Former CBC workers ask CRTC to investigate public broadcaster's branded content unit

·3 min read

TORONTO — More than 70 former employees of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation want Canada's broadcast regulator to investigate the CBC's new paid-content division, Tandem.

The group says it has sent a letter to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission with concerns that the branded content unit "blurs the lines between advertising and news."

A statement from the group also says the recently launched multi-platform service "marks a clear departure from the mission of Canada’s public broadcaster."

The group says it wants the CRTC's investigation to include "an assessment of the CBC’s past and current use of branded content, which exploits the trust of Canadians in the broadcaster’s news and information services."

Tandem allows corporate clients to hire the CBC to create branded campaign content, like articles, audio and video.

When asked for comment on the criticism, the head of public affairs at CBC English Services noted that "while Tandem is new, branded content is not."

"In fact, we have been offering this to our advertisers for many years as have other media outlets around the world," Chuck Thompson said in an emailed statement Friday.

In announcing Tandem in September, the public broadcaster said it hired new staff and added two content editors. Thompson said the department is "completely separate" from the journalism team. 

The group who signed the letter to the CRTC said it is worried about transparency.

"The CBC made no mention of branded content in its fall 2019 licence renewal application to the CRTC. There is no reference in the CRTC's public information about the CBC, nor is there any disclosure in the CBC’s annual reports," said the group's statement.

Kelly Crowe, former medical sciences reporter for the CBC's flagship news program "The National," said "the CBC has been selling branded content without a frank discussion about the implications with its own journalists and the Canadian public."

"When did the CBC’s Board of Directors approve this form of marketing and what are the rules that govern how branded content is labelled to avoid misleading readers, listeners and viewers?" she said.

Past CBC presidents Tony Manera and Robert Rabinovitch are among those who've signed the letter to the CRTC speaking out against Tandem.

Other signatories include former CBC-TV hosts Adrienne Clarkson, Peter Mansbridge and Elizabeth Gray, and journalists Mellissa Fung, Linden McIntyre and Brian Stewart.

The group said it also wants the CRTC to put the subject of branded content on the agenda for the January 2021 CBC licence renewal hearings, or to launch a separate inquiry. 

"It’s no secret the CBC has been struggling financially for years, but some things should not be for sale," said Paul Gaffney, a former CBC employee of about 30 years.

“The CBC was established to provide Canadians with high-quality programming, not to sell its credibility for a quick buck."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 13, 2020,

Victoria Ahearn, The Canadian Press