Bill C-18 and the CBC’s Self-Destructive Approach to Government Digital Policy
The CBC should be going out of its way to remove any hint of biased policy positions, yet it continues to lean into them. It is a destructive approach that undermines the case for public support.
I need to start this post by making it clear that I am a supporter of publicly funded broadcasting and the CBC. With the increased use of paywalls and dramatic shifts in the media landscape, there is value in a public broadcaster that fills the gaps in the privately owned media world by ensuring that all Canadians have open, freely available access to reliable news. That requires embracing all forms of distribution, maintaining steadfast independence, and limiting direct competitive overlap with the private side that is currently facing significant digital transition challenges. This should be an easy value proposition for the CBC and one that would provide a compelling case for public funding. Yet the CBC’s approach to Bill C-18 and other government digital policies seems determined to do the opposite and, in doing so, threatens its future support.
Simply put, the CBC should not be treated as an eligible news business under Bill C-18. It is bad enough that the private sector has to compete with the CBC for digital advertising dollars, but adding competition for tech company money only increases the problem for the competitive media landscape in Canada. As I’ve previously argued, the law serves to increase the CBC’s reliance on private sector money and makes it more like a private media company when it should be striving to be a compelling public alternative.
But beyond the competitive implications, the problem with Bill C-18 and the CBC is that it runs directly counter to what should be a top CBC priority: universal, free access to the news for all Canadians (who fund that access through tax dollars). In an ideal world, that would mean open licensing CBC news content so that others could enhance its distribution and value. Even without open licensing, the CBC should embrace all distribution channels – including search and social media – not in the misguided hope of payment for links, but because that free distribution enhances the CBC’s value to Canadians and thereby makes the case for its continued public funding. By supporting Bill C-18, the CBC signals that it is no different than the private media sector and that those that increase its visibility and access should somehow pay for the privilege of doing so. If it is no different than private sources, the doubt about whether the public should continue to fund it will only increase.
Further, the CBC’s recent advocacy on Bill C-18 undermines both its mandate and the perception of its independence. This week’s public letter to Meta urging it to stop its compliance with Bill C-18 by blocking news links is a misstep on both counts. Times of crisis are precisely when the CBC is needed as it has the widest range of distribution of channels in local communities including television, radio, and the Internet. Some of those communities did not have Internet access for days, meaning that Facebook wasn’t even available and CBC radio would be the ideal distribution mechanism to keep them updated and amplify official sources. The CBC’s focus on Facebook access is bizarre since what makes the CBC valuable in such situations is that Canadians do not need intermediaries to access the news.
In fact, the letter may be less about Facebook blocking news links when communities went days without Internet access and more about an effort to curry favour with the government. Much like its decision to join the weak Competition Act complaint, CBC management has gone out of its way to support the government’s position on Bill C-18 (and Bill C-11 before that). When CBC critics focus on its independence, they typically turn to concerns about its news coverage. I think that’s a mistake. The perception of its independence is most undermined by its policy positions as it becomes difficult to determine whether its public support is grounded in policy or based on the fact that government is its primary source of funding. The CBC should be going out of its way to remove any hint of political leanings or biased policy positions, yet it continues to lean into them. It is a destructive approach that ultimately undermines the very case for its continued public support.
Post originally appeared at https://www.michaelgeist.ca/2023/08/bill-c-18-and-the-cbcs-self-destructive-approach-to-government-digital-policy/
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