Why do Conservatives hate public television?

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According to TVO’s host of ‘The Agenda’ Steve Paikin, Doug Ford won’t agree to a one-on-one with him. Meanwhile, Pierre Poilievre riles his base bashing the CBC.

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on May 16, 2022.

At the Tory leadership debate in Edmonton last Wednesday, the mere mention of the word CBC elicited boos.

Loud shouts and hisses were quickly muffled by the microphones as the format for the event prohibited anyone from clapping, cheering, or booing.

The format also prevented anyone from mentioning another politician’s name. When that happened, the speaker was cut off and their comments were replaced by a bizarre trombone interlude designed to keep the debate civil.

Civil it was. Certainly more civil than the previous, unofficial debate, where there was so much shouting that the general consensus—even in Conservative circles—was that the event was an embarrassment.

Last week was not embarrassing. But it is a little bizarre for a party that is running its main campaign on a freedom theme to censor every aspect of a debate of ideas among future potential leaders.

A bigger boo might have been revelatory to the rest of us, as one of the promises of the frontrunner, Pierre Poilievre, is to defund the CBC.

Apparently, the hate for public broadcasters is not limited to the federal government.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford is in the middle of a provincial campaign, popping up everywhere on private radio and television networks.

But for some strange reason, he refuses to sit down for an interview with the only television network that is funded by his government.

Every previous premier who governed Ontario in the past 50 years has been interviewed by TVO hosts.

But for some inexplicable reason, Ford refuses to do so.

TVO host of The Agenda, Steve Paikin, went so far as to pen a column on the subject last week. Paikin ventured the opinion that he might be accused of sour grapes for complaining about Ford’s refusal to sit down with him for a one-on-one interview.

It certainly is not a fear of one-on-one interviews that kept Ford away.

According to TVO research, the premier has submitted to a minimum of 16 one-on-one interviews with private radio and television broadcasters since taking office.

He was even interviewed by Paikin when the former city councillor was running for Toronto mayor to replace his cancer-stricken brother.

According to Paikin, the two share a cordial relationship, with the premier even bellowing out a hello from the distance when their paths crossed at a Remembrance Day event at Queen’s Park.

It doesn’t appear that personal animus is motivating the premier, Paikin notes.

But, at least the premier has not moved to abolish TVO.

Back in 2019, the public broadcaster’s budget was cut by 4.5 per cent, just shy of $2-million dollars.

The arrival of COVID, and the increased dependence on online learning has underscored the importance of the educational role of TVO and its francophone sister station, TFO.

On the federal side, frontrunner Pierre Poilievre is distinguishing himself as the only one of the main candidates promising to defund the CBC.

Even his allies in the right-wing media are saying that may not happen. Postmedia columnists Lorne Gunter and Lorrie Goldstein went on their own channel last week, doubting that Poilievre would fulfil his promise.

Goldstein specifically referenced Poilievre’s positive comments about some elements of the public broadcaster when he was touring Quebec.

Poilievre is an astute politician and he knows full well that Radio Canada is close to the heart for most Quebecers.

It is one thing to muse about cuts for the English network. That message certainly does not resonate well in French.

Poilievre’s plan to gut the CBC will definitely be popular with the Conservative voters he is currently wooing.

But at the end of the day, he has to reach out to a larger constituency: the people of Canada.

In many parts of the country, the CBC still resonates.

The public broadcaster was the first to move aggressively into the digital field. Its news coverage in that area is superb.

It has also modernized its radio vibe, specifically targeting minorities and young people with diverse programming.

Don’t forget seniors. Many of them have been weaned on the public broadcaster and would definitely not want to see it gutted by any party.

Ford’s refusal to appear on TVO mirrors Poilievre’s disdain for the CBC. Maybe both of them know something that the rest of us have missed. It is more likely that they are simply playing to their base.

During a race, public broadcast bashing motivates the right wing, but it may prove costly in the future.

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