The CBC announced last week its intentions to make serious cuts to its services. They come after significant revenue losses pertaining to government funding and advertising, and have reignited debate about the necessity of a national public broadcaster.
Defenders of public broadcasting commonly opine that a media outlet uncontrolled by corporate influence is necessary in a democracy. Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that they are right. Perhaps one day, the CBC may have been necessary because one television stations, radio stations, or printing presses to reach people across the country. Indeed, government might have been the only non-corporate entity with the resources necessary to provide media independent of industry. But today, in the age of blogging, Twitter, and online-only news, anyone can speak to the nation provided consumers are willing to hear and read what they have to say. It would be misleading to argue that these sources are accountable to “big business” while the CBC is not despite depending on advertising revenue from those very businesses.
There also seems to be little need for national broadcasters independent of corporate influence. Canada’s top new channels, such as CTV and Global, provide coverage at a level of quality equal to CBC’s. Furthermore, the country’s national newspapers, and many local counterparts, provide thoughtful coverage and analysis, comparable to, if not exceeding, the CBC’s quality.
These comments on the quality of various media outlets, however, are personal. Picking a favourite source of news is an individual choice based on a subjective valuation of whichever characteristics said individual cares about in a media outlet, not to mention these sources compete to give their audience what it wants–even CBC.
CBC is not above this battle for two reasons: 1) it too relies on advertising revenue to stay afloat and, therefore, must boost its ratings at the expense of what some many call “good” journalism and 2) if other media outlets do a far better job of winning audiences, the CBC must, by necessity, lose a portion of its audience in exchange. Without viewers, listeners, and readers, its allegedly “superior,” or “necessary,” content has little impact.
What of claims that private media does not publish stories embarrassing to business?
The argument that corporate-sponsored news shelters business interests conflates “business,” and those that articulate this argument view “big business” as an evil, amorphous blob. Businesses compete, and often have an incentive to identify flaws in those competing with them. Moreover, private media affords consumers what they want: if people want coverage of corporate scandals, then it would be imprudent for news sources to ignore them.
It seems the oft-repeated argument that the CBC’s superior, independent journalism provides information necessary for an informed citizenry to participate in democracy relies mostly on baseless assertions about what constitutes “good” journalism. Further, it cannot provide a common knowledge base for citizens, as competing media sources that aren’t markedly worse than CBC capture most of the market share. Independent of its other undertakings, the CBC is not necessary in the world of Canadian journalism.
Michael Sullivan is a 2013-2014 Atlantic Institute for Market Studies’ Student Fellow. The views expressed are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the Institute