harper_mulcair_trudeau_may by Renegade98 (CC BY-SA 2.0) https://flic.kr/p/yWvygM

harper_mulcair_trudeau_may by Renegade98 (CC BY-SA 2.0) https://flic.kr/p/yWvygM


CBC Shoots Itself in the Foot With Election Debate Coverage

Hubert Lacroix, the president of the CBC, recently placed the future of the Canada’s national public broadcaster on the electoral map with comments aimed sparking a renewed debate on future funding models. Lacroix disputed claims that low ratings are to blame for the CBC’s financial struggles, instead pointing to the need to consider alternative fee schemes, including new levies on Internet providers or supplementary charges on television purchases.

While disagreement over CBC funding is as old as the broadcaster itself, the more uncomfortable discussion for the CBC is its coverage of the current election campaign – particularly its approach to national debates and political party advertising – which raises troubling questions about its relevance in the current media environment.

My weekly technology law column (Toronto Star version, homepage version) suggests that most would agree that the CBC features an excellent group of reporters and boasts insightful analysts for its panel discussions. However, rather than working to make itself an invaluable resource for the election, the CBC has been unnecessarily restrictive in its broadcasting choices and in the use of its content.

The most puzzling decision has been its refusal to broadcast debates hosted by other organizations. The CBC may be disappointed with the debate approach adopted by the political parties in this campaign, but that does not change the sense that if the national public broadcaster does not air programs in the national public interest, it calls into question the very need for a public broadcaster.  Indeed, the CBC seems to have cut off its nose to spite its face by doing its best to prove its critics right.

The CBC’s odd coverage choices are not limited to the missing debates. Its use of video clips from the debates has also been unnecessarily restrictive. For example, before analyzing the recent Munk debates on the “At Issue” panel, host Peter Mansbridge warned viewers that “we are limited with the excerpts with the amount we are allowed to show.” A similar warning preceded the discussion at other debates.

Yet the reality is that there was no need to be restrictive in the use of video clips. Canadian copyright law permits the use of copyrighted works without permission as part of the fair dealing clause. News reporting is one of the enumerated purposes and even expanded clips would easily qualify under a fair dealing analysis. All news organizations are free to use as much of the video from debates as necessary to highlight key moments and positions of each leader. To suggest that the law creates significant limits on the ability to show debate clips is inaccurate.

In fact, the CBC’s misreading of the law is not limited to the use of clips within its news broadcasts. Just prior to the election call, it asked YouTube and Facebook to remove a Conservative campaign advertisement that used clips from a CBC interview with Liberal leader Justin Trudeau. To support its takedown claim, the CBC argued that “no one – no individual candidate or political party, and no government, corporation or NGO – may re-use our creative and copyrighted property without our permission. This includes our brands, our talent and our content.”

That too is wrong. The law features important limitations on the rights of all copyright holders and all media organizations regularly rely on them in their reporting. The limits of copyright extend to campaign commercials and there is little that the CBC (or anyone else) can do about it.

With its rejection of the national debates, its limited use of debate clips, and its attempts to limit re-use of its broadcast content, Canada’s national public broadcaster has marginalized itself during the election campaign at the very time that it could be demonstrating its relevance to the national political coverage.


  1. Kick backs or bribes. It all looks fishy to the outsider. Someone is being paid and at some point someone will blow the whistle. Hope it happens before Oct. 19th.

  2. Yes, it’s disgraceful that the CBC takes $1B per year from the taxpayers and refused to run the CPAC coverage of the debates. CTV too, but they are not publicly funded. CTV had the nerve to claim they didn’t run the CPAC coverage because Mulcair and Harper wouldn’t participate in the consortium, neglecting to mention CPAC offered the coverage free.

  3. jonathan wong says:

    i believe monk et al. offered the debates up for anybody who wanted to air them. instead of doing this, CBC showed the Murdoch Mysteries. The Peter Mansbridge disclaimers are incredible.

    The CBC is really good at in depth, investigative journalism. but this election, besides Éric Grenier’s standalone metaanalysis and Rosemary Barton, i have found CBC has contributed little to the discussion i couldn’t get elsewhere.

    The time with Magid consulting has turned much CBC into an anachronism from the early 2000’s. CBC needs to stop competing with CNN, huffpo, etc. and get back to doing what it should be doing: investigative news, arts, and reaching all Canadians from coast to coast to coast.

  4. Should this be blamed on the Conservative Board, appointed by Harper, and the funding slashes on the CBC, by Harper, for these changes?

    And, political coverage seems to be all over CBCNN.

  5. Sammy AntiSubvert says:

    Did some of those new board members have a choice between the CBC and the Senate? Something smells.

  6. Yep. Mansbridge is clearly in the Cons’ pocket. Considering every headline I read about the NDP from CBC, especially his interview with him, makes a bold controversial claim, such as, “Mulcair will stop the war on ISIS!” instead of focusing on bringing troops home and providing humanitarian aid that Canadians were once reknowned for before Harper came along. Just that sort of thing.

  7. Daniel Grice says:

    Agreed. CBC is and always has been an insular culture. Funnelling millions back into the organization is not going to help Canadian culture or political discourse, all it will do it prop up CBC culture.

  8. We should also ask why there is no HD version of CPAC. Would it really cost that much to bring it into the new century?