The CBC is a Pandemic Lifeline. The CRTC Should Treat it Like One.

In the early weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic, the CBC shut down local news shows just when news and information had become a matter of life and death. Local coverage was reinstated, but the CBC, the CRTC and Canadians need to learn from the experience.

Percy Downe

October 26, 2020

The notion of a global village has been driven home this year, as a worldwide pandemic has had an impact unprecedented in the living memory of Canadians. Through lockdown, gradual reopening and further setbacks, and as concerns mount over what comes next, we have watched as countries the world over continue to deal with this situation. Some have been more successful than others, but the interconnectedness of our world makes us appreciate the global reach of COVID-19, and the global response to the challenge it represents.

Notwithstanding the value of a worldwide perspective, what is important now is what is happening in our own country and our own communities. We need to know what is safe in our own neighbourhoods and what actions our own public health authorities are recommending. Are things around us getting better or worse? It’s good to hear about ongoing work on a treatment or vaccine, but that doesn’t tell us whether we can meet with loved ones in person or on Zoom. Or whether we can invite our neighbours over instead of waving over the fence. For many of us, even with the world at our fingertips, that world seems to have gotten much smaller these last few months, making information about local conditions all the more important.

In many parts of the country, especially in remote and northern communities, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) is the only lifeline for local news and information. Which is why it was especially disappointing when, on March 20th, at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the CBC announced that it had suspended local TV evening news broadcasts. At a time when even the CBC acknowledged that “Canadians everywhere are desperate for good information and the latest developments as this crisis mounts”, the decision seemed nonsensical. Its impact was felt most acutely in places like Prince Edward Island, where CBC Compass is the only local evening TV news broadcast produced in the province.

CBC Compass has done an outstanding job informing Islanders about the decisions their provincial health officials have made to address the pandemic. As a province with some of the worst internet connections in the country and a higher-than-average proportion of the population identified as seniors, the information provided by Compass has been essential for Islanders to prepare for and cope with the pandemic. Although they did indeed restore local news within the week in the face of public pressure — including a petition launched by Friends of Canadian Broadcasting and signed by more than 6,000 people — a dangerous precedent had been set.

All television broadcasters in Canada operate with a license granted by the federal government; consequently, the CBC operates under guidelines set out by the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) as part of its license. Under these guidelines, the public broadcaster committed to “at least 7 hours of local programming per week”, the only exceptions being special sporting events or statutory holidays. Moreover, the CRTC noted that “the CBC cannot reduce the level of local programming under seven hours without Commission approval following a public process.”

In many parts of the country, especially in remote and northern communities, the CBC is the only lifeline for local news and information. Which is why it was especially disappointing when, on March 20th, at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the CBC announced that it had suspended local TV evening news broadcasts.

However, prior to the CBC’s announcement, there was neither a public process nor CRTC approval. Perhaps the broadcaster decided it was easier to ask forgiveness than get permission. In that respect, they were proven correct, for although the Commission determined the CBC had acted in breach of its license agreement, it would face no penalty for doing so. It’s not as if the Commission is powerless to respond, or this was some sort of unforeseeable eventuality.

The Broadcasting Act, the legislation that governs the relationship between the CBC and the CRTC, prescribes a course of action if the CBC does not live up to its commitments. Section 18(3) of the Act states:

“The Commission may hold a public hearing, make a report, issue any decision and give any approval in connection with any complaint or representation made to the Commission or in connection with any other matter within its jurisdiction under this Act if it is satisfied that it would be in the public interest to do so.”

Section 25(1) is even more explicit in the case of a contravention by the CBC itself:

“Where the Commission is satisfied, after a public hearing on the matter, that the (Canadian Broadcasting) Corporation has contravened or failed to comply with any condition of a license referred to in the schedule, any order made under subsection 12(2) or any regulation made under this Part, the Commission shall forward to the Minister a report setting out the circumstances of the alleged contravention or failure, the findings of the Commission and any observations or recommendations of the Commission in connection therewith.”

This grants the Commission considerable latitude to act in such cases. I therefore wrote directly to the CRTC inquiring as to why they were not requiring the CBC to comply with the licence agreement. That they have plainly chosen not to is troubling to say the least.

Therefore, unless the Federal Minister of Heritage is prepared to intervene directly with the CRTC, the only recourse for Canadians will be the public hearings that the Commission will hold in January 2021 for the CBC license renewal application.

The CBC is not just another television network. It receives more than $1.2 billion in funding from Canadian taxpayers in order to fulfil its mandate. Part of that mandate is to keep Canadians informed, in good times and bad. For the CRTC to merely wave away the requirements of the Broadcasting Act is unacceptable.

This isn’t just a matter of the CBC facing consequences for its decisions in the early weeks of the pandemic. Canada is now facing a second wave, with the same worry and uncertainty as the first. Canadians know that at the start of the pandemic, the CBC and CRTC failed them. In a future crisis, what will happen if our national institutions do not hold, but crumble at the first sign of trouble?

Percy Downe is the Senator for Charlottetown.