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Post-Christmas thoughts about the CBC’s future

A visit to Lyon last week got me thinking about how dominant religions absorb and erase competing rites and traditions. France’s second city has been an important focus of Catholicism from the first century onward, but before that Lyon was a centre of worship of the Roman god Mithra. Scholars are divided as to the extent of early Christian syncretic borrowings from the cult and traditions of Mithraism, but other pagan appropriations are in plain view around Christmas time. The streets of old Lyon were festooned with coloured lights and pine boughs, traditions which derive from pre-Christian celebrations of the equinox and the resurrection of the sun. Gift-giving is on everybody’s mind and shops are crowded.

The commercial side of Christmas is evidence of the syncretism of that other religion, market capitalism. Like Christianity and Mithraism, market capitalism, too, lays claim to redemptive power. In its case, neither sacrificial bull’s blood nor communion wine is involved; it’s an automatic process exercised miraculously through an “invisible hand” guiding the outcomes of dog-eat-dog market competition. Individuals pursuing their own economic self-interest collectively create a prosperous society. Adam Smith thought of it as God’s consciousness at work in the affairs of humankind.

No doubt about it, capitalism can work miracles. But there are well-understood limits to its generally constructive impact.

These are usually categorized as “market failures.” As the name suggests, they represent a failure of the market to produce enough of some public good, usually because there’s not enough profit to be made. Often, the social value of the side-effects (or “positive externalities’) of such a good or service far outweigh what individuals are willing to pay for their share. And so government steps in to pick up the tab, so that all can benefit. Public education, health care, highways, parks, street lighting, municipal sewer and water, the military and police services are some standard examples.

Another is public broadcasting, represented in this country by the CBC.

From its inception nearly a century ago, the CBC has been the object of animosity among private for-profit broadcasters, who resent competition in the market for audiences and advertisers from a publicly-subsidized service.

These days the complaints of unfair competition extend to newspaper publishers, who are desperately trying to reinvent themselves as digital services, scrambling to catch up with the migration of their advertisers to the internet. But the CBC has a powerful presence online, too, far exceeding its closest media rivals in Alexa rankings. And, as it does on television, the public broadcaster sells advertising on, which puts it in direct competition with newspaper websites. The publishers protest that the publically-funded CBC was never intended to compete with newspapers.

The solution to the CBC’s “unfair” presence in media markets, one often proposed by the private media industries and their political supporters, is to either dismantle, or privatize the public broadcaster by withdrawing its subsidies.

But a better resolution would be for the CBC to eliminate the main irritant and go advertising-free, not just on radio (something accomplished in the mid 1970s) but on television and online as well. It’s an idea that’s getting serious consideration in Ottawa, and within the CBC itself.

After all, public broadcasters exist to provide a space for information and entertainment that’s free of influence from vested interests—state, political or commercial. It is a space that cannot be adequately provided by for-profit enterprises (not profitable enough), but is nevertheless essential to any healthy democracy.

At a time when Ottawa is rewriting national cultural policy, including the Broadcasting Act; filling vacancies on the CBC Board of Directors, including the Chair; and recruiting candidates for a new CBC President, it’s important that we all understand what’s at stake.

Among the best summaries of the significance of public broadcasting has just been published by a Canadian media consultant Sue Gardner, executive director of the Wikipedia Foundation from 2007-14. Her essay is a good place to learn why public broadcasting matters, and why, if we didn’t already have the CBC we’d have to invent something very much like it. Not an impossible task, but one far more daunting than it was nearly ninety years ago when Canadian public broadcasting was born into the upheaval of the Great Depression—and the first howls of opposition from newspapers and private broadcasters.

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