CBC/Radio-Canada president Catherine Tait is a magnet for controversy. Since she took the helm of the public broadcaster in 2018, she has waded into political debates that most of her predecessors would have religiously avoided in the name of protecting the CBC’s independence.
Ms. Tait may feel she needs to be an advocate for public broadcasting at a time when the CBC’s raison d’être is being questioned as never before in its 86-year existence. But she more often than not comes across as thin-skinned and self-serving in her defence of a taxpayer-funded institution that has an obligation to serve all Canadians, not just the ones it chooses to.
This week, Ms. Tait crossed the Rubicon with direct criticism of Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre – who has gratuitously vowed to “defund” the CBC if he becomes prime minister – that will do nothing to help her cause and is very likely to hurt it. Instead of elevating public debate surrounding the CBC’s future in a fragmented and saturated media universe, Ms. Tait joined Mr. Poilievre in the political trenches.
“There is a lot of CBC-bashing going on – somewhat stoked by the Leader of the Opposition,” she told The Globe and Mail’s Marie Woolf. “I think they feel the CBC is a mouthpiece for the Liberal government.”
The correct response for any CBC president to any politician’s attack on the public broadcaster or its journalists is to remain steadfastly above the fray. The best way for the CBC to refute Mr. Poilievre’s charges of a pro-Liberal bias is to adhere to its own journalistic standards and practices. Most Canadians are smart enough to recognize political rhetoric for what it is. And they certainly do not need to be told by Ms. Tait what to think about the CBC.
Ms. Tait must realize that it is more than a little unsettling for Canadians to hear the head of the CBC express political opinions that could raise doubts about the public broadcaster’s neutrality. The president sets the tone for the organization. If the top brass is in open conflict with the federal opposition leader, it may colour how Canadians perceive the CBC’s political coverage.
Yet this is hardly the first time Ms. Tait has risked doing this. In a speech last year, titled “Bringing People Together in a Polarized World,” Ms. Tait associated “freedom convoy” protesters who had occupied downtown Ottawa in early 2022 with disinformation campaigns aimed at undermining democratic institutions.
“For years now, malicious actors have been orchestrating disinformation for the express purpose of destabilizing our democracies,” she told a Montreal audience. “We’ve seen it here, with the convoys protesting public health measures and their leaders calling for the overthrow of our democratically elected Parliament.”
Any thinking Canadian understands that latter statement to be a gross exaggeration of what happened in Ottawa. A group called Canadian Unity did circulate a memo during the protest calling on Governor-General Mary Simon and the Senate to force the federal government and provinces to lift all COVID-19 restrictions. But most people recognized the manifesto as an unserious, if not laughable, proposition that was roundly dismissed by other protesters. Canada Unity soon withdrew its own memo.
You can see why some Canadians who sympathized with the convoy protesters or questioned some public health restrictions might feel that the country’s public broadcaster, whose mandate includes contributing to “a shared national consciousness and identity,” adheres to a definition of inclusiveness that, well, does not include them.
One wonders why Ms. Tait would risk alienating so many Canadians when the public broadcaster is facing such existential threats. Its English-language television audience is already tiny and in decline. Its news broadcasts draw a fraction of the viewers who tune into CTV.
Radio-Canada continues to hold its own in Quebec, where audiences remain far more loyal to domestic programming than anglophones. But employees of the French-language arm of the CBC have rebelled against what they see as Ms. Tait’s overemphasis on equity, diversity and inclusion initiatives, sometimes to the detriment of journalistic integrity. Ms. Tait’s handling of a viewer’s complaint over a radio host’s use of the N-word in the context of a discussion of a book title containing the offensive term was openly criticized by several Radio-Canada on-air news personalities and journalists.
Ms. Tait was also forced to do damage control this week after saying the public broadcaster is preparing to stop broadcasting over the airwaves and move its content exclusively online in the future. While she insisted the CBC would not “abandon” rural audiences without adequate broadband access, her comments were widely seen as an attempt to put pressure on Ottawa to facilitate the digital transition by changing the Broadcasting Act to remove references to radio and television from CBC’s mandate.
Ms. Tait’s current five-year term ends in July. Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez has not yet indicated whether he will reappoint her. After this week, it might be an easier decision.