I was surprised to read last Wednesday’s editorial in The Gazette taking CBC/Radio-Canada to task for using taxpayers’ money to defend its legal position in a court case with the Information Commissioner. Your editorial is based largely on a survey carried out by Quebecor, which asked how much of the Public Broadcaster’s financial information should be made public.
The problem with a survey of this type is that if you start with a false premise, you end up with a false conclusion. The false hypothesis is that the court case is about releasing financial information. It isn’t. Without any need for intervention from the Information Commissioner, we release gallons of financial information through our Annual Reports, Quarterly Reports, report to the CRTC and our Corporate Plan Summary. There is way more financial information available on CBC/Radio-Canada than on any of the private conventional broadcasters in Canada.
I hear you say that that is only right as we are subsidized by Federal funding. True, 65% of our funding comes from a public appropriation. But 35% of our funding has to be earned on the commercial market. That is how the Broadcasting Act has structured us since 1952. Now let’s look at those paragons of the free market, the private conventional broadcasters. TVA (owned by Quebecor ), CTV, Global and CITY collectively receive hundreds of millions of dollars worth of public benefits every year through tax credits, through direct grants from the Local Program Improvement Fund, through indirect grants from Canadian Media Fund and through protection from foreign competition. There is no conventional broadcaster in this country that is not subsidized by the taxpayer in one way and another. On top of that, Quebecor is itself owned at a level of 45% by the Government of Quebec through the Caisse de dépôt et de placement du Québec.
Your editorial calls on us to release to the Information Commissioner what we spend on restaurants and hospitality. There is no need. Our executives’ meals and hospitality expenses are posted on our website every quarter for all to see. Similarly, “what it cost to send an executive to study at Harvard University” is public knowledge. Indeed, in the interest of transparency, we created a proactive disclosure website which now contains more than 27,000 pages of searchable data on CBC/Radio-Canada.
But none of this is the subject of the legal case with the Commissioner. It is not about what gets released, it is about who has access to sensitive information. Ironically, the one example your editorial gave of something that we “should be allowed to keep strictly confidential” is at the heart of the case - our investigative journalism and the identity of confidential sources. Our view is that only a judge should decide the fate of this kind of information. I dare say that the Gazette, which has fought its share of legal battles to protect its sources, would also be reticent to give up its sources to officers of Parliament without a fight.
As we’re talking proactive disclosure, I will acknowledge that we are thankful that Parliament, in its wisdom, recognized when it brought CBC/Radio-Canada under the Access to Information legislation that we operate a hybrid public/commercial model and that if we are to remain viable, we would also need to be able to protect our programming strategies from our direct competitors. So information relating to “journalistic, creative or programming activities” is excluded from release under the Act.
Gazette readers may not be aware that Quebecor, which owns in addition to TVA, Videotron, Le Journal de Montréal, the Sun Media chain of newspapers and now Sun News Network, has over the past year waged a concerted, aggressive, almost daily campaign of attacks in all its properties bent on tarnishing CBC/Radio-Canada’s image. This trumped-up survey is only the most recent mud to be slung.
It’s a canny strategy. Quebecor sees our programming succeeding with Canadians as never before. With our license hearings before the CRTC coming up and a government facing a large budget deficit, they see an opportunity to inflict some harm on a competitor by tearing it down. They are no longer even a member of the Press Councils. It’s anything goes.
I expect no better from Sun Media. But the Gazette is not the Sun and I do expect more from the Gazette. I expect you to make a call to check your facts before you sign your name to an Editorial. We didn’t receive a call.