The CBC’s shitty year

2015 hasn’t been a good year for our national broadcaster. High-profile scandals among some of its biggest celebrities, and mounting frustration over its unbalanced journalistic practices have soured the once stellar reputation of the CBC.

The logo of CBC/Radio-Canada.


First there was the Jian Ghomeshi case. That story technically broke at the end of October 2014, originally the result of an investigation by The Toronto Star, but it didn’t do what most stories do and fade after a week or two. As the winter dragged on, more and more women stepped forward with accusations, and more and more pointed questions were being asked about why the CBC hadn’t done anything about Ghomeshi long before October. CBC execs have claimed that they did a thorough investigation, and found no problems. Yet at least two independent investigations, not to mention dozens of reports by coworkers, sure did find a lot of problems. And a lot of victims. The biggest name so far, and the first to agree to be named publicly, was Lucy DeCoutere, but now there are – by my admittedly rough estimate – 16 accusers (the linked article mentions 8, but that was only 29 October). (The only other big name among the accusers that I’m aware of is Reva Seth.)

[A promotional photo of Jian Ghomeshi]

Jian Ghomeshi

At the start of 2015, Ghomeshi was just beginning his journey through the legal system (still more charges were being added at the time), but the fresh news in the story were the revelations of how much Ghomeshi’s superiors had been complicit in letting him get away with shit. In early January, executives Chris Boyce and Todd Spencer took mandatory “leaves of absence”. They had been the ones who ran the “investigations” into Ghomeshi that turned up no issues for so long. They were ultimately fired a few months later, when the results of a third-party investigation were released.

At just about same time in early January that we were getting the first whiffs of how Ghomeshi’s trial was going to shape up, and of how deep the ambivalence to his behaviour among CBC‘s executives had been, gun-toting murderers attacked the offices of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, killing 11 people – plus a police officer outside.

This should have been gold for the CBC. If there’s one thing mainstream media journalism loves, it’s death and mayhem – especially when the victims are innocent civilians (but of course, not when they’re innocent civilians murdered by Canada or its allies in the “war on terrorism”). It was perfect timing, too – an excellent way to slide the unpleasant news about the Ghomeshi scandal off the front page.

Except they flubbed it. Miserably.

On a green background, under the magazine's masthead are the words 'Tout est pardonné'. Under that is what is presumably a drawing of Muhammad, looking sad with a tear coming from his eye, holding a sign before him that says 'Je suis Charlie'.

The cover of the first issue of Charlie Hebdo, after the shootings.

The whole point of the Charlie Hebdo incident was about journalists being murdered for criticizing religion, and the idea that violence could be used as a tool to silence dissent. Do you agree that threat of violence should never stop a journalist body from carrying out its duty to inform and critique? You do? Congratulations. You’re a more courageous and moral human being than the executives at the CBC.

Because, on the Anglophone side of the CBC anyway, they failed the test of moral fortitude. The CBC sold out the murdered cartoonists, and submitted to the demands of the murders. And as if by conscious desire to make themselves look worse, while the CBC was censoring the harmless and silly cartoons the Charlie Hebdo staff were murdered over, they published – unedited – the hate-filled justification by one of the murderers.

As outrage predictably mounted, with the overwhelming majority holding the opinion that the CBC should not have censored Charlie Hebdo‘s work, the CBC was once again – as it had been in the Ghomeshi case – forced to hall some of its executives down in front of their own cameras, and justify itself. In a cringe-inducing interview, CBC‘s director of journalistic standards and practices David Studer throws out non sequitur after non sequitur and plenty of terrible reasoning in an attempt to explain why censoring the victims – but not the murderers – was the right choice. At one point, interviewer Andrew Nichols shows a clip where director of the Québec Federation of Professional Journalists Caroline Walker explains that the French side of the CBC, Radio-Canada, is publishing the images both to show they are not afraid and to send the message that these kinds of attacks are futile, and Studer is left stammering and shrugging, ultimately dodging the question by saying it’s “above his pay grade to explain”.

Right after that, Canadaland – who had been sniffing around the story for a few weeks at the time – broke the news that the CBC‘s senior business correspondent and superstar Amanda Lang had secretly been in bed with the Royal Bank of Canada for some time. Literally.

[A promotional photo of Amanda Lang]

Amanda Lang

Now, Lang is not exactly a paragon of media ethics. In 2011, with her brother campaigning against Jack Layton, Lang organized a panel of “experts” – all of whom opposed Layton’s policies – to discuss the “veracity and feasibility” of the NDP‘s platform. Gee, guess what they concluded. The stench of collusion was so thick in that case that the CBC Ombudsperson ruled that no matter how much the executives claimed they knew about the conflict of interest, it couldn’t just be shrugged off and ignored.

Lang survived that scandal, and has been one of the biggest stars at CBC News in the last few years – her name often comes up as a possible successor to Peter Mansbridge. I’ve even mentioned her on this blog, though my real target of interest was the idiot co-host of her show The Lang and O’Leary Exchange. (O’Leary since left the network to work for Bell Media – providing yet another reason to disdain Bell Media.) At the time, I praised her knowledge – I made a point of mentioning how I didn’t always agree with her conclusions, but I still called her a good journalist. So what happened to topple Lang’s credibility so drastically?

Well, it started when former CBC reporter Frank Koller posted a list of top CBC News personalities who were taking paid speaking jobs from companies they were also reporting on. Canadaland’s Sean Craig followed up, and discovered Lang doing puff pieces for Manulife Asset Management and Sun Life shortly after being paid by them. Pretty bad, huh?

Well as Craig put it less than a month later: That was nothing.

Craig discovered that in April 2013, Amanda Lang attempted to sabotage a report being done by colleague Kathy Tomlinson about RBC abusing the Temporary Foreign Worker program. Tomlinson had just broken a story two days before that would go on to become a major news headline of 2013, and win her an award from the Canadian Association of Journalists. According to Canadaland’s investigation, when everyone involved was gathered for a conference call to prepare the blitz across all CBC platforms for the story, they were surprised to find Amanda Lang involved. She had been invited into the conversation by senior producer of The National Raj Ahluwalia (who had no idea what was about to happen, and later defended Tomlinson). To everyone’s surprise and bafflement, Lang tried to argue down the story, attempting to downplay its significance, and have it recast as simply a case of “outsourcing” (rather than an outright abuse of the TFW program).

[A photo of Kathy Tomlinson]

Kathy Tomlinson

It didn’t work. Largely due to Ahluwalia’s efforts, Tomlinson’s story still ended up being the headline story on The National. However, Lang managed to get an interview with RBC CEO Gord Nixon… an embarrassingly “soft” interview where Nixon slams CBC‘s reporting and Lang just lets him do it. The interview and Lang’s comments to Peter Mansbridge about it were so bad, they were derided as comedy.

Having failed to quash the story at the CBC, Lang then tried other outlets (which may or may not have been a violation of CBC rules – we can’t get a clear answer from CBC). Why was Amanda Lang so intent on downplaying such an important story?

Turns out she was fucking the bank. Must be nice to be an “insider”. For everyone else, it’s the bank that fucks you.

Canadaland discovered that Lang was in a relationship with an RBC board member at the time (in addition to getting paid speaking jobs from them). That in itself isn’t a sin, but it also turns out that the producers on her show didn’t know.

Unlike the other celebrities in this post, Lang – shockingly – still has her job. CBC execs have claimed that they did a thorough investigation, and found no problems. Wait… where have I heard that before? But mixed in with their vigorous defences of Lang is some patently obvious bullshit. For example, we have CBC Head of Public Affairs Chuck Thompson asserting that Lang’s contribution to the conference call was a robust journalistic debate of the kind which occur on a regular basis inside CBC News and which we encourage. Sounds good, right? Except Thompson wasn’t part of the call, and it wasn’t recorded, so how would he know? People who actually took part in the call have said it was bizarre.

Lang has managed to hold on to her job despite all this, though her reputation is marred. It might torpedo her chances of taking over Mansbridge’s job. That’s not problem if so, because there are other candidates who are mentioned from time to time. For example, another hot contender is Evan Solomon.

Well, fuck.

[A promotional photo of Evan Solomon]

Evan Solomon

As with the Ghomeshi case, it was The Toronto Star who broke the story. Solomon had been using his position at the CBC to connect potential buyers to people selling art, for a commission, without disclosing that he was hired to set up deals. Solomon first lied through his teeth to The Star, telling them he didn’t have any art business at all, but when they showed him the documentation they’d collected, he fessed up.

It’s not clear how The Star first picked up on the story, but it may be because of a falling out between Solomon and art collector Bruce Bailey, one of his clients. Early this year, Research in Motion co-founder Jim Balsillie bought a Peter Doig painting from Bailey for some unknown millions of dollars (possibly just over $10 million). Solomon had set Balsillie up with Bailey for the express purpose of selling Bailey’s art to Balsillie… a fact that was unknown to Balsillie. Solomon wanted 10% of the cut, but Bailey didn’t want to pay that much. They went to court, but settled.

Somehow The Star got hold of a ton of documentation relating not only to that failed deal, but also to a number of other machinations by Solomon to either get clients who were selling, or connect potential buyers to his client sellers (again, without disclosing to the buyers that that’s what he was doing). There is plenty of evidence that Solomon abused his position with CBC for that purpose – that was how he first met Balsillie, for example.

When The Star first contacted the CBC about the story, guess what they said. No, seriously: guess.

They had done a thorough investigation, and found no problems.

Chuck Thompson (yes, him again) told The Star that they were aware of the conflict of interest, and had no problems with it. Ya know, until The Star made it clear they were going to press with the story. Then, problems found!

There are only three data points here, but I can’t help but notice a pattern. Ghomeshi and Solomon’s stories were both broken in traditional mainstream media – both by The Toronto Star. Both of them lost their jobs. Lang’s story, on the other hand, was broken by Canadaland – an alternative, independent media source paid for by crowd-funding. Lang’s still employed by the CBC. It seems like the only way to hold the CBC accountable is when they’re taken to task by a competitor. Internal complaints don’t work (the Ghomeshi case is the most graphic evidence of that), and they ignore alternative media outlets, too.

[A promotional photo of Peter Mansbridge]

Peter Mansbridge

It’s only July, but what a shitty year it’s been for the CBC already. And I haven’t even come close to covering all of the criticism they’ve been weathering. (For example, just last month on Canadian Atheist, I took them to task for a shitty report about the decline of religion in Canada.) It’s hard to put a finger on exactly what the cause of the problem is for the CBC. Several bloggers have blamed the current craptastic board put in place by Stephen Harper. While I agree that Harper’s track record on appointments is hardly stellar (cf. the Senate scandal), I don’t think that’s the sole cause of the CBC‘s woes.

If I had to guess, I’d say it’s due to a combination of two things: incompetence and cowardice by its editorial staff with regards to what stories they choose to pursue and how they choose to frame them; and a celebrity culture within the organization. All too often I find that CBC frames its stories for (what they perceive as) the lowest common denominator in Canadian society, to avoid shocking or offending, or ruffling the feathers of genteel, middle-class, “average” Canadians – they always choose to play into (what they perceive as) the broadest worldview shared by most Canadians. But there are many news stories that cannot be told gently, or told without violently shaking the worldview of the general population. Lacking the courage and integrity to do that when it’s necessary make them ineffective as journalists.

As for the celebrity culture within the organization, that rather speaks for itself. Whenever one of their “big names” gets called out, you can be damn sure you’ll see the CBC‘s PR machine spin up into action to defend them (expect to see Chuck Thompson delivering a staunch and impassioned defence, albeit not one well-founded in reality). That in itself isn’t bad – it’s good for the organization to stand by its people when they need it to – but the problem is they don’t bother to put any effort into verifying the accusations before refuting them. That’s not the way a journalism organization should behave – that’s how political organizations behave.

At any rate, with Lang tainted and Solomon fired, it seems like they’re going to have a hard time finding a journalist who has the integrity of Peter Mansbridge.

Then again, maybe it won’t be that hard.

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The CBC’s shitty year by Indi in the Wired is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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