The outbreak of COVID-19 has caused a surge of web traffic from people stuck at home and eager to keep up with the latest news. However, that doesn’t mean the media is thriving. By shutting down much of the rest of the economy, ad sales have dropped, and that means despite the traffic, many publications are suffering, if not laying people off.
On the east coast, Saltwire Network laid off 40 percent of its workforce, shuttered its weekly newspapers across Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador, and will now only produce four of its dailies for the foreseeable future. In Quebec, la Coopérative nationale de l’information indépendante laid off 143 of its 350 workers and suspended publication of its six newspapers from Monday to Friday, while Cogeco Media laid off another 130 people and La Presse temporarily cut salaries of certain workers by 10 percent. The pain is also being felt out west, with the Vancouver Courier ceasing publication “until further notice” and laying off workers.
At a time when Canadians are eager to know what is happening in their communities, particularly with regard to the spread of COVID-19, these cuts are the opposite of what we should be seeing. And the government’s response has not been reassuring: it has launched a $30 million ad buy in order to replace some of the revenue that is being lost from private advertisers, but that will only prop them up for so long.
The dual crises of COVID-19 and struggling private media further demonstrates the need for a well-resourced public broadcaster that does not have to worry about the whims of the market, but is rather dedicated to providing Canadians with the news and programming they need to stay informed. This does not negate the need for independent left wing media to hold powerful people and institutions—including the CBC itself—to account and push discussions to the left, but there are some things that such a media ecosystem will simply not have the resources to accomplish. In addition to bolstering left wing media, this should be a time to make the case for more funding and an expanded mandate for the CBC, while dealing with the problems in management and its close (and uncritical) relationship with people in power.
Ads create bad incentives
It was particularly telling that one of the first responses of CBC management to COVID-19 was not to ramp up its coverage, but rather to shut down local news broadcasts. The corporation has been cutting those programs for years, creating a spiral where fewer resources lead to fewer viewers, which only makes the case to cut them further. But Canadians want local news, and it is increasingly difficult to deliver under a private, ad-funded model, as evidenced by the local papers that have been cut, if not shut down, in recent years. Unsurprisingly, there was a swift backlash to CBC’s announcement, which forced President and CEO Catherine Tait to reverse the decision and bring back the local broadcasts. That should not have come as a surprise, given a 2014 report commissioned by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) found that 81 percent of Canadians consider local news to be important.
The public broadcaster also made its news channels, CBC News Network and French-language ICI RDI, free for all Canadians and expanded the kids’ programming on television and its CBC Gem streaming service. But that begs the question of why it was not doing these things already. Why should Canadians have to pay for access to the public broadcaster’s news channels, or for ad-free access to CBC Gem? The public already pays for these services through tax dollars, but that is precisely part of the CBC’s problem: it is not adequately funded, and thus has to turn to private advertisers for additional revenue, forcing it to consider other factors beyond its public service mandate.
In 2018, the CBC reported $318 million in advertising revenue from television and digital sources, and that money makes up a significant chunk of its operating budget. However, in order to maintain and grow that revenue source, management not only needs to consider how to draw eyeballs, but it inevitably creates other incentives that have afflicted the broader media environment, though there are other reasons for this.
The quest for eyeballs and obsession with ratings is no secret. A Public Policy Forum report quoted an anonymous employee who said, “the whole place is ratings driven,” and on the news side management is particularly focused on having The National beat other national news programs. The ratings obsession has had an undeniable impact on programming: it was partly responsible for CBC’s push into reality television and rip-offs of popular commercial series with a Canadian spin, but, combined with the elite bias of reporting, it has also had an impact on the way news is reported.
How the right infiltrates the media
Conservatives have long claimed that the CBC has a left wing or liberal bias, a strategy that has been employed by right wing groups around the world to push news coverage to the right. In The BBC: Myth of a Public Service, Tom Mills examines claims that the BBC is biased toward the Labour Party and cites several studies which find that not only is that incorrect—“Conservative politicians were featured over 50 percent more than Labour politicians” on a major BBC news program—but more than anything else, it is biased toward Parliament, featuring political leaders, government figures, and business lobbyists with few alternative perspectives. The same can be observed of media in the United States and Canada, where perspectives outside those elite occupations have less access to the airwaves. However, right wing perspectives are laundered into the mainstream in other ways.
Last year, Carlos Maza also illustrated how Fox News pushes the rest of the media to the right in the US (the Murdoch press plays a similar role in the United Kingdom). The CBC and larger Canadian mainstream media has a history of failing to critically cover the alt-right, instead serving to expand their platforms, but the US has a significant impact on our culture. The effect Maza discusses no doubt extends to Canada, given that we not only consume so much American news, but see networks like CNN as the standard for what is considered “serious” journalism. We occasionally pat ourselves on the back when our media does not fully give into the impulse to induce fear into the population to grab eyeballs, such as in the aftermath of the shooting on Parliament Hill, but that does not mean they do not accept the political framings developed in the US and apply them to our own politics. For example, the obsession with balanced budgets, the sense that social programs are an expensive extravagance, and the privileging of business over workers and communities in coverage, just to name a few.
Mills describes how there was a sea change in the coverage of work and business during the 1980s in the UK, when labour was central, and reporting often consisted of developments related to strikes, and journalists needed to have good relationships with unions. But as Margaret Thatcher’s neoliberal agenda was applied to the BBC, the focus of coverage shifted from labour to ‘business’, which privileged the stock market, news of mergers and acquisitions, and began to focus more on what the owners of capital would want to hear, rather than workers. This is evident in all major media organizations today, where few Canadian outlets even have a labour reporter, yet they dedicate entire sections and programs to business news which privileges the perspectives of CEOs over those of workers.
Elite perspectives don’t serve the public
In recent decades, there has been a steady decline in the number of journalists holding power to account, leaving fewer people to cover a broad range of issues and perspectives, but also meaning it is more difficult to get into one of those jobs. There are still several paths into journalism, but it is increasingly difficult for people from disadvantaged backgrounds; one either has get a degree and be prepared to do some low-paid internships in some of the most expensive cities in the country, or freelance for years, slowly building a portfolio and coveted connections to get something more permanent.
In Steal As Much As You Can: How to Win the Culture Wars in an Age of Austerity, Nathalie Olah examines how the working class is increasingly excluded from the British media whose output has become “far more monocultural and limited to the upper-middle-class experience.” Not only have the number of jobs for journalists been curtailed in Canada, but those who cover politics nationally are often centred in Ottawa and Toronto, and sometimes even leave journalism for jobs in government or lobbying, which Mills also observes in the UK. In the same way that Mills describes the BBC’s bias toward the political and business elite, and the American media’s incessant focus on political horse-trading, Canadian media falls into similar traps. All it takes is to look at their news and current affairs programming, and you will see the same faces repeated over and over: prominent politicians, their partisans and spin doctors, journalists from various publications, and the lobbyists they get to know on the Hill. That inevitably leads to what Mills describes as, “an elitist, ‘insider’ perspective on politics, encouraging viewers to see it as a strategic game between its leading players … rather than a system of public deliberation over social policy or contestation over the distribution of wealth and power.”
In practice, this means that important debates on issues like climate change end up focussing on political squabbles which downplay the scientific consensus and harm that will result from not taking radical action. It also means that reports about healthcare spending and social programs emphasize the budget and tax rates, not the impacts on the lives of Canadians, particularly the poorest and most vulnerable.
What’s more, we have also seen a far greater emphasis on ‘business’ programming at the expense of labour coverage. This has gone as far as to ‘analyze’ how the election of a fascist in Brazil would benefit mining companies and to platform a multi-millionaire to rabidly attack unions, minimum wages, and workers’ rights, while the ‘objective’ journalist beside him often didn’t push back and failed to declare she was being paid by RBC. It is clear this needs to change, but that does not mean we need to join the Conservatives in demanding the abolition of the CBC.
A democratic public broadcaster
There is no question that a left wing media infrastructure is essential to push back against the pervasive right wing influence over the mainstream media. In the UK, publications and websites like Novara Media and Tribune magazine are helping to change the conversation, as are Jacobin, the Young Turks, and many others in the US. There is a growing left media infrastructure in Canada which must be nurtured so its influence can continue to grow, but that doesn’t mean the major media organizations can be ignored, and certainly not the public broadcaster.
Not only do most Canadians turn to established properties like the CBC, the Toronto Star, the Globe and Mail, and the National Post for their news, but in recent years we have seen the power of major media brands to turn people against popular left wing political movements, such as those of Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders. In the face of COVID-19, when some of these properties are further imperilled by loss of ad revenue, we should be calling for a larger role for the CBC, while recognizing its flaws and seeking to remedy them.
As a basic starting point, its funding should be increased, ads should be wholly removed, and it should have a mandate to expand local reporting, given how such work is becoming unsustainable for private media to provide. We can also learn from Mills’ suggestions for the BBC, which include a more democratic structure that takes away political control in favour of “a more democratic system of public accountability”; recruitment that is more representative of the audience, not just in terms of race and gender, but crucially in terms of class, as well; and decentralizing editorial control. In addition, the CBC needs to look toward the future, and we should look to Dan Hind’s call to move public broadcasting into the twenty-first century with a digital cooperative that would place a democratically controlled CBC at the centre of the creation of a public media and technology ecosystem that serves the public instead of the bottom lines of tech giants.
By shutting down so much of our economy and turning the media funding model on its head, there is a unique opportunity to change Canada’s media ecosystem for the better. We must continue supporting left media, but this is also the time to push for a CBC that is more accountable to the public, has the funding to better fulfill its mandate, and which is positioned to serve Canadians as media moves further into the digital realm.
Paris Marx is a writer and graduate student at McGill University. They are the host of Tech Won’t Save Us, editor of Radical Urbanist, and have also written for NBC News, CBC News, Jacobin, and Tribune. Follow Paris on Twitter at @parismarx.