Speaking notes for Hubert T. Lacroix, President and CEO, CBC/Radio-Canada, at the National Press Club’s Newsmakers Luncheon

November 14, 2011

(PLEASE CHECK AGAINST DELIVERY)

Good afternoon.

Thanks for having me.

National Press Club. National public broadcaster. News. There’s a clear connection there. Normally, though, we broadcast the news. Recently, we have been the news. I’ll talk about that today.

I’d also like to talk to you about value, as in economic value, as in value added – as in what we offer in exchange for the $34 per year each Canadian, each of you, invests in our Corporation – and how we make a unique contribution within the country’s interconnected broadcasting ecosystem.

Let me expand on this point, because it provides the context for all of my remarks today.

In some circles, conversations about us start from this vantage point: CBC/Radio-Canada – which receives $1.1 billion dollars from government – competes against all of the other private sector organizations (CTV, Global and Quebecor). They supposedly have to struggle from a position of unfair economic disadvantage, claiming they receive no public support.

Sorry. This is a false premise.

All media organizations in the broadcasting ecosystem – CBC, CTV, Global and yes, even Quebecor – benefit significantly from sources like the Canadian Media Fund and the Local Programming Improvement Fund, or through regulatory or fiscal advantages, all of which are carefully designed and regulated for specific policy objectives.

The slide here attempts to tabulate the public subsidies and benefits – direct and indirect – that broadcasters receive. As you can see, it rounds out to about $900 million per year.

Before you get outraged and call for all of this money to be contributed to the federal deficit reduction action plan, you should know that there is no sustainable free-market model that will support a significant Canadian broadcasting industry. Buying American programming is just too easy and too profitable. If we want to have not only Corner Gas and Michael: Tuesdays and Thursdays, but also the CFL and Hockey Night in Canada, local stations with local news programs, television coverage of elections – in fact, if we want to have any substantive television outlet for Canadian voices – then we will need to subsidize the Canadian broadcasting sector. Those are the economics of it.

However, in exchange for these public benefits, all broadcasters are required to make certain service and performance commitments to Canadians. We think that is a good thing. There is room in the media landscape for many voices and many models of service.

But all who receive public funding should be transparent and accountable, and the ecosystem should be aligned with the public’s interest, not with any particular commercial interest.

In the course of our operations and service delivery, CBC/Radio-Canada promises to maximize the value of your investment in us.

Let me give you but one example – our prime time Canadian content – and ask you to compare it against that of other major English Canadian broadcasters. Not much doubt as to which network made it a priority.

Not much doubt either as to our added economic value to the country. In an independent study published in June 2011, Deloitte concluded that, for every dollar that we receive from Canadians, we generate 3.7 dollars of value to the Canadian economy.

So, within that context, let me turn to some topical issues.

Recently, we’ve become the subject of some very lively discussion and debate about what kind of information we make available to the public, to our competitors and now to Parliament itself.

First, let me clear the air a little about our accountability and transparency.

We take these issues very seriously. Always have. Always will. These attributes are central to our philosophy and critical to our credibility. And credibility is essential for a public broadcaster.

As an independent, arm’s-length Crown corporation, we are accountable to Canadians through Parliament by way of our:

  • Corporate Plan
  • Annual Report
  • Quarterly financial statements and reports
  • Appearances before various Parliamentary committees

All of information is available to the public, much of it on our website.

We also report to the Crown through our regulatory filings, appearances and licence renewals.

We report to the Auditor General of Canada, who reviews and signs off on our financial statements each and every year, and who conducts a special detailed audit every five to 10 years. We have one of these in progress at this very moment.

We host an Annual Public Meeting. This year, we held it on November 2, at the magnificent Canadian War Museum. We invited all Canadians to attend, and also made the meeting available online. You can still view it any time on our website.

Also on our website, we make available more than 27,000 pages of information that have been released under Access to Information, including, yes, the always popular executive travel expenses.

If you, as a taxpayer, want to know how much I, as head of CBC/Radio-Canada, am expensing for working meals, business travel or hotels, it’s there. For instance, you will see that in June of this year, I spent $1,608 to travel to Quebec City and Rimouski, meet with staff, meet with local stakeholders, listen to Canadians. The expenses of all our executives are there, updated every three months, going back to 2007.

We agree that Canadians have the right to know how we spend this money.

Here’s another example of our beliefs: CBC/Radio-Canada and Rogers are the only broadcasters who are willing to provide Canadians with details, through information released by the CRTC, about how the Local Programming Improvement Fund money is spent. That is your money being spent. You paid it as part of your cable or satellite bill. You should know where your money is being spent to improve local programming.

We believe in transparency, and are the first to admit that we were caught off guard by the large volume of Access to Information requests we received in the early days in 2007. Had we known then what we know now, and how interested Quebecor Media would be in our affairs, we would have had more resources in place to handle them. That’s the reality. And for this we’ve been taken to task, by many in good faith.

By others, perhaps not so much.

But, today, we’re much better prepared to deal with the requests we receive. We’ve staffed up. We have guidelines in place, guidelines that have been reviewed by an independent legal expert, Professor Pierre Trudel. He confirms that we release more information than is required under the law. How about that for a conclusion?

By the way, if you’re interested in these guidelines, or by the legal opinion from Professor Trudel, both documents are available for review on our website.

Now, at this point, I should outline what we do not release and why.

To maintain the principle of our editorial independence which is enshrined in the Broadcasting Act, certain kinds of information have been deliberately and explicitly excluded from the Access to Information Act. Not by us. By the Legislator.

This is the now famous Section 68.1.

This is information about our "journalistic, programming and creative activities."

I should emphasize that variations of this 68.1 exclusion, in one form or another, are common in other countries for the protection of their public broadcasters.

The reasons are pretty straightforward.

To be credible and effective, a news organization has to be able to pursue its legitimate journalistic activities without interference from outside parties, whether competitors, political actors or others.

All news organizations need that measure of independence and, in exchange for that editorial freedom, should self-regulate through oversight by things like independent press councils and broadcast standards organizations.

I believe this – the notion of a free and independent press – is an important foundation of civil society. It’s certainly a fundamental part of our mission to enhance the cultural and democratic life of this country. It’s an essential component, in fact. Can’t overstate that.

With regard to our programming and creative activities, we exist and operate – we have always existed and operated – within a competitive commercial ecosystem. We are a public broadcaster, with 35% of our revenue coming from our own activities and commercial initiatives. So, we are indeed a public broadcaster but one whose constant reality is that it has commercial interests to maintain and defend. This hybrid existence was determined by government, and by decisions and policies from the CRTC.

Our commercial competitors are obviously interested in what we do and how we do it. For example, they would have an obvious interest in our most recent negotiations for rights to the Olympic Games, NHL hockey or FIFA World Cup soccer.

Precisely how much we pay well-known journalists like Peter Mansbridge or Celine Galipeau is highly sensitive competitive information. Same thing with programs we have in development, or details of our specific marketing or local service plans.

Under the Broadcasting Act, even the Minister of Finance, the President of the Treasury Board and the Minister of Canadian Heritage are explicitly excluded from viewing this kind of information.

Why then should our direct competitors have access to it?

Twelve days ago, the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics, after considerable and sometimes heated debate, requested that we provide unredacted documents relating to several ATI requests we received from Quebecor Media and from the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.

This request came while the Federal Court of Appeal is considering the matter of who should have access to documents specifically excluded from Access to Information under Section 68.1.

Upon receipt of the Standing Committee’s request, we sought a legal opinion.

This opinion from Borden Ladner Gervais, a national law firm, concludes that we have excellent arguments to contest the legitimacy of the Committee’s request for documents. On the other hand, you probably heard the Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister saying that we would be in contempt of Parliament if we didn’t hand over the requested documents. So, where does that leave us?

In the present circumstances, after serious consideration, we decided to provide the documents to the Committee this morning, but to seal some of them. At the same time, we formally expressed concerns about some important constitutional questions and boundaries, and we have asked the members of the Committee to read the Borden Ladner Gervais opinion (which we provided to them) and reconsider their course of action.

It is also important to consider the precedent this sets – not only for ourselves as an independent Crown corporation and media company, but potentially for any broadcaster, any business or indeed anyone concerned with the proper separation of powers between our various branches of government.

We’re not alone in this view. On November 4, the Canadian Bar Association (CBA), representing 37,000 lawyers and legal scholars across the country, expressed its opposition to the Committee’s actions, urging the Committee to let the court rule on this matter. By issuing its press release, the CBA said, "Parliament runs the risk of inappropriately intruding on the work of the court."

Let me emphasize – this matter isn’t really about the particular information requested by the committee. This is, for us, about the critically important concept of independence from political influence and our ability to act – as we have always done as a public broadcaster – within a competitive broadcasting ecosystem.

As mentioned, we currently are clarifying an issue with the Information Commissioner about who has access to information covered under Section 68.1.

That’s not unusual, actually. Government departments and ministers have gone to court with the Information Commissioner more than 180 times to clarify how the law should be applied. That’s the appropriate place for these issues to be decided, particularly issues that strike at the core of our editorial independence.

Why should we not have the same right as others to protect our "journalistic, programming and creative activities?" By the way, the Prime Minister, two ministers and the RCMP took the ATI Commissioner all the way to the Supreme Court on whether the Commissioner could view the content of certain documents, like agendas and e-mails, and, on May 13, 2011, won their case.

We have had until now a productive and collaborative relationship with the Office of the Information Commissioner. Therefore, we were surprised when the Information Commissioner recently expressed concern, publicly, about how we were treating some of the Section 68.1 material, especially since we haven’t changed our practice since we became subject to Access to Information back in 2007 and since that practice is described in the court materials filed in 2009.

Let me explain.

Our approach was designed to avoid charging fees unnecessarily for collecting documents that clearly fall under Section 68.1. If you asked for all the costs associated with producing Being Erica, we would advise you that the information requested falls under the 68.1 exclusion and, therefore, you would not receive any useful information from us.

We were not aware that the Commissioner had a problem with this approach and, in fact, to this day, still have not heard from her, or her office, on this matter since she expressed her concern on October 25, 2011, in front of the cameras, after her appearance in front of the Ethics Committee.

Nevertheless, we will change our practice starting immediately. From now on, the requester will receive an estimate saying how much the research fee will be to search for the documents and, if he or she will agree to the fee, he or she will be sent a complete set of documents with all excluded information blacked out – that is all information relevant to the Being Erica request – and he or she will be charged for the search. I can’t believe that the requester will thank us.

And, we have also made significant progress in reducing the number of our "deemed refusals," which is the term used to describe those requests to which we haven’t responded quickly enough.

As of October 31, 2011, we’ve closed 1,441 out of the 1,459 information requests we’ve received.

Given all of this, the objective reality is that we are one of the most transparent organizations in the country. And one of the most accountable. That’s as it should be. And that’s how it will continue to be.

(PAUSE)

Now, while we are on the subject of our journalism and general programming, maybe we can consider the matter of accountability and transparency there, too.

As an organization, we adhere to broadcasting standards of quality, honesty and integrity. We have extensive policies on programming that are all available to the public.

We believe that informing citizens honestly and fairly, with a diversity of voices, allows them to make sensible decisions about the world they live in, and the way they live in that world.

If we are not fair and accurate in our many news and current affairs programs, Canadians have recourse in the form of an independent ombudsmen process. We have recently updated and made publicly available our Journalistic Standards and Practices, and hold ourselves accountable to them.

This brings me, of course, to Quebecor, our main competitor in Quebec, and the owner of one of the country’s major newspaper chains.

Over the past three years, and especially the last year, they’ve ramped up their attacks on us dramatically. That’s fine – we’re a very public organization, so we take criticism all the time.

But you have to ask yourself whether this is journalism in the public interest or a self-interested campaign from an organization that thinks it can gain from our loss.

On June 15, 2010, Quebecor announced the launch of Sun TV News. A look at the chart here gives a visual sense of the trend in negative coverage of CBC from all Quebecor properties. The first big blue spike, representing Quebecor, happens in June 2010. Coincidence? You decide.

In Sun TV News coverage, CBC/Radio-Canada’s funding is frequently described as, quote, "losing a billion dollars a year."I would like to reassure you: none of that money has been lost! We know where it is. It’s been invested in services and programs that Canadians rely on and value highly. It’s directed into providing 30 different services in French, English and eight aboriginal languages across six time zones, including many regions where private broadcasters cannot or will not operate.

We recently put out a document that pointed out that Quebecor had benefited from more than half a billion dollars of direct and indirect subsidies and benefits from Canadian taxpayers over the last three years.

They objected to us pointing that out, and threatened to sue us. And I never even called them "a state broadcaster" for receiving these advantages!

To tell you the truth, we think there are more productive ways to spend our time than a continuing public war of words. A lot of it is just "inside baseball."But sometimes, statements need to be challenged. Sometimes, forbearance is no longer a virtue.

Forgive me another example.

Mr. Péladeau suggested to the Ethics Committee, echoing opinions expressed in his papers and on his news channel, that an unholy alliance exists between us and other media organizations.

That "Sun Media is currently the only press group with the distance and independence to ask questions of the state broadcaster."

(There’s that "state broadcaster" thing again.)

He continued: "Between their strategic partnerships, their advertising budget, and their direct payments to journalists in other media organizations, CBC/Radio-Canada has somehow managed to quiet dissenting voices in most outlets – everywhere, that is, with the exception of Sun Media."

I’m not sure what he’s been reading.

Let’s leave aside that we get criticized by other media in the country all the time. We read newspapers too.

Statements like that are an affront to the thousands of professional journalists across the country. It assumes that your integrity and reporting is fatally compromised by the commercial interests of your organizations. We don’t believe this to be the case.

But it raises an important issue. If you, as a citizen, think a story is unfair or inaccurate, you should have an easy and accessible place to lodge a complaint. With us, you do that through our governance tools.

With Quebecor, which describes itself as the largest media group in the country, it’s not so simple now that they have withdrawn from the country’s press councils. We think that’s unfortunate.

Let me take a broader view.

Every case of misleading or disingenuous reporting increases public cynicism about the practice of journalism. We are in favour of the free expression of many different points of view. However, the more directive the media owner, the more dangerous concentration of ownership becomes.

I want to close today with a few words on what we actually do with your money. We offer great Canadian programs and services.

Along with our 75th anniversary this year, we also announced a strategic plan with clear commitments. We call it Everyone, Every way.

We have promised to increase the amount of Canadian programming in prime time and to offer 10 Signature Events per year, in both languages.

We have promised to improve our service to local communities so that we can address the needs of about six million Canadians who are currently underserved or unserved by us.

We’ve already announced new services in B.C., Alberta, Ontario, the Maritimes and Newfoundland/Labrador.

We have promised to reach more Canadians in new and innovative ways, and will double our investment in our digital platforms and initiatives to do just that.

And, we have said that we will do this within existing budgets. Not a single dollar more from government.

We’re gratified that Canadians seem to agree with our value proposition.

  • In a survey from 2010, we found that 81 percent believe we do, in fact, provide good value to them
  • In a Harris-Decima survey conducted for the Canadian Press and released last Friday, 46% of Canadians would like our funding to stay at the current level while 23% would like it to be increased. We think this speaks volumes about how Canadians feel about our relevance in this fragmented environment.

We’re proud of what we do at CBC/Radio-Canada.

Thanks very much and I hope you might have some questions for me now.

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