Speaking notes for Hubert T. Lacroix, President and CEO, CBC/Radio-Canada, at the 27th Annual Conference of the Commonwealth Broadcasting Association (CBA)

April 24, 2012, Brisbane, Australia

Do crisis and disaster alter the promise of a public broadcaster?

(PLEASE CHECK AGAINST DELIVERY)

Introduction

The biggest promise of public broadcasters is to be there for their citizens – a promise to deliver where others cannot or will not.

For us in Canada, that means providing a space for Canadian stories, Canadian ideas and Canadian perspective. We are flooded by American programming, and there are virtually no barriers – geographic, economic or linguistic – to American domination.

Being there means providing common experiences for one of the most geographically dispersed and culturally diverse populations in the world. Australia would face similar challenges.

It also means being present in northern communities and delivering programming in eight aboriginal languages. It means being delivering in both official languages, English and French, and being there in minority language communities – for example, broadcasting in French in predominantly English communities and in English in places like Ville de Quebec. It means reporting from Washington, Jerusalem, Beijing, from a distinctly Canadian perspective.

And it means doing all that in a state of seemingly perpetual crisis. Like many of you, we’re facing a financial crisis – the second one in just a few years. There are other challenges, such as local disasters that make it hard to get to where the action is, and international threats, such as hostage takings and attacks on our reporters, which challenge our ability to be there for Canadians.

Just like in our own lives, crises force us to ask the tough questions. What is most important? And how do we move forward?

Overseas disasters, local calamities, financial crisis – all throw up fundamental questions for public broadcasters. Today, I’m going to talk about three of those questions – ones that we’re dealing with firsthand at CBC/Radio-Canada.

  1. First, and top of mind for me, I’m going to talk about the financial crisis we are facing. I know some of you are in a similar situation. Here’s the tough question. Do we aim to protect our heritage or do we take a leap into the future, with all the risk that entails?
  2. Secondly, crises are making citizen journalism an ever more valuable source of news gathering. How do we maintain the integrity of our reporting when we’re getting news content in this new way?
  3. And I'll talk about the old conundrum of public broadcasters: how much should we be the motor, an active agent of change within our societies, or should we be the neutral mirror that faithfully reflects the society but doesn’t ever take a side. When a disaster strikes overseas, do we simply report or do we get involved? Should we leverage our influence to encourage humanitarian support? Does that expose us to accusations of political bias or involvement?

Being there in financial crisis

First question. How should we continue to be there – in the unique ways that public broadcasters need to be there for citizens – as we face financial crisis? What do we prioritize? When do we work to preserve the existing breadth and scope of services? And when do we choose to sacrifice the tried and true, to move intently and deliberately into the future? Investing limited resources in untried ventures, risk our existing services and likely cost us support from our present audiences in the hopes of attracting new ones?

First, CBC/Radio-Canada funding 101.

Our total budget is $1.8 billion (and the Canadian dollar is currently trading at about par with the U.S. dollar). Two thirds comes from our annual Parliamentary appropriation and the other third from commercial revenue, including advertising.

A study by Nordicity in 2011 showed that, among 18 major Western countries, Canada had the third-lowest level of per-capita public funding, at $34 per person per year. That’s 60% less than the $87 average. And that per-capita funding will be declining to $31 in three years. For comparison, Australia’s is $44 and the UK’s is $111.

Our funding model is precarious, as we have no guarantee of government funding from year to year. Meanwhile, advertising revenue is fickle, dependent on the strength of the economy. So, not surprisingly, this is not the first time the Corporation has faced significant financial challenges.

Something else you need to know. In Canada, there is no sustainable purely free-market model that will support a truly Canadian broadcasting industry. That’s because it’s much too easy and much too profitable to buy and air American programs – instead of investing in the development of Canadian programs.

CBC/Radio-Canada functions within a media ecosystem where all broadcasters – private and public – benefit significantly from financial and regulatory advantages to support the Canadian industry. In fact, public subsidies and benefits – direct and indirect – that private broadcasters receive round out to about $900 million per year. There’s no such thing in Canada as a truly private broadcaster.

So the argument we hear all too often that CBC/Radio-Canada, which receives close to $1 billion from the government, competes against private broadcasters who have to struggle from a position of unfair economic disadvantage – well, this is a false premise. All of these private broadcasters receive substantial benefits from Canadian taxpayers. In exchange for these public benefits, Canadian broadcasters are required to meet certain service and performance commitments. We think that is a good thing.

And we, at CBC/Radio-Canada, are proud of the contribution we make to promote Canadian voices. We are the only broadcasting providing a full Canadian schedule in prime time, unlike the privates (remember, they too are subsidized) who fill their schedules with American shows. We’re also proud of the contribution we make to the economy. Last year, we invested approximately $690 million dollars in Canadian programming, more than all of the other Canadian broadcasters put together. And, a recent study by Deloitte showed that Canada’s public broadcaster generates 3.7 dollars in the Canadian economy for every dollar invested. That’s largely a result of the investments we make in independent Canadian production and the geographic distribution of our activities.

Financial crisis of 2090-2010

Before I get to the financial crisis we’re facing now, let’s look at how we handled the crisis of 2009-2010.

At that time, we were faced with a budget shortfall of nearly $171 million – about 10 per cent of our total budget – triggered by the global economic situation and its impact on advertising. Adding in 37 million in severance costs, the total came to $206 million.

The onset of the crisis was so quick that we had a very short window to implement a plan – just two months. We had none of the tools corporations usually have to weather storms – no credit line, no borrowing capacity, no flexibility to manage our cash flows.

Using zero-based budgeting and working with our unions to minimize the impact of cuts, we eliminated about 800 positions. Our mind set was to preserve what we had as much as we could. Our strategy – take a little bite off across the board and avoid any major amputations. Everyone contributed a small share. We tried to keep everything, just a little cheaper.

These were tough decisions. Yet, we kept all of our stations open across the country. Something we haven’t always been able to do, or chosen to do, in the past. But that was important for us, in order to be there for Canadians. And we wanted to stay true, as much as possible, to our three priorities: People, Programs and Pushing Forward toward a more modern and strategically positioned public broadcaster. In the end, we were able to balance our budget, while maintaining our regional presence. And we also drew a record number of Canadians to our programming.

In 2009, we protected our inheritance but didn’t invest in our future.

Today’s financial crisis

So here we are again. I feel like the Bill Murray character in Groundhog Day. Three years later, another series of financial challenges. But this time we’re approaching it differently – we have no other choice.

Just like some other public broadcasters – the BBC, for example – CBC/Radio-Canada has to reduce its budget as the government tries to reduce its deficit.

On March 29, our government confirmed that CBC/Radio-Canada funding would be reduced by $115 million as of April 1, 2014. When we add-on unavoidable cost increases and the investments required to continue to transform into a modern public broadcaster, we’re actually having to reduce our annual budget by $200 million over the next three years while also absorbing one-time severance costs of $25 million.

We expect to be able to offset that with $50 million in new revenues, which leaves us with a challenge of about $150 million. Obviously, this will have a significant impact on our services, organization and staff. We expect that up to 650 positions will be eliminated over three years, including about 475 this year.

Our plan

This time, unlike a few years ago, we have our five-year strategy 2015: Everyone, Every way in place. This time, it’s not about preserving the status quo – it’s about taking a leap into the future.

This time, we look to our strategy to point the way. A strategy whose goal is to position CBC/Radio-Canada as a modern broadcaster. A strategy that embraces the technological advances to fundamentally change the relationship we can have with Canadians. A strategy that promises to make CBC/Radio-Canada more Canadian, more regional and more digital.

Our approach allows us to keep our focus on that five-year strategy. We won’t be able to go as far or as fast in the next three years bout our direction remains clear. – Here’s what we’re going to do.

  • We’re going to increase revenues by $50 million, doubling our digital revenue, increasing the minutes of advertising we put on television, and introducing advertising to two music radio networks that were ad-free. We'll also look to our real estate portfolio to generate more revenues, leasing significant square footage in the Broadcasting Centre in Toronto.
  • We’ll save $20 million by discontinuing services that are nearing the end of their life cycle: shutting down all of our 620 analogue television transmitters – the largest transmission infrastructure in the world. And discontinuing the shortwave transmission of our international radio service. Instead, we’ll broadcast on the web – in the five languages that represent Canada's largest communities of diverse origins (French, English, Spanish, Arabic and Mandarin). Analogue and shortwave – legacy assets that we’re no longer protecting.
  • We’re going to take $100 million out by doing 100 things differently, from leveraging digital technologies, to reducing production expenses by eliminating outdated processes. We’ll also reduce the range of programming in music, sports and even news, and decrease our real estate footprint by 800,000 square feet.

However, even having done all that, we’re going to have to scale back on the ambitions of our strategic plan to the tune of $30 million. The public, having not received these new services might be more upset about some of the other things we are doing but, for me, this is what hurts the most because it is about building our future.

Some new local services will not go as far or as fast. We’ll need to sell one cable television network and cancel the development and deployment of three others. Eliminate a special fund we had to encourage cross-cultural programming that served both our English and French communities. Reduce the number of nation-building events we produce in a year.

As painful as these decisions are, they need to be made in order for us to move forward and continue to be there for Canadians.

Being there when disaster strikes in Canada

Being there for Canadians also means being able to report on domestic disasters, even when we don’t have access to the places most affected. More and more, citizen journalism is playing a huge role in getting the story to us when we can’t get there ourselves.

Here’s a great example.

In September 2010, Newfoundland - an island of 500,000 people on the east coast of Canada – was hit by hurricane Igor. It was the worst they had ever seen. Entire bridges, homes and portions of roads were destroyed. Some communities had to be evacuated by boat. The military was deployed to help with recovery.

The places affected the most were the outlying areas, where CBC didn’t have resources. So what did we do?

Igor came as a bit of a surprise to our team in St. John’s. Before anything was happening there at our main station, we started getting calls to the morning show host from people in eastern and southern areas where they were hit hard.

As soon as we understood the extent of the devastation, we decided to stay on the air all day – from 6 a.m. to close to midnight – rather than go to the usual network schedule. We asked people to tell us their stories and we just kept the phone lines open the whole time. It was like an 18-hour call-in show.

People used their cell phones to let us know they were trapped, or a road was washed out. Someone would call in and say that their 86-year-old mother was stuck in her home with no power. Then we’d get a call from a neighbour saying, don’t worry, I’ve just dropped off food at her house.

We had electrical companies calling in to let people know where the outages were. We had mayors calling in with messages to their constituencies. We had emergency services providing survival information.

CBC became a kind of repository for information about the hurricane. In so many places, telephone lines were down, electrical grids were down. So people were depending on our radio and Twitter to receive and exchange information.

People began tweeting into our shows, hash-tagging us. They started seeing the impact of that. Everyone from Newfoundland Power to the military to local residents tweeted in.

Online, on our web site, we had 600,000 hits to the news landing page that day, which is almost what we would get in a typical week. We were updating all the time. We had reporters out all over the place, with live reports coming from some of the hardest hit areas. People were glued to their TV sets.

It was a total multi-platform effort.

We stayed on air all that weekend, with people working around the clock. And we kept the phones open and the Twitter account rolling until the situation was under control.

There was an incredible sense of community awareness and community building. People just kept turning to CBC.

But in a situation like this where so much of our content is provided by our audience, how do we maintain journalistic integrity. How does this affect our journalistic codes?

Well, in theory, the answer is quite simple. CBC/Radio-Canada has clear guidelines in our Journalistic Standards and Practices for both social media and for user-generated content. Basically, we’re responsible for contributions from the public that are incorporated into news coverage on any platform. Material that originates from a non-CBC source is clearly identified as such and its origin and accuracy is verified. When using social media as an information-gathering tool, we apply the same standards as those for any other source of newsgathering.

But, as in Hurricane Igor, there’s often an immediacy or urgency to social media and citizen journalism that seemingly contradicts the rigours of journalism. While we have our standards in place, are these tools enough? And what about next year? And the next? How will we be gathering information? The world is changing quickly. Can we adapt our tools to make sure we evolve with this new way of sharing news with our audiences?

***

Later on, CBC, along with other regional media, produced a benefit concert for those affected by Hurricane Igor. We recorded and broadcast the event live on radio, we tweeted live into our blog, and we gave the funds we raised to the hurricane disaster fund.

Being there when disaster strikes overseas

With Hurricane Igor, we were there as reporters, but we also became a hub for the community and contributed to fundraising. That was an easy decision to make.

What about disasters overseas? Disasters that can be politically loaded, in terms of the cause – climate change, civil war, deforestation, corruption - or politically explosive in terms of the response to the disaster by local governments.

Of course, we’re going to report on them. As Canada’s public broadcaster, we’re there to provide international news from a Canadian perspective.

But when do we take it further? What is our role as a public broadcaster? Where is the line? And at what point do we move from providing a public good, supporting a good cause, to stepping into a political quagmire?

Let’s look at the Haiti earthquake in January 2010 as an example. When the earthquake hit, we reported on it on all of our platforms, in English and in French. Téléjournal, our main evening newscast in French, reported from Haiti for four days, broadcasting live from Port au Prince.

But there was such an overwhelming outpour of concern for Haiti. Canada, especially the province of Quebec, has a significant Haitian population. So we did more.

We set up a portal to help Canadians find missing relatives and friends, where they could upload their photos and information about those missing in the earthquake.

And we also collaborated with other broadcasters to televise major fundraisers for both our Anglophone and Francophone communities. Canada for Haiti, featuring Canadian musicians and celebrities asking Canadians to donate, raised $11.5 million. Ensemble pour Haiti aired on our French-language networks, and raised another $6.6 million. It featured Quebec talent and our Governor General at the time, Michaelle Jean, who herself came to Canada as a refugee from Haiti as a child.

So we were there in many ways for Canadians. But we have to continue to ask, when a disaster strikes overseas, how far do we go?

With the famine in the Horn of Africa in 2011, we didn’t fundraise, but we did set up an online portal to let Canadians know how they could help. With the floods in Pakistan, we didn’t fundraise, but one of our television celebrities visited the country and produced a documentary about the floods.

As a public broadcaster, there are political implications to how involved we get and we need to be very careful. We risk treading on dangerous territory. At the same time, we want to respond meaningfully and compassionately.

Another one of the challenges of being there internationally is the increasing risk for journalists. I know some of you have faced this yourselves – BBC’s Alan Johnston was taken hostage in 2007, there were 35 foreign journalists held hostage in Tripoli in August, and there have been a string of fatal attacks on journalists in Mexico.

I saw up close how difficult these situations are. In 2008, one of CBC’s reporters, Mellissa Fung, was kidnapped in Afghanistan and held captive. Her captors abducted her, whisked her out of Kabul on a motorcycle, and then locked her up in a hole in the ground.

We asked the media, Canadian and international, not to report on the situation until Mellissa’s safe return. That was crucial. And we’re extremely grateful that all of the media cooperated. She was released by her captors 28 days later. We were lucky. I know for many of you that hasn’t always been the case.

Like many journalists, Mellissa is so passionate about what she does. When she returned, she emphasized the need for journalists to keep telling these stories. To continue to be there, even when it’s risky and difficult.

So where does this bring us? While there are risks – tangible risks for our journalists - public broadcasters need to cover parts of the world that might not be covered if we weren’t there. To make sure that everyone knows it’s important, and to perhaps push other broadcasters to follow.

Mellissa says she’d like to return to Afghanistan some day.

****

Conclusion

In a country like Canada, and, I dare say, in other countries, the diversity of our population, the profusion of communication technology and the infinite range of international programming that that technology makes available does not lessen the need for public broadcasting. On the contrary, if we are to bridge the cultural, ethnic and political gaps that divide us, if we are going to build cohesive, integrated and harmonious societies, then the need for a dedicated space to congregate; tell our stories, share our common experiences and host independent political debate, has never been greater. There are few other vehicles available to the task and none as well suited.

Beyond home-made YouTube videos, Twitter quips, and Facebook friends, healthy societies are stitched together and enriched by finely crafted story-telling, by fearless and selfless investigative journalism, by publicly-minded and publicly-owned public service broadcasting.

But what a public broadcaster has to be to meet this destiny isn't the staid, uni-directional communicator of the past. It is an engaged, interactive and dynamic participant of the future. We need to change and change rapidly to meet this challenge.

Crises, of whatever kind, are opportunities to accelerate change. Whether by triggering the shift of our priorities from old to new; or adjusting our journalistic principles to new realities; or finding a new motor/mirror mix to respond to the needs of a more empowered, educated and engaged public. Crises either push us backward or push us forward.

Nowhere is this more true than in the management of our own organisations. In all organisations, and public broadcasters are no different, crises either serve to bring a workforce together or to split it apart. At CBC/Radio-Canada our history has seen both phenomena. Looking back over the last four years of my tenure, the thing I might be most proud of, is the extent to which the perpetual crises that we have faced have brought Canada’s public broadcaster together. Made us more aligned, more understanding of each other and more focused on a common plan for where we are going and how we will get there.

We'll need all that resilience and more for the crises ahead.

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