveraging” of the journalistic prestige of the CBC does fatal damage to the integrity that now seems to be a selling point for the commercial marketplace.
Top management – shocked by the passions of reporters including many of its most familiar personalities, plus two past presidents of the CBC – seemed to make some significant concessions. No journalists will be required to prostitute themselves, they said. Efforts will be made to prevent confusion about what is journalism and what is propaganda.
But the project will go ahead. The corporation needs the money. That the federal government has recently been urged by an advisory panel to make the CBC “a public media institution with a singular focus on serving the public rather than a commercial purpose” – in short, an ad-free zone – seems not to be of reassurance to corporation management.
Appeals to the CBC’s board of directors have been ignored. While calling for submissions leading up to the CBC’s licence renewal in 2021, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission brushed aside the principled concerns of CBC journalists who asked for a hearing on the Tandem issue.
It seems that, among the mandarins in Ottawa, there is a not-unreasonable expectation that the disgruntlement of journalists will inevitably fade away, like most of the controversies we report on.
The responses from senior CBC managers during this uprising have been, at best, paternalistic. The offer of superficial concessions, in the absence of any willingness to back away from a bad idea that is the antithesis of journalism, inevitably boils down to condescension.
No matter what the CBC might do to mitigate the peril of confusion in the minds of viewers, listeners and online readers about what is information and what is commerce, the journalists are left to grapple with Tandem’s admitted goal of “leveraging our networks credibility” for mercenary reasons.
The credibility of “our network” is embedded in “our” journalism.
For many, the Tandem project raises the unfortunate if unintended spectacle of parents leveraging virtue for a transaction that will, in the long run, mortify the family.
The CBC will be diminished by this project. Indeed, anything that threatens to tarnish the reputation of its journalism will only erode the rationale for continuing an expensive but essential public service for a scattered population in a vast geography.
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