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If the CBC doesn’t defend itself, who will?

Again with the CBC. This time the question is this – are CBC/Radio-Canada TV stars right or wrong to openly protest cuts to the CBC and call on CBC bosses to do more to defend the public broadcaster?

You won't have heard much about the issue in the English-speaking part of this great country, but some CBC/Radio-Canada staff went on the program Tout le monde en parle on French-language Radio-Canada the other night. The gist was to announce that they are mad as hell and not much inclined to take it any more. Take what? The slashing of CBC's budget and resulting diminishment of services, that's what.

The matter – the merits of CBC's Radio-Canada journalists stepping out of their usual role and taking action – was raised on CBC's The National on Sunday night. Specifically on the "3 to Watch" panel. Anchor Wendy Mesley introduced the topic gingerly. "It's a tricky, awkward thing for us to talk about here," she said. As if somebody's anti-depression medication was being gossiped about.

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Jiminy, I don't know about "tricky and awkward." If CBC is not going to defend itself vigorously, then who will do it?

What happened on Tout le monde en parle was historic. Among those who spoke out about what CBC/Radio-Canada does with aplomb were Céline Galipeau, Alain Gravel, Anne-Marie Dussault, Emmanuelle Latraverse and Marie-José Turcotte. Stars, the lot of them.

The upshot is that, in an open letter to CBC president Hubert Lacroix, the group says they are deeply concerned about the erosion of resources for the assurance of good-quality public broadcasting. As a group, they call themselves "Je suis Radio-Canada" – "I am Radio-Canada" – and assert that CBC/Radio-Canada is an "essential service." They say that in the face of fewer resources, they have continuously reinvented their approach to broadcasting and can't go any further. Shows have been cut, the quality of the news service is threatened, and the cultural coverage, a particular strength of Radio-Canada, has been severely diminished.

And thus they become activists as well as journalists. That's what the fuss is about.

Me, I don't see why they should stay silent. After all, on Monday Lacroix gave a big ol' speech in Montreal about "CBC/Radio-Canada: Facing a Defining Moment" and calling for a "nationwide conversation" about the public broadcaster's future. Surely CBC/Radio-Canada's own staff and TV stars are entitled to be part of that conversation.

Besides, it is hardly unique for a public broadcaster's journalistic staff to come to the defence of the organization and protest the lack of government support for its independence. BBC employees, journalists, technicians and other staff have on several occasions held public protests in support of that corporation.

What's crucial here is the upholding of the principle of public broadcasting. The CBC has a mandate to fulfill, whether its critics and the commercial broadcasters like it or not. The issue is its ability to perform its role. There's a point where blather about CBC-TV's ratings and the popularity of some shows has to be put aside and its mandate addressed.

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And by the way, almost simultaneous with Lacroix's speech came a breathless release from CTV, announcing that the network "has acquired the exclusive Canadian broadcast rights to the much buzzed-about and sought-after new revolutionary reality series Rising Star." Because, you know, what Canadian TV really needs right now is another reality-TV-show franchise imported from abroad. What CTV and others offer, in the context of CBC/Radio-Canada's programming, really must be part of the debate about the public broadcaster's role. Once again, I ask you, what have Bell, Rogers and Shaw, the titans of commercial Canadian TV, done for us lately? We know that Bell and Rogers are kept very busy fielding queries from government agencies about our Internet activity. But, still.

There was one interesting reaction to the CBC/Radio-Canada staff action on The National the other night. The "3 to Watch" panel is far from compelling TV, but this was a particularly poor performance. Marni Soupcoff of the Huffington Post was especially smug and pointedly derisive about the CBC/Radio-Canada staff activism. "If you're a normal Canadian, just on the periphery," she began, and sneered that "normal Canadians" aren't sympathetic to the CBC's plight. Honestly, "normal Canadians," she said. This from someone given the privilege to spout nonsensical opinion on CBC-TV itself.

So this is what CBC faces – the notion that public broadcasting isn't "normal." Me, I applaud those at CBC/Radio-Canada for taking a stand. Of course, it's highly unlikely there will be an Anglo equivalent. No activism hereabouts. I suspect there is a lack of courage. But somebody better step up and become an activist defender of public broadcasting. More imported "sought-after new revolutionary reality series" anyone? Anyone?

Airing tonight

Out of Mind, Out of Sight: Inside the Brockville Psych(TVO, 9 p.m.) is brought to your attention because it just won the Best Canadian Feature Documentary Award at the Hot Docs festival in Toronto. John Kastner's powerful work is "the story of patients at the Brockville Mental Health Centre struggling for control of their lives in the face of a society that fears and demonizes them for their violent acts." And if you don't have access to TVOntario, note that it is available for all on the TVO website (, starting Thursday.

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About the Author
Television critic

John Doyle is The Globe and Mail's television critic. His column appears in the Review section Monday to Thursday and on Saturday. He has been the paper's critic since 2000. More


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