‘Defund the CBC’ needs a salvo

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Poilievre can bash Tait and gain support for his cause. But he would be hard-pressed to attack Rick Mercer or Catherine O’Hara. The other card the CBC has not played is what would Canada’s bilingual landscape would look like without Radio-Canada. 

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on February 13, 2023.

OTTAWA—”Defund the CBC” has been the Conservatives’ clarion call for decades.

Just about every leadership candidate promises to cut the public broadcaster’s funding, but as soon as they are elected, their tune quickly changes.

Pierre Poilievre is the exception to that rule. If anything, his anti-CBC rhetoric is getting more virulent.

So much so that the president of the CBC has actually launched her own attack on the Conservative leader.

Earlier this month, Catherine Tait stoked the fires for Tory fundraising by attacking Poilievre’s call to defund the CBC.

Tait told The Globe and Mail there is “a lot of CBC-bashing going on—somewhat stoked by the leader of the opposition.”

That was just the trap the official opposition leader was hoping she would fall into.

Poilievre makes his mark by picking fights. And his followers fund those fights.

So as soon as Tait made her comments, Conservative columnists like Lorrie Goldstein accused Tait of shooting an own goal.

The attack was followed by a fundraising email from Poilievre accusing Tait of being “the president and CEO of Trudeau’s $1.2-billion propaganda arm.”

He said it confirmed that “the CBC is now openly attacking me. They’re not even pretending to be unbiased.”

Tait has not expressed any regret for her comments, saying it is her job to communicate to Canadians –including politicians– the value of the public broadcaster, no matter whether they are Conservative, Liberal, or New Democrats.

However, as president of the public broadcaster, she should be smart enough to stay out of politics.

When Canadians understand the value of the public broadcaster, they reject politicians who muse about defunding the organization.

But Tait’s comments have managed to give life to what was only shadow-boxing until last week.

Her ill-advised comments were part of a wide-ranging interview designed to explain why the CBC was planning to move away from over-the-air television broadcasting in favour of digitalizing all content.

One wonders who is giving Tait communications advice when she thinks the end of over-the-air television is a good piece of news for her to be deliver to a major national newspaper?

If the public broadcaster cannot deliver the signal to all parts of the country, who will?

Tait did not walk back her Poilievre comments, but her announcement on the digital trajectory of the CBC has been clarified.

It won’t happen for a long time.

But the mere mention of ending over-the-air broadcasting has sent the group formerly known as Friends of the CBC into a political frenzy.

Friends used to be known as ‘Friends of the CBC’, but changed their name to simply Friends, and say their mandate is to build a robust Canadian broadcast system.

The notion that rural Canadians or those who still depend on antenna delivery would lose their service does not sit well with public broadcasting supporters.

In an interview, the CBC president has managed to provide oxygen to the Conservative defund initiative and annoy supporters.

Tait defended her anti-Poilievre comments by saying she was not a journalist.

There she is correct. It is her job to defend and promote the values of public broadcasting, but she should be astute enough to avoid opening the door to a political fight with an avowed enemy of the CBC.

Tait needs to promote a positive campaign on why the public broadcaster is worth funding.

She and the CBC board should be engaged in a proactive counterattack, underscoring why government investment has enhanced Canadians’ capacity to know and understand their own stories.

From Schitt’s Creek to Kim’s Convenience, from Rick Mercer to Catherine O’Hara, there are Canadian actors, comedians and storytellers who have garnered an international reputation.

They should be the spokespeople for advocating positively for continued investment in public broadcasting.

Poilievre can bash Tait, and actually gain support for his cause.

He would be hard-pressed to attack Mercer or O’Hara.

The other card that the CBC has not yet played is what would Canada’s bilingual landscape would look like without Radio-Canada.

When Poilievre sends out his fundraising missives, they are targeted to an English-speaking audience. The notion of trashing Radio-Canada would kill his chances of ever forming the government.

Millions of Canadians believe in the importance and power of public broadcasting.

They should be the target of a proactive communication initiative, including the minister of Canadian Heritage and parliamentarians who believe in public broadcasting.

The “Defund the CBC” salvo needs a rebuttal.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.