Our besieged public broadcaster slashes jobs, again

MEDIA by Wanda Schmöckel

photo by Darrol Hofmeister

In March, the CBC announced that it would cut 244 jobs from regional news services, slashed as part of a two-year purge of 657 jobs.

Last week, the reality of those cuts came into clearer focus, with notices of redundancy making their ways to the desks of Saskatchewan staff.

When all is said and done, 11 more positions will be eliminated from CBC Saskatchewan. And although the full roster of who will be let go isn’t yet known, everyone from technicians to journalists will be affected.

The bottom line: there will be far fewer people in this region doing the work needed to bring Saskatchewan’s stories to the public.

And, speaking of Saskatchewan as a region — it actually no longer is one. As of last year, it was absorbed into the Prairies North region, a vast territory comprising Saskatchewan, Manitoba and the North.

“As far as regionalism goes, the lens has become fuzzier and fuzzier because they don’t have the people on the ground that they used to have,” says Brenda Baker of the Friends of Canadian Broadcasting. “When you look at what’s happening on a national level, so much now is filtered through the lens of Toronto. It’s become even more Toronto-centric. Unless something disastrous is happening in Saskatchewan, I’m not going to hear about it on The Current.

Their broadcasting mandate is that they need to be out in the regions but they’re not being given the money that they should have to do that,” says Baker. “The outcome is that it’s going to be irrelevant.”

These aren’t the first cuts to the public broadcaster under the Harper government. According to a slideshow on the Toronto Star’s website, this round of cuts follows 800 jobs cut in 2009 and 650 in 2012.

“We’ve had wave after wave of cuts to the CBC from this administration, and from the Liberals before them, and we’re well past trimming the fat at this point. We’re into severing limbs,” says Mitch Diamantopoulos, head of the University of Regina’s School of Journalism.

“I think it raises the question: what is driving public policy here? Is public policy being driven by the desire to meet the stated objectives of the public broadcaster — which are to give people in each region a voice?” asks Diamantopoulos. “Or is this being driven by ideology and the current administration that doesn’t like journalists holding it to account for how it’s serving the public interest?”

As the CBC moves towards a “digital-first” model (more web and mobile app based than traditional broadcast), their consistent message is that these cuts won’t significantly affect the bottom line of public service journalism in smaller markets across the country. CBC spokespeople repeat that, while there are significant local cuts, each region is still relatively the same size as it used to be — given that the organization as a whole has shrunken overall.

“Looking towards a digital mobile first strategy — that’s really the strong emphasis that we will place on a regional perspective on the short, medium, and longer term,” says John Bertrand, senior managing director for CBC Prairies Region.

“I think a place like Saskatchewan will deepen its regional connections and broaden its storytelling, and enhance the emphasis on community reflection and relevance, which is critical to the public broadcaster” says Bertrand. “We’re in a transitional period right now, both of (technological and) workforce adjustment, and at some point there’ll be some additional digital hiring to support what we want to achieve.

“Everybody is working very hard at trying to figure out what’s the best approach within the digital space,” he says.

How you do that with fewer people with an increasingly high workload is anyone’s guess, but the CBC seems to be putting a lot of stock in social media.

“It’s a real catch-22,” says Diamantopoulos. “On the one hand, people are heroically doing their best with the cards that they’ve been dealt. But they’re being dealt from the bottom of the deck, and they’re being forced into all kinds of compromises and concessions when it comes to public service journalism — when it comes to just being able to cover basic regional news.”

Disturbingly, there has been very little public criticism from those working in media in response to the CBC’s slash-and-burn direction. Prairie Dog/Planet S reached out to several people associated with the CBC (past and present) for comment on this story, but no one responded aside from the current regional managing director.

Part of the reticence to comment is likely rooted in fear. While redundancy notices were issued two weeks ago, the eventual outcome is still being worked out, with “workforce adjustment” committees convening to review how individual cases will be dealt with, and leaving many wondering if they’ll be bumped by those with more seniority.

It’s a recipe for prolonged uncertainty and frayed nerves. No one wants to lose their job — or feel responsible for anyone else losing theirs — and no one wants to talk about it.

“They feel threatened,” says Baker “That threat has been there for some years now, when you think about what has been deliberately done over a period of time to the corporation as a whole. I can’t imagine being a journalist at the CBC and feeling truly free to say what you think you need to say about the CBC — or anything that has to do with politics these days.”

“We would drop the gloves if a government was making an ideology-driven rather than evidence-based policy about health care or education,” says Diamantopoulos. “But when we see the same thing happening in the media sector, I think reporters are flummoxed and don’t want to seem like they’re losing their so-called objectivity.

“In a sense, they’re really betraying the public’s trust because who knows better than journalists what’s good for journalism? And if journalists aren’t going to speak up when the quality of journalism is under attack, who is going to do it?” Diamantopoulos asks.

“It points to the paper-thin claims to press freedom,” says Diamantopoulos. “Here you have journalists who, to their marrow, are committed to the idea of free expression, not being censored, not pulling their punches. And, in this situation, it becomes abundantly clear that if they say the wrong thing, they might not get called back to the Mother Corp. Where are they going to go?”

“Freedom is always a relative thing in this kind of situation,” he says.