What’s wrong with the CBC?

An ambulance is parked at the scene of a fatal shooting at the Quebec Islamic Cultural Centre in Quebec City
Why did English Canada see none of this live on the CBC?

Globe and Mail TV critic John Doyle’s Tuesday column (Lack of TV news coverage of Quebec City shooting a huge broadcast failure) singles out CBC-TV News, the national network’s touted source for independent news and commentary.

Doyle’s takedown wasn’t strong enough. The CBC failed so utterly, so pathetically, I’m shocked the network hasn’t announced an internal inquiry into who made the call not to break away from regular Sunday night programming, including a pre-recorded The National – and why.

Quebeckers and subscribers watched Sunday evening’s horror unfold on LCN, Quebecor’s all-news channel, or on its Radio-Canada competitor RDI. Both provided the kind of nonstop coverage viewers desperately sought from the moment the first alerts began popping up. If I was forced to choose, I’d say LCN’s remote coverage was better, while RDI’s anchors did a more professional job co-ordinating. (LCN’s usually urbane Pierre Bruneau looked and sounded rumpled and I found myself yelling at ex-politician Mario Dumont, but these are nitpicks.) Both got the job done.

CBC Montreal’s online posts were slow in coming and read as if they were being transcribed by someone watching the Radio-Canada feed. I was the CBC-TV assignment editor the day in 1984 Denis Lortie stormed the Quebec National Assembly, killing three and injuring 13. We scrambled to round up cameras and reporters as Toronto ordered nonstop coverage and demanded why we couldn’t supply more. Now, 33 years later, the CBC’s top brass seems to see nothing wrong in its failure to deliver what its private competitors had no trouble supplying – professional live coverage of a fast-breaking news event of worldwide interest.

My suspicion is that CBC top brass made a political decision. Rather than risking getting it wrong in the news blur (three shooters became two, then one) and giving voice to politically incorrect utterances, the news bosses played it safe by waiting until the SQ and Premier Philippe Couillard had done talking. If I’m right, the CBC  doesn’t deserve a dollar from taxpayers until those who made the call are replaced with professionals.

In 2016, the broadcaster got $34 per Canadian. It wants $46 per Canadian to go ad-free, which it claims will make it more independent and able to branch out into new technologies. My view: why should the CBC get more money if it fails to deliver on its existing promise of performance?

CTV and Global were no better, but they’re answerable to their shareholders and the CRTC, not the taxpayers. I feel for my colleagues who suffer in silence so they can keep their jobs. (As for the CRTC, it has outlived its usefulness, but it will take far more political courage than Ottawa has shown so far to make it relevant.)

Whenever I hear or read handwringing journalism profs and senior executives in Canada’s media monopolies moaning about the slow, sad death of print and broadcast journalism, I wonder whether I’m the one who’s crazy. Journalism isn’t dead. Its beating heart has been transplanted onto the internet, onto podcasts, onto live-streaming sites where inquisitive minds can work without the malevolent interference of corporate bosses. Media consumption has fragmented and as the boomers die, so will the mainstream media.

The CBC likes to pretend it’s a Canadian BBC, PBS or TV5. It is none of those things. It has excellent journalists, editors and producers but it ties their hands with a brain-dead bureaucracy which discourages initiative and enterprise. The sad part is that it could become the daring, disruptive voice of transformative journalism it claims to be.



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