A "Defund CBC" sign used to protest Don Cherry's firing from the broadcaster in November 2019.
The cast of Emmy Award winning CBC program Schitt’s Creek.
In the early days of the Conservative leadership race, Erin O’Toole released a policy that would eliminate vast swaths of Canada’s public broadcaster, shrinking it down to radio and French-language services.
“The CBC is out of control and in need of reform,” O’Toole tweeted on February 14. “I’ll slash funding for English TV and CBC News Network, and end funding for digital news. Focus should be on CBC Radio and Radio Canada.”
The tweet included a video where O’Toole laid out the rationale for his plan, and it linked to a page on his website titled “DEFUND CBC” where visitors were asked to sign up as supporters if they agreed.
Fights over CBC’s federal grant, which now amounts to $1.2 billion annually, are nothing new in politics — and especially in Conservative leadership races, where candidates are catering to the party’s more hardcore right-wing base. Attacking the CBC is among the most popular things a Tory leadership hopeful can do, even as they frequently give interviews to CBC journalists.
But O’Toole’s promise was something different. It’s not just a vague threat to review CBC’s funding, as past leadership candidates have said. It’s a very specific policy, and according to people who were involved with his campaign, O’Toole believes in it and plans to take it forward into a general election.
The policy proposes to entirely defund CBC’s online news operation, a behemoth that outdraws all other Canadian media. It would also immediately cut funding in half to CBC’s English-language TV channels (including the news network) with the intention to privatize them by the end of O’Toole’s first mandate in government.
O’Toole said he’d leave Radio-Canada, CBC’s French-language division, untouched because it “plays an important role connecting Quebecers and francophones across Canada in their own language.” He also promised to exempt CBC radio on the justification it’s “commercial-free and delivers public-interest programming from coast to coast.”
The net result of the policy would be to completely transform and drastically scale back the public broadcaster, essentially abolishing its English-language operation aside from radio.
“The promise is radical,” said Daniel Bernhard, executive director of advocacy group Friends of Canadian Broadcasting. “It’s extreme. It’s more than even Stephen Harper dared to speak of, and we know that his antipathy to public broadcasting was quite strong.”
There are three main reasons why O’Toole’s campaign developed this policy, all of which are contested to various degrees by CBC’s advocates.
The first is that CBC has strayed far beyond its mandate and engages in too much activity that repeats what the private sector already does or could do. O’Toole frequently cites the CBC TV show Family Feud Canada as an example of the public broadcaster losing its way. CBC has also come under criticism recently for announcing it will be producing sponsored content podcasts — in other words, podcasts developed to be advertisements for a brand.
CBC has had successes with its cultural programming — most recently, the remarkable achievement by Schitt’s Creek of winning seven Emmy Awards on Sunday, sweeping the comedy categories. But O’Toole has argued that only the French-language division is worth funding for its televised programs.
“No cuts in Quebec with Radio-Canada, because it’s important to have French-language television in North America,” O’Toole said in French last week during an interview with the Radio-Canada program Infoman. “But for CBC Digital and television in English, there is a lot of choice: Netflix, Disney+, Amazon.”
O’Toole also believes that the original argument for expanding CBC into television and digital publishing is no longer relevant, and that Canadians — especially new Canadians — don’t need to rely on it for information and cultural programming.
“When the CBC was created in the 1930s, it was an early way to connect the vast Dominion of Canada,” O’Toole said in his initial video. “Radio and later TV broadcasts were new and often the only way to connect the nation and tell our story. Almost a century later, Canadians are connected to the world with the swipe of their finger. They carry their own broadcast studio in their pocket and have unlimited streaming options 24/7.”
Finally, O’Toole believes that ending CBC’s digital operation will help Canada’s ailing media sector, which is in part why he also promises to end the $600-million federal bailout package for print media. He made this point on CBC’s own website on Aug. 20, when CBC published essays from each of the leadership candidates.
“We are for freedom of speech and a competitive media landscape that reflects all voices and allows local news outlets to thrive,” O’Toole wrote. “The website you are reading this on may be the worst offender. CBC Digital competes with and threatens the future of local newspapers, using your tax dollars to do it. Look above and beside this article, there are paid advertisements there. CBC uses tax dollars to bankroll this website, then scoops advertising revenue from small local news outlets. And then, the Liberals propose spending even more of your tax money to bail those papers out.”
But for all that, there is still plenty of evidence that CBC is widely supported among the broader Canadian public, and that promising to defund it will be a risky proposition in a general election.
Friends of Canadian Broadcasting commissions polling once a year on attitudes towards CBC’s funding. Bernhard said there are sometimes outlier years, but overall the numbers are pretty steady that 70 to 80 per cent of the population prefers to maintain or increase the CBC’s funding.
This holds true in independently-commissioned polls as well. In 2011, for example, a Harris-Decima survey conducted for The Canadian Press found 46 per cent of Canadians supported current funding for CBC and 23 per cent wanted it increased.
Most recently, a 2019 Nanos Research poll conducted for Friends of Canadian Broadcasting found 33 per cent supported currently funding levels and 46 per cent wanted it increased.
Bernhard did say there is one subset of respondents where the numbers have changed over time. “What we have seen is that the number of people who are Conservative voters who want to see the funding decreased has gone up,” Bernhard said. Still, he noted the 2019 poll found that 18 per cent of Conservative voters would support increasing CBC’s funding and 36 per cent would maintain current levels — an overall total of 54 per cent.
Bernhard also thinks O’Toole is simply wrong when he argues that ending CBC’s digital operation will help other Canadian media outlets. He said CBC took in about $250 million in total advertising revenue in 2018-19, but that’s peanuts compared to the billions in Canadian advertising dollars spent annually on foreign digital platforms.
“If you want to look at where the problem is, it’s with the money going to Google and Facebook,” Bernhard said. He did, however, give O’Toole credit for promising to close a tax loophole that currently gives preferable tax treatment to ads placed with foreign platforms.
O’Toole will find some support for his position, particularly among conservative-leaning groups such as the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, which has already called for CBC’s federal grant to be cut in half as Canada tries to recover economically from the pandemic.
There needs to be a real debate about the proper role of the CBC
“Most of the debate around CBC seems to turn on whether one happens to like or dislike the CBC (and its alleged bias) which is unfortunate,” said Aaron Wudrick, the CTF’s federal director, in an email. “Basically, there needs to be a real debate about the proper role of the CBC and whether it is simply duplicating things that private media are or could do but for the CBC crowding them out. Is it possible that they are filling gaps private media can’t or won’t fill? Yes. But is it also possible they don’t need to be doing everything they’re doing? Yes.”
That last point is one that many critics of O’Toole’s plan are likely to emphasize.
“The CBC needs to be reformed and the mandate reviewed, not defunded,” tweeted Taylor Owen, a McGill University professor specializing in digital media, after CBC announced its sponsored content podcasts. “But I worry this kind of thing makes the latter all the more likely.”
The most heated opposition to O’Toole’s plan, however, is likely to come from the Liberals, who have recently branded themselves as champions of CBC’s federal funding.
This is a stark change from the 1990s, when prime minister Jean Chretien and finance minister Paul Martin cut about $400 million from CBC’s budget as they sought to bring Canada’s debt under control — far more than Stephen Harper’s Conservatives would cut in 2012, when they reduced the public broadcaster’s funding by $115 million over three years as part of government-wide spending cuts.
In the 2015 election, Justin Trudeau’s Liberals ran on a promise to “reverse Stephen Harper’s cuts” to CBC, and they delivered on that promise in the 2016 budget that added $150 million annually to CBC’s funding. By all indications, Trudeau will be eager to fight that battle again with O’Toole.
Canadian Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault said in a statement that CBC “has a presence in 60 communities across the country” and “empowers our communities through diverse, accessible and original content, in English and French as well as in eight Indigenous languages.”
The statement went on to single out shows that would disappear under O’Toole’s plan, such as “ Here & Now in Newfoundland, Compass in Prince Edward Island, Northbeat on CBC North and CBC News Vancouver.” It also said it would mean the end of CBC Indigenous, “a unique online space where Indigenous communities can see their realities reflected and make their voices heard.”
“The public broadcaster tells our collective stories, enhances our critical thinking and makes our culture flourish, while employing thousands of creative workers across the country,” Guilbeault said. “Every dollar we put into the public broadcaster generates three dollars directly in our economy, it’s an investment for our country. Supporting our public broadcaster shouldn’t be a partisan choice.”
— With files from Chris Nardi.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020