For any viewer of both the CBC’s English and French networks, there is an obvious reason why Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre is sparing Radio-Canada in his attacks on the public broadcaster.
While the French arm of the CBC answers to the same CEO as its Anglo counterpart, Radio-Canada is in effect independent from the English CBC and, in many ways, is its mirror image. Politicians have long levelled accusations of bias against both the English and French networks, but the nature of the alleged bias has differed. The CBC is seen as wearing its leftish leanings on its sleeve; Radio-Canada is seen as putting Quebec’s interests first.
Under current president and CEO Catherine Tait, the English and French arms of the CBC have moved farther apart than ever. That is mainly because the English CBC has been consumed by questions around diversity, reconciliation and lived experience, sometimes at the risk of blurring the lines between journalism and activism. This may explain why so many Conservatives see it as being in cahoots with a Liberal government that, well, has been consumed by questions around diversity, reconciliation and lived experience.
This hardly proves that the CBC is a purveyor of “Trudeau propaganda,” as Mr. Poilievre alleged after lobbying Twitter owner Elon Musk to slap a “government-funded media” label on its account. But the Conservative Leader’s crusade to the “defund” the CBC has little to do with genuine concerns about journalistic integrity. It is, first and foremost, a fundraising tactic.
Ms. Tait has played into Mr. Poilievre’s hands by accusing him of stoking “a lot of CBC-bashing” and challenging his contention that a Conservative government would maintain funding for Radio-Canada while cutting off the CBC. Every time Ms. Tait opens her mouth to defend the CBC, more money pours into Tory coffers.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is also helping the Tories build their election war chest by accusing the Conservatives of “choosing to constantly attack independent media organizations, journalists who are working hard to keep Canadians informed and support our democracy.” Does he not realize that his unctuous praise for the CBC helps make the Tory Leader’s point for him?
Besides, it is a bit rich for Mr. Trudeau to criticize Mr. Poilievre for attacking the public broadcaster when his own father wrote the book on CBC-bashing. Pierre Trudeau’s ire was usually directed at Radio-Canada, which he lambasted as “a nest of separatists” and Parti Québécois sympathizers. Back then, federal Liberals were so obsessed with purging separatists at the network that CBC/Radio-Canada’s mandate was amended in the 1968 Broadcasting Act to direct it “to contribute to the development of national unity.”
The wording was changed by Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservative government to “contribute to a shared national consciousness and identity,” and has not been touched since. Jean Chrétien apparently never got wind of the change, though: After the razor-thin No victory in the 1995 Quebec referendum, he complained that “there is a mandate of the CBC to promote national unity,” and “that was not really the main preoccupation that they had in the many, many nights that I watched them.”
These days, with separatism all but dead, sovereigntist bias is the least of Radio-Canada’s problems. Rather, the French network is at odds with Ms. Tait’s diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives. Many Radio-Canada journalists see her diktats as a dangerous drift toward self-censorship and activism.
For now, the brouhaha over the CBC works in Mr. Poilievre’s favour. Most English Canadians could not find the CBC on their television dial if their lives depended on it; they are not about to take to the barricades to save it. The CBC’s conventional TV market share slipped to an anemic 4.4 per cent in the nine months to Dec. 31, falling below even its own modest target of 4.9 per cent.
But Mr. Poilievre could find it harder to thread the needle during the next federal election campaign as he tries to justify his plan to protect Radio-Canada while throwing the English CBC under the bus. It is not clear Canadians in either solitude will see the fairness in that approach.
Radio-Canada, whose TV market share in Quebec stands at 22.6 per cent, may play a role in Quebec that the CBC cannot claim to fill in English Canada, where there exists an abundance of choice in domestic news and entertainment programming. Even so, Radio-Canada is even more blatantly commercial than the CBC and brings in proportionally far more in advertising revenue than the English network.
It would be giving Mr. Poilievre too much credit to suggest he has thought any of this through, though. He has been far too busy blowing smoke.