In democracies there is always tension between the “good ideas” that government has for spending taxpayers’ monies and taxpayers’ desire to spend it themselves.
And increasingly nationally financed broadcasters such as PBS in the United States and CBC in Canada are questioned regarding value received for value expended.
In dictatorships there is no argument. If Putin wants to spend $50 billion on the Sochi Winter Olympics, it is spent. If Beijing’s leadership wants to spend uncounted billions for the 2008 Summer Olympics, it is spent. But the Atlanta summer Olympics (1996) and the Salt Lake City winter Olympics (2002) were essentially privately financed. Less glitter and glitz, but less public expense.
And comparable points are relevant for government funding of news media: newspapers, television, and radio. It smacks of official “party line” control leaving readers cynical about whether there is any “news” in Pravda or “truth” in Izvestia. One still expects the official voice of the government from organs such as CBC and/or PBS.
In previous generations, one could argue a case for an “official” radio/television network. Equipment was expensive and difficult to maintain, geographic coverage was limited, and service was unreliable. Attempting to communicate quickly with citizens across continental distances (sea to sea to sea) was challenging, and only the government was financially able to make such investments. Two generations ago these limitations were the technical and fiscal reality; today they are not.
Canadians and Americans are awash in electronic media. Instead of the absence of information, it is ubiquitous. It is all but impossible to escape, with virtually every citizen of elementary school age equipped with iPhones and Blackberries or equivalent personal digital communications equipment. The “500 channel” cable system provides more information than any human can absorb, and “cable” is complemented (often replaced by) computerized access to the total range of information and entertainment.
Our citizens text, tweet, Facebook, You Tube (and use other social media) — and occasionally even telephone. The equipment to do so is cheap and reliable, constantly improved, and easily replaced.
And, if our national leadership has a special need to communicate with its citizens, it can do so by demanding the private national networks provide access.
Essentially, there are multiple reasons that public broadcasting is irrelevant: philosophical, professional, and political.
Philosophically, public broadcasting uses taxpayer money to compete with private industry, often for the same product. It either does so directly or with tax write-offs for “charitable donations” by contributors. Or, as is the case in the UK with subscriber fees for every household with radio/television, in effect additionally taxing citizens to use public resources (air waves). There is little reason to argue that private industry cannot broadcast sports events (as CBC apparently now has recognized) or the best of BBC imported programs (Doc Martin, Masterpiece Theater, etc). If Canadians cannot find other mechanisms to “tell Canada’s story” perhaps nobody wants to listen?
Professionally, it may be unpleasant — even cruel — to say, but U.S. and Canadian public broadcasting isn’t very good. It is anecdotal but instructive to recall Canadian friends saying, “When the CBC came on, we switched to U.S. channels.” One can always find exceptions, but the old adage prevails: The exception proves the rule. And the rule remains that the best Canadian English-speaking actors want to succeed on the largest stage — that in the United States. For example, years ago I was vastly amused when the actor in the famous Molson rant about Canada not being the USA got a Hollywood offer and instantly decamped to California.
Politically, one must also recognize that CBC/PBS is an aviary for those flying on two left wings. While professing to be nonpartisan, they simply are not. They are implicitly hostile to non-liberal personalities and causes. CBC provides the additional fillip of being anti-American as well. Such strokes the comfort zones of denizens of the Left, but comparably irritates those that are not. Nor does it help CBC’s image when information on senior executives/commentators salaries and privileges become public — after desperate CBC efforts to withhold them.
Consequently, conservatives stress free market reasons to reduce funding while liberals seek new mechanisms for funding while cutting staff and hoping to survive until warmer climes return with the eviction of the hated Tories from government.
Although an exception is possible for Quebec’s Francophone broadcasting as a niche market for those players uncompetitive in English-speaking markets, the time is past for publicly funded broadcasting. Not even the nanny state needs it.
David T. Jones is a retired State Department Senior Foreign Service Career Officer who has published several hundred books, articles, columns, and reviews on U.S. - Canadian bilateral issues and general foreign policy. During a career that spanned over 30 years, he concentrated on politico-military issues, serving as advisor for two Army Chiefs of Staff. He has just published Alternative North Americas: What Canada and the United States Can Learn from Each Other.