PRESENTATION BY THE PROVINCIAL COUNCIL FOR THE COMMUNICATIONS SECTOR OF THE CANADIAN UNION OF PUBLIC EMPLOYEES BEFORE THE STANDING COMMITTEE ON CANADIAN HERITAGE AS PART OF ITS STUDY ON THE STATE OF THE CANADIAN BROADCASTING SYSTEM
Who are we?
Hello. My name is Jacqueline Turgeon, and I am the president of the Provincial Council for the Communications Sector of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (SCFP/CUPE) and president of the union representing office and professional employees at Radio-Canada (Syndicat des employés de bureau et professionnels de Radio-Canada). CUPE represents close to 500,000 members across Canada, including 100,000 in Quebec in various facets of the public, para-public and private sectors.
As president of the Provincial Council for the Communications Sector (PCCS), which brings together nearly 7,000 CUPE members, I find it important to point out that CUPE in Quebec is a major force in such areas as television, radio, cable TV and the press.
We have been closely following developments in the Canadian radio and television broadcasting system for nearly twenty years now, and have presented our views on a number of occasions to the CRTC and various parliamentary committees and taskforces, in more than sixty briefs.
We thank the Heritage Canada Standing Committee for receiving us today so that we can take part in and contribute to the collective process of reflecting on the future of our Canadian radio and television broadcasting system.
With your permission, I would now like to introduce the people accompanying me: Jacques Denommé, vice-president for the cable TV sector at the PCCS and first vice-president in charge of internal affairs at the Syndicat des employés de Vidéotron (CUPE Local 2815); Réal Leboeuf, president of CUPE Local 687, which represents TVA employees in Montreal; and Bernard Chabot, a journalist at the Quebec City regional station in the TVA network. They will be available to answer your questions after a brief presentation by my colleague, Armand Dubois, who is a journalist with the TVA network in Montreal.
Before we begin, I would like to specify right from the outset that we are proposing a comprehensive reform of the role and mandate of the CRTC, an increase in public funding for the CBC, and heightened protection for local production to ensure that quality services are maintained in the regions. The convergence of broadcasting activities and the concentration of both production operations and information are of great concern to us, and we believe that urgent action must be taken.
Mr. Chairman and distinguished members of the Heritage Standing Committee, thank you for the time you are devoting to our point of view. We rejoice in the fact that your committee is giving serious consideration to the current state of the Canadian radio and television broadcasting system, and the direction it should take in future to further Canadian cultural expression and ensure the distinctive character that enriches and strengthens this Canadian identity. In light of the trends observed in the past few years in which the balance between the private and public sectors has been upset, we believe that the very survival of our Canadian system of radio and television broadcasting will be at stake if nothing is done to remedy the situation.
We nonetheless want to point out that we are in no way calling into question the current law on radio and television broadcasting, which reasserts principles that we fully endorse. That law is still relevant.
By the same token, it is out of the question for us to raise any point about the relevance of reviewing the CBC’s mandate. This mandate is clearly defined, and we believe that the CBC should be able to obtain the financial means to adequately comply with its mandate.
However, we think that a thorough review of the role that has devolved onto the CRTC is urgently needed. We would go so far as to envisage eliminating this organization altogether if it is necessary to create a new one that is better suited to today’s realities and better equipped to safeguard Canadian culture in a context in which only economic interests seem to be given precedence.
We are greatly concerned particularly by the unforeseen and dangerous effects of greater concentration of the press. The CRTC has proven to be of no use whatsoever in playing a safeguarding role in this domain.
The CRTC has become archaic and ineffective.
In our estimate, the procedures for granting public funds for producing and distributing the program content that fuels our Canadian radio and television broadcasting system must be revised as well.
The Canadian radio and television broadcasting policy stipulates that the Canadian broadcasting system should serve to safeguard, enrich and strengthen the cultural, political, social and economic structure of Canada.
What has become of this safeguard? The media landscape has changed at breakneck speed in the past few years. The movement began in the United States with the AOL-Times-Warner and ABC-Disney mergers. Canada has not been exempt from this trend, with the advent of the CanWest-Global-Southam and Bell-The Globe-CTV mergers, and in Quebec, the major Quebecor-Vidéotron-TVA transaction conducted with the help of public funds (including a more than one billion dollars of public money written off as a pure loss). In Quebec, it is important not to forget the acquisitions made by GESCA, which now owns seven of the ten French dailies and has just clinched a partnership with Radio-Canada/CBC.
Consequences: common editorials in newspapers belonging to the Asper family, which owns CanWest Global Communications; identical texts for the different newsrooms (Globe and Mail and CTV); 97% of the entire scope of circulation of French information in Quebec is in the hands of two entities: Quebecor and Gesca, which are only a few examples illustrating the current reality. Is this how the CRTC protects Canada’s cultural, political, social and economic structure? Is this the way to promote more diversified content and sources, and foster a greater Canadian identity? Of course not!
The CRTC issues licenses for specialized channels and takes it upon itself to relax the rules afterward. The CRTC no longer exercises real control over the general channels whose quality is declining, and this ultimately benefits the specialized channels. Both types of channels often belong to the same financial group that is raking in more money by relinquishing its responsibilities.
Where are the children’s shows in TVA’s program schedule? What was recently done with TVA’s sportscasts? How long will it be before news bulletins are eliminated on weekends, to the benefit of LCN (TVA’s news channel)?
The former publisher of Le Devoir and former leader of the Quebec Liberal Party, Claude Ryan, expressed his grave concern in the face of greater concentration of the press, at the Quebec Federation of Journalists’ convention last fall.
Wherever a financial group has direct control over a press agency, the latter can’t be expected to give a truly unfettered treatment of subjects involving the interests of its owner.
The CRTC has thrown up its hands, and instead of defending the public interest, it is focusing more on yielding to financial interests.
The law recognizes that our broadcasting system is made up of public, private and community components. Has the CRTC forgotten this principle that is inscribed in the law? Its latest decisions have certainly not helped solidify the community component or ensure its ability to survive.
The CRTC has proven to be incapable of reinforcing cultural diversity, with is one of Canada’s essential constituent values.
If there is a sphere of radio and television broadcasting in which diversity in content, form and ideas can really be articulated in a creative way, it is in the community sector. Yet what do we see happening currently? Community TV everywhere is on its deathbed, if it is not already dead. In 1997, the CRTC handed down a decision that on the one hand allowed cable companies to provide a community channel if they so desired, and on the other hand weakened the ones that wanted to continue providing such a channel, by withdrawing part of the funding. The large cable companies that kept their community channel thus saw their contribution to community television limited to a 2% ceiling that came out of the 5% contribution made to the Canadian Television Fund. That is limiting the scope of this broadcasting window which is considered to be important for Canadian citizens in that it enables them to have greater ascendancy over their community and its identity, wherever that community happens to be located in this vast country of ours.
THE CANADIAN BROADCASTING CORPORATION
The mission of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation is just as essential now as it was when it was created more than 60 years ago, if not more so. It is the solid foundation that supports the rest of the structure, and must remain so. A strong public sector can only engender an equally strong private sector. The CBC must remain a resolutely public organization that is independent of government and not defined by profitability criteria. It must retain its specific responsibilities that enable it to maintain its role as a safeguard of quality that can be referred to in terms of content and diversity a beacon lighting the way, in which each Canadian finds his or her own sense of expression. To do so, it is crucial for the CBC to receive public funding commensurate with its conferred mandate. The CBC must be free of the overly extensive commercial constraints that are now imposed on it. The CBC still remains a tool that is indispensable to our cultural identity.
For a good ten years now, the CRTC has been colluding with, and acting as service manager for, independent producers.
This has to stop!
Year after year, the CRTC has set in place a gamut of measures that increasingly favour independent production, without ensuring, however, that it can assess the results and measure the impact on the Canadian radio and television broadcasting system as a whole. To put it plainly, independent producers are taking advantage of the CRTC’s policies and in exchange, are not accountable to it. The best of both worlds!
This is how public funds were misappropriated for projects that were at very least questionable.
Examples? Programs like Piment fort, Sex Shop, and Je regarde, moi non plus have been subsidized, where tales of sex and stupidity go hand in hand. Let it be noted that we are not posing as censor here, and are not even remotely pretending to be. But we don’t believe that public funds should be used to finance shows that acclaim the latest lotion for toning our spouse’s penis or vagina. The language is crude, and the reality is just as crude for tax-payers! We are telling you in plain terms: if the taxes of Canadian citizens are being used to fund this kind of production, stop this and reinvest the funds promptly in the healthcare sector. Ill Canadians who are on waiting lists and can’t receive care within a reasonable period of time will be the first to thank you for your political courage.
In the Provincial Council’s estimate, independent production is very costly to Canadian taxpayers, and its financing has become pernicious.
LOCAL AND REGIONAL PRODUCTION
The CRTC is no longer demanding that the number of hours devoted to production by the regional stations of the big networks be tabulated and justified.
The formation of the big television networks has “metropolized” the air waves. Shows produced in local stations are for the most part destined for the network and don’t grant much room to reflect local culture. In addition, the advent of radio and television broadcasting services by satellite complicates the situation. In fact, local identity is being drowned in the staggering quantity of available signals, including those held by any single network. A person who lives in Sherbrooke, for instance, who subscribes to the StarChoice service, will be able to watch either one of TVA’s stations.
Once again, the CRTC has weakened itself by eliminating one of its control mechanisms that is essential to safeguard a plurality of sources. Why did it do that? To meet the profit expectations of owners of the large broadcasting networks that have enormous lobbying power. All that, of course, is done at the expense of the development of Canadian culture. Do these owners have a stake in promoting diversity? Their concern is not rooted in the public interest, but in financial interests. There is nothing wrong with wanting to run a lucrative business, one might retort. Of course there’s nothing wrong with that! Provided that the business plays by the rules of the game. These rules are the broad principles formulated in the Canadian Broadcasting Act. Yet the CRTC has been constantly relaxing the rules to allow corporate broadcasting executives to satisfy the voracious and boundless appetites of their shareholders.
The CRTC has become archaic and ill-suited to modern realities.
We recommend that you disband this organization and create two new entities: one that would be responsible for granting operating licenses and the other (which would be independent of the first) that would be in charge of monitoring and oversight.
We recommend that these organizations also be able to embrace all the bodies involved in broadcasting content: television, radio, newspapers and the new online media, to ensure closer monitoring of the effects of greater concentration of the press.
We recommend that these agencies operate on the principles of transparence, political independence, regional representativeness and diversity of interests.
We recommend that public funding of independent producers be restricted and subject to the same relevancy rules as those that prevail in supporting public broadcasting.
We recommend that the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation have access to financing that does not compromise the mission conferred on it.
We recommend that (cable or satellite) signal distributors offer one station per network and that the station be that of the region concerned.
We recommend that full expansion of community television be assured, as it also offers Canadian programming by allowing signal distributors to adequately fund their operations in all the regions they serve. A Quebec Provincial Council for the Communications Sector critique of the current role and structure of the CRTC.