CBC Bungles Upcoming Rollout of Opinion Section By Publishing Liberal MP’s Staffer’s Spin Piece

(Update at end of article.)

If anyone still thought CBC’s decision to launch an “Opinion site” next month was a good idea, an op-ed published by the CBC today should set her/him sober.

The hit piece—and yes, I’m aware this response is a hit piece as well, but at least it is published on my own independent blog, not paid for by taxpayers—entitled “Canadian Taxpayers Federation has 5 members—why should we care what they think?” was written by Dougald Lamont, a senior policy advisor for Liberal MP Robert-Falcon Ouellette.

Beginning the comedy of errors in this article’s encapsulation of why the CBC should not be in the business of telling us what to think, the public (de facto state propaganda) broadcaster described the Liberal MP’s staffer as “a lecturer in government and business relations at the University of Winnipeg and a long-time Liberal working in policy and communications.” This vague bio fails to disclose that Lamont works for a Liberal MP. CBC simply stating he is a “long-time Liberal working in policy and communications” does not suffice. Why not be crystal clear and put “former campaign director of communications and now senior policy advisor for Liberal MP Robert-Falcon Ouellette”?

Yet, far more egregious than the above quibble is the CBC’s publishing of (and paying for?) an article from a Liberal operative attacking the Canadian Taxpayers Federation in the first place. The CBC struck gold when it actively and successfully campaigned for the Liberals in last autumn’s election; Trudeau’s government delivered on its promise to return the favour to the CBC by giving it an additional $150-million-a-year in funding for the billion-and-a-half-dollar-boondoggle annual government subsidy (it’s actually more than the official stated amount of $1.2 billion).

The irony only gets richer when you realize that the CBC is sometimes—and its benefactor, the Liberal government is consistently—the target of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation because of its glutinous waste and lack of transparency. So is it appropriate for the CBC to publish a hit piece on the CTF from a Liberal staffer who hyperbolically declares the CTF as having a”…radical right-wing ideology that drives inequality by making the rich richer while neglecting the poor”?

From the fierce Twitter response it would appear a resounding no. Below is a small sampling of the generally unfavourable response.

Ezra Levant, the founder of The Rebel—a rightwing online news source, tweeted, “CBC takes a $1.2B taxpayer bail-out every year. They use that money to slander the taxpayers’ watchdog.” He also tweeted, “The Liberal government now employs more than 50% of working journalists in Canada. That corrodes democracy.”

From columnist J. J. McCullough: “The CBC running an editorial telling us to ignore a taxpayers’ watchdog group is so contrary to everything journalism is supposed to be.” He followed that with: “The CBC may as well run an editorial telling us to ignore the auditor general. Did you know he’s only one man?”

And from left-leaning Vice News reporter and editor Justin Ling: “oh god is this what the CBC’s opinion section is gonna be like?”

And finally from journalist David Akin: “I’m taking issue a) with CBC running op-eds b) CBC failing to disclose author’s employer, a Liberal MP.”

The publishing of the Liberal spin doctor’s op-ed comes at an awkward moment in time for journalism, where the government’s Canadian Heritage is currently consulting the news industry on the future of journalism and is looking at further subsidizing the profession, which Ezra Levant points out is already heavily supported by the government.

At the end of last month, iPolitics (a news startup) publisher James Baxter spoke to the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage. In his address he explained how the CBC and government subsidies kill competition and growth of new media.

“While the CBC has done many wonderful things… it is not some wonderful, benevolent entity. It’s an uber-predator.

Because of the nature of its web content, the CBC… crushes the Globe and Mail, Postmedia and … yes … iPolitics.

Funding the CBC has a profoundly chilling effect on would-be entrepreneurs in this country, particularly when there are no undertakings as to how and where that money will be spent.

Investors are justifiably reticent to put their money into (the) market — even where there is a clear void — because of the likelihood that once they prove there’s a market, the CBC will begin shifting funds there to compete.

That is the single-biggest obstacle to there being a vibrant and innovative marketplace of ideas in the media space.”

With the CBC’s recent announcement of creating an opinion and columns section it appears the uber-predator is only going to further encroach on and devour the independent news startups’ territory.

Even more disconcertingly, the Minister of Canadian Heritage Mélanie Joly is on record saying she wants the CBC to be more like Vice News, the ultra-leftwing media outlet that cheered for Trudeau and the Liberal party in its coverage of last election. All signs point to the Liberals likely further contributing to defanging and neutering the watchdog press.

But returning to the Liberal MP’s staffer’s op-ed published by the CBC today. In the CBC op-ed Lamont criticized the CTF for not being transparent enough about where its donor money comes from. The irony is that the CBC is incredibly secretive about how it spends taxpayers’ money and how it generates its revenue (other than the government subsidy). In the CBC op-ed Lamont criticized the CTF—and independent non-profit—for being run by “5 people”, yet the CBC president is appointed by the PM as well as gets its mandate from and is funded by the federal government.

To further respond to today’s CBC op-ed, I asked CTF’s Vice President, Communications Scott Hennig some questions via email.

Me: Is it important that the CTF receives no government funding?

Hennig: It is absolutely important. You can’t be a government watchdog if they are holding the purse strings. We cherish our independence. Of the CTF’s 30,663 donations in 2014-15, 30,156 (or 98.3%) of them were in amounts smaller than $1,000. Those donations totaled $3,799,760 (or 81%) of our total revenue for the year. That means that we also received 507 donations in amounts over $1,000. That works out to 1.7% of all donors and brought in $813,579 or 17% of our total revenue. In terms of averages, for those 30,156 donations under $1,000, the average donation was $126. For those 507 donations over $1,000, the average donation was $1,604.69. We believe we have the best possible funding model: independence from government and tens of thousands of small donations. And we don’t issue tax receipts.

Me: What is your response to the charge that the CTF has a “…fairly radical right-wing ideology that drives inequality by making the rich richer while neglecting the poor”?

Hennig: Right and left wing labels are very restrictive. We’ve been in coalitions with groups that would identify on all ends of the spectrum, depending on the issue. As for the rich vs. poor thing, I just look at some of the issues we take on, like the carbon tax. Raising gasoline and home heating taxes are easily afforded by the rich, but they’re devastating for the poor. We also regularly attack corporate welfare, which only helps the rich shareholders of these companies at the expense of the little guy who pays the taxes. That said, our income tax system often is punishing to those with above average incomes. If we want to attract and retain doctors, engineers and entrepreneurs in our country, we need to be more competitive and not have our tax system drive them to the United States.

Me: How often and for what does the CTF criticize CBC’s use of taxpayers’ money?

Hennig: Rarely. I recall that we nominated some CBC executives for a Teddy waste award many years ago (http://www.taxpayer.com/news-releases/ctf-to-cbc–no-more-butlers-and-champagne), but in my view this isn’t about CBC vs. CTF.  We regularly work with CBC journalists on all kinds of stories. In fact, here’s one that was just posted today: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/saskatchewan/gth-land-deal-bill-boyd-never-heard-of-1.3800855. If you’re attempting to establish that this is some sort of CBC axe to grind, my quotes won’t likely assist you. CBC like every other media outlet is seeing web traffic as the driver of ad revenue and they are looking for additional content that will drive that traffic. Groups or individuals that will provide cost-free content in the form of op-eds are welcomed by many media outlets. The CTF takes advantage of this every week. A person who doesn’t like the CTF and who, frankly flatteringly, spent a pile of time thinking about us wrote a[n] op-ed and offered it to CBC and they said thank you and ran it. We look forward to opportunities where our op-eds will run on CBC as well. While I don’t share the author’s opinion, he’s entitled to it. (His only big factual inaccuracy was related to us shutting down the Manitoba office in the 90s. That didn’t happen.)

Me: Would you say CTF is more impartial than politicians, and why or why not?

Hennig: Probably. We certainly aren’t worried about re-election and we don’t look for wedge issues that will gain us a temporary voting block. We don’t care about what colour of a pin the politician is wearing on their lapel, we praise good ideas no matter the party and criticize bad ideas. Opposition politicians often won’t praise a good idea the government has, and governing politicians won’t praise a good idea the opposition has. That said, we certainly are consistent. If having a set of principles and being consistent makes a group not objective in someone’s view, they’re entitled to think what they want.

Me: Do you agree CTF spokespeople get more coverage than elected officials?

Hennig: Yes, we absolutely do get more coverage than most politicians. Not all, but most. We’re a well-run organization with a highly talented staff that makes it their business to call it like it is, which many politicians won’t.  

I also wrote a letter to the CBC ombudsman with four questions—included below—regarding the op-ed and CBC’s new opinions section. I will update when I hear from the CBC.

1) Was it appropriate to have a Liberal staffer write an article for the CBC? And was the bio of the author of the piece explicit enough in its disclosure that he works for a Liberal MP?

2) Was the Liberal staffer paid to write the piece?

3) Should Canadian’s expect similar columns from the new opinion and columns section?

4) Where in CBC’s mandate does it say that the public broadcaster should be producing op-ed content?

UPDATE: CBC last night revised the bio of Dougald Lamont. “Dougald Lamont, a long-time Liberal working in policy and communications, is a lecturer in Government-Business Relations at the University of Winnipeg and a policy adviser to Liberal MP Robert-Falcon Ouellette. These are his own views, not those of his employers.

The bio should’ve always had his Liberal employer first because of the nature of the piece. However, that’s only if you think the piece is somehow appropriate in the first place for our public broadcaster to publish.

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3 thoughts on “CBC Bungles Upcoming Rollout of Opinion Section By Publishing Liberal MP’s Staffer’s Spin Piece

  1. Great piece, Graeme. So was your riff on CBC Radio One and Colin Kaepernick’s socks.
    Thanks for keeping an eye (and ear) on the CBC. So I don’t have to.
    You should look into getting a gig with The Rebel.


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