Thursday, November 03, 2011

Quebecorsaurus and the CBC

A provocative tweet pointed me to the latest media battle back home, between the CBC and those who all seem to fall under the umbrella that is Quebecor Media Inc. (QMI): the former's record re ATIP requests, bleeding out to the familiar ground of their funding and how they use it.

I've always had mixed feelings about the CBC: on one hand, I really enjoy some of their programming -- I'm thinking of their radio programs in particular now, including Quirks and Quarks and lots of Radio 3 stuff -- but, as a corporation beholden us (read Canadians writ large) -- they're operating loss before government funding, etc. in 2010 exceeded $1.2 billion (before taxes), according to their latest financial statements -- they've never struck me as humble enough, silly as that sounds (to me, anyway).

So, to be frank, that Ezra rant about the newspaper ad struck a chord with me. As did this, from Peter Worthington (also published in the Toronto Sun):
Peladeau complains that CBC's budget for celebrating its 75th anniversary should be public knowledge. Of course it should... Why is the CBC allowed to keep secret the number of vehicles in its fleet? Or how much it spends on entertainment? Or what it pays Peter Mansbridge?

As Worthington points out, there is an argument for keeping some information close -- what the CBC cited as "documents for... journalistic, creative and programming activity" in response to a motion from the Commons Access To Information Committee last month -- but surely that doesn't extend to simple facts and figures. Now, Worthington writes for "QMI Agency," according to his byline, but I think on this -- amongst his many sports analogies and QMI love -- he has a point.

Because I can't resist it, I'll include one example of the fencing that's going on between these two: on one side we have QMI's claims about the CBC's inefficiencies re ATIP requests; on the other:
[Information Commissioner] Legault said that between 2008-9, 90 per cent of all access requests launched with the CBC were made by six individuals representing business interests. Although their identities have not been revealed, the courts have heard that one law clerk working on behalf of Quebecor's Sun Media newspaper chain submitted nearly 400 requests in late 2007.

I'll be the first to admit that I need to do more research on this, but there's something to be said for clear and concise disclosure; what the kids today would call transparency, I guess. For example, after listening to Ezra rant, I wondered whether it would really be that hard to find out what the CBC spends on marketing. Turns out that it's pretty hard, as far as I can tell: they lump it under Television, radio and new media services costs (emphasis mine):
Television, radio and new media services costs include all costs related to the production of programs, including direct out-of-pocket expenditures, departmental and administration expenses and the cost of activities related to technical labour and facilities. A portion of the costs of operational support provided by services such as human resources, finance and administration, building management and other shared services are also included in the related costs. Television, radio and new media services costs also include programming-related activities such as marketing and sales, merchandising and communications.

From the BBC's annual report for the subject year
It's almost like they're trying to hide it in one of their biggest pots. Now, compare that with how the BBC approach this same sort of accountability (right). It's a concise table in the annual report, with marketing costs clearly broken out; note how the content costs dwarf them, as you'd expect. They've even broken out the digital switchover stuff separately, something I wouldn't have thought to go looking for, but certainly find interesting. (They market that little robot like nobody's business.)

Again, in all this, it's that hint of humility that I'm looking for. I can't put my finger on why exactly, but the BBC definitely has it, where the CBC doesn't.