CBC/Radio-Canada’s Open Letter on Access to Information (ATI) Issues

December 1, 2010

On a daily basis for over a week now, Quebecor Media has published articles on CBC/Radio-Canada and Access to Information. Their series is intended to “hold CBC accountable to taxpayers,” because, they argue, we are “not really accountable to anyone.”

Before we get to this allegation, permit me to put our competitor’s latest endeavour into context. Over the last few years, we have seen Quebecor Media make zealous use of the Access to Information Act. By its own admission, Quebecor has “filed thousands of ATIPs [Access to Information and Privacy], trying to find out how and why CBC spends taxpayer money on board meetings in Iqaluit [there has never been a board meeting in Iqaluit], executive expenses, anchor salaries and bidding for commercial or sports properties.”

We will not speculate on our competitor’s underlying intentions, but we will provide Canadians with the facts needed to make their own judgments about CBC/Radio-Canada’s accountability.

So let’s do that. Not only are we accountable to Parliament (Annual Report, Corporate Plan, appearances before Parliamentary Committees) and the CRTC (Annual Regulatory Report, license hearings, innumerable policy hearings), our financial reporting is subject to review annually by the Auditor General (AG) and every five to 10 years the AG does a full special audit. These overlapping layers of accountability are what assure Canadians that CBC/Radio-Canada continues to use its parliamentary appropriation responsibly.

Moreover, through our web sites, we proactively provide citizens with information of all kinds, including our senior executives’ travel and duty hospitality expenses, and tens of thousands of pages of documents released under the Access to Information Act. We will continue to add to the documents available over the coming months. On our website, we also post all the rules and policies that guide our expenses, which are similar to those applied within the federal government. There have been no allegations of breach of those rules.

Since CBC/Radio-Canada became subject to the Act in 2007, we have released over 70,000 pages of information. We also have responded to 1,206 out of the 1,262 requests received (to November 26, 2010). Indeed, if Quebecor’s article last week is to be believed (as cited above), we have received a couple of hundred ATIP requests from interested Canadians and more than 1,000 from our principal competitor in the province of Quebec.

We have not always had a perfect record on Access to Information, nor do we now. In the first weeks of being subject to the Act, we received approximately 400 requests from David Statham, Michel Drapeau and their partners, who have publicly acknowledged working for Quebecor Media. The extraordinary circumstances caused by this unprecedented volume has been recognized by both the Office of the Information Commissioner and the courts, including the Federal Court of Appeal in a judgment rendered last week against Mr. Statham.

While the number of requests we have received over the last few months has spiked once again, our performance in dealing with requests fully and on time continues to improve steadily. Since April 1, 2010, we have received no complaints for delay in responding to requests under the Actand we have dealt successfully with our backlog of initial requests. We are on the right track.

Quebecor Media has also accused us of fighting the Information Commissioner over the interpretation of an exclusion to the Access to Information Act. While the Act gives Canadians a right of access to records that relate to our general administration — of which we fully approve — Parliament decided to exclude from this Act such information that relates to our “journalistic, creative or programming activities.” And there are good reasons for that.

CBC/Radio-Canada is the only journalistic enterprise in the country subject to Access to Information. We operate in a competitive environment.Without this exclusion, our competitors would know our programming plans. Without this exclusion, a requester could ask for the files of our journalists, consult investigative materials and gain access to the identity of confidential sources. This is clearly not in keeping with the journalistic values we hold in Canada or the principles of freedom of the press that are essential to a healthy democracy. We do, of course, understand the interest a competitor would have in gaining access to this kind of information.

The question of the nature of the exclusion (Section 68.1 of the Act) granted by Parliament is currently before the courts. We welcome the opportunity this affords to clarify the rules under which we operate. It is our position that only a judge should have the right to force disclosure of information that we deem journalistic or program related and not Officers of Parliament who have, by virtue of their own mandates, priorities other than journalism and freedom of the press. It is a delicate and important question and we are eager to have the courts clarify where the line that defines this exclusion should be drawn.

As part of our belief in freedom of the press, we affirm fervently Quebecor’s right to pursue information relevant to the public interest, even from within CBC/Radio-Canada. As stewards of a public institution charged with “informing, enlightening and entertaining” Canadians, we will, in the same breath, try to ensure that the public is aware when anyone’s treatment of that information is distorted or misrepresents the truth. The Sun Media series has demonstrated how easy it is to select and twist facts to further a self-interested campaign. We will continue to use the Access to Information Act ourselves to inform the public, while simultaneously asking the courts to provide appropriate protection for our journalism and programming. That may seem like a paradox, but rather is what is required of public broadcasters everywhere.

We are also redoubling our efforts to quickly and efficiently handle the many Access to Information requests we receive, regardless of their origins or intent.

For additional information, please contact:
  • William B. Chambers
    Vice-President, Brand, Communications and Corporate Affairs, CBC/Radio-Canada
    tel. 613-288-6181
    bill.chambers@cbc.ca

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