CBC: hacked or trimmed?

March 26th, 2009
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After weeks of hand-wringing stories about possible cuts at the CBC, and sheaves of commentary about the direction of the Corp (including at least a week of same in the National Post) the cuts have finally been announced. The headline of 800 job cuts is now splashed across front pages across the country and, of course, on CBC it ran third on the national radio news yesterday.

Further, the trajectory of the story has, predictably,been “helped along” by CBC president Hubert Lacroix. He was the one who, some weeks ago, expressed fear of possible cuts and floated the possibility of “bridging payments” or such like in the form of more tax dollars. Then after announcing the cuts earlier this week he caused another days’ news cycle today with speculation about possible further reductions if the some corporate assets can’t be sold.

The debate on the future of CBC is one thing. Mr K and I actually wrote about this more than five years ago, and the article can still be found on the internet. What I’m looking for now though is perspective, information.

The problem is it’s very difficult to get a handle on the appropriateness of the broadcaster’s budget. Thanks to this National Post blurb, some of that information is accessible. I spent a little while looking for this data but, given that I’m not getting paid to do it, gave up fairly readily. What would be very interesting, and informative to the taxpayers who foot the bill, is how CBC compares to its competitors, CTV and Global. How do they compare in staffing, budget structure, etc.?

If we knew these things it might be possible to tell if we were getting value for money or being hosed. OK, you can make your own guess on that one. As it is, anyone who’s attended a media-covered event knows that the CBC typically sends contingents larger than all its competitors combined. I asked an Ottawa bureau chief from a private network about this and he just laughed. He told me that at the Mulroney-Schreiber committee hearings the CBC routinely sent two or three journalists to the private networks’ one. And that doesn’t include Radio Canada, the French service.

There has been some reporting on how the staffing cuts will be made, some programming reductions, some “middle-management” at head office, early retirements. “Mothercorp’s” own commentary is sprinkled with flowery verbs “slashed” and “axed”. Things sound tough.

But with all the myopic hyperbole, there are no comparisons with, say, lay-off patterns in private sector. Not to put too fine a point on it, but folks outside the cocoon of government have few illusions about job security. Drastic drops in the resource sectors in places like Calgary have, even in this “post-modern” recession, made people fairly stoic. Actually, “normal” attrition – that is people leaving of their own volition – is routinely in the realm of three to five percent per year.

So these announced cuts of 800 staff out of 10,000 – 8% – are minor by private sector standards. At my work in June,1991 we had a 30% lay-off and another 30% in January 1992, that was 120 people in my department alone; thousands across the country. The same company cut a further 10% after I quit in 1994. That said, if you’re using the government yardstick – where freezing spending is considered a cut – 8% must seem like armageddon.

I neglected to mention that of course none of the companies I worked for are national institutions. Although my laid off co-workers might have disagreed at the time, their unemployment wasn’t unraveling what binds Canadians and didn’t undermine national unity. Losing their jobs certainly couldn’t be compared to the departure of f’rinstance Promo-girl or the Voice. To paraphrase the Air Farce of old, they’re the CBC and you’re not.

Our aforementioned article suggested the CBC might try to punish a government that tried to rein it in. As a crown corporation with – how can I put this diplomatically? – arms-length accountability in terms of how it spends our taxes, it could certainly skew its budget cuts to cause maximum embarrassment to a government. Fortunately, national institutions don’t play politics. As it is, because of the lack of comprehensive reports out there, we can’t easily determine whether the cuts are serious or not. Let’s take their word for it then – things are bad, really bad.

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By John Weissenberger