Since CBC President Hubert Lacroix announced plans to “ensure the sustainability” of the public broadcaster by radically reducing staff and shifting its focus from television and radio to various forms of internet delivery over the next five years, there has been a rising chorus of voices calling on him to resign.
“Focused, smaller, more mobile, more relevant,” is how Lacroix describes the new CBC he envisions. He calls it a “public media company [that] focuses on partnering to develop content” as opposed to a conventional public broadcaster. And he says that, in the face of dwindling subsidies from the federal government and now a steep decline in revenue from advertisers, who are moving en masse to the internet, he has no choice but to continue the progressive dismembering of the corporation.
That list of recent amputations includes the CBC Radio Orchestra, the CBC’s international radio service, Newsworld International, BOLD, radio drama, the television documentary unit, arts programming, overseas news bureaus, local news operations, and in-house production of all kinds.
There are many who see this strategy of continuing to cut expenditures and sell off capital assets to match declining revenues—survival at any cost—as antithetical to the continuing existence of what is arguably the nation’s most important cultural institution. Hence the calls for Lacroix’s resignation, on grounds that he has effectively become a participant in the destruction of the CBC.
When challenged with this accusation and asked directly at last week’s employee town hall webcast, “Whose interests do you serve?” Lacroix replied that he is bound to serve the interests of the corporation’s shareholders, “who are the government.” He has no choice, he said, but to do as he is told, which the Minister of Heritage helpfully explained following the event, is to live within his means.
In fact, however, the real “shareholders” of the CBC or any other public broadcaster are the people of the nation it serves. Public broadcasters are intentionally designed to be as free of direct government influence as possible, and to be responsible to the public, rather than to the government of the day. It’s what distinguishes them from state broadcasters. And polling has shown continuously for many years that a large majority of Canadians of all political stripes and in both official language communities place high value on the CBC. Shouldn’t Lacroix be serving those shareholders?
If we can accept the very real concern among the CBC’s supporters that an abrupt abandonment of traditional broadcasting may save money, but will reduce the corporation to utter insignificance and irrelevance, effectively killing it off, is it then legitimate to ask for Lacroix’s resignation? And, for that matter, the resignations of his senior management team and the Board of Directors who have sanctioned the strategy?
What is being asked of Lacroix is that he face up to his moral obligation to defend the institution he was appointed to preside over and for which he is ultimately responsible, and refuse to participate further in its destruction. It seems a fair request.
The moral and ethical relationships of people involved in employer-employee relationships were first explored by the British political philosopher Thomas Hobbes, back in the 17th century.
He used the metaphor of stage actors and playwrights to try to understand where moral responsibility lies in such relationships. Just as actors follow scripts and are thus agents of the playwright, who is he “author” of their actions, employees act according to their employer’s instructions and are thus in a similar agent/author relationship. Hobbes saw these agents or actors as “artificial persons” in the sense that they behave like automatons rather than fully capable moral agents. For Hobbes, their moral status was sketchy.
If the CBC is indeed being driven into oblivion by Lacroix and his management team, with the complicity of the Board of Directors, who is morally culpable. Who do we blame?
The philosopher Elizabeth Wolgast speaks for a majority of modern ethicists when she asserts in her essay Ethics of an Artificial Person that, “professional and corporate obligations exist side by side with a person’s other obligations and make their claims in the same moral arena. In it a person works out her decisions, always in her own name; she doesn’t lack ground for rejecting morally doubtful projects, and she has full responsibility for both her decisions and her acts.”
In other words, what’s wrong is wrong, whether at work or in private life, and “I’m just following orders” is never a justifiable reason for performing a morally dubious act.
Participating in the needless destruction of an institution that represents a substantial piece of a nation’s cultural heritage, its principal democratic public space, and its main potential for future contributions in these areas—without a mandate from the pubic, and in the face of reasonable options for real sustainability—many would say is just such a morally dubious act.
Mr. Lacroix and his senior management team, and the Board of Directors—each in law and precedent charged with defending public broadcasting in this country—should resign, and call for an immediate and complete rethinking of CBC/Radio-Canada’s untenable financing and governance.
Then maybe, this problem can be sorted out.
Wade Rowland is author Saving the CBC: Balancing Profit and Public Service, and a contributor to the Journal of Business Ethics and the Journal of Corporate Citizenship, among others. He teaches in Communication Studies at York University. www.waderowland.com