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CBC head ‘blindsided’ staff with comments on broadcaster’s future

Internal emails show others quick to refute digital-only statements, Poilievre criticism
President and CEO of CBC/Radio-Canada Catherine Tait speaks during a panel discussion in Ottawa, on Thursday, Dec., 1, 2022.The head of Canada’s public broadcaster caused worry and unease in the newsrooms under her command after suggesting earlier this year that CBC would eventually cease broadcasting on TV and radio, internal documents show. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Spencer Colby

After the head of Canada’s public broadcaster gave a newspaper interview earlier this year that promised CBC would eventually become a digital-only product and that criticized Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre, senior managers were quick to refute her comments, internal emails suggest.

The Globe and Mail reported in February based on an interview with Catherine Tait that she was preparing to end traditional TV and radio broadcasts and move completely to a digital platform, but that this likely wouldn’t happen in the next decade.

Emails that discussed the unease of CBC staff in the wake of that report were disclosed to The Canadian Press under access-to-information law.

Months earlier, the BBC had announced a plan to go online-only within the decade.

“But this is not the reality for us at CBC,” a senior manager for CBC British Columbia and Alberta said in an email. “Even with a plan to advance and move towards a streaming future, no Canadian will be left behind.”

Tait was first appointed as the president and CEO of CBC/Radio-Canada in 2018, and her mandate was extended last month through the beginning of 2025.

In the newspaper interview, she also accused the federal Conservative leader of inciting attacks on the public broadcaster as a political fundraising tactic.

Some journalists “expressed concern about the opinions shared by Catherine around political campaigning and Canadians opposed to funding CBC,” one email shows.

George Achi, head of journalistic standards at CBC, reassured staff through an email saying “that statements made by our corporate leadership (outside of CBC News) are completely separate from CBC News coverage.”

“It goes without saying that we should cover this file with the same fair, accurate, balanced and fact-based approach we use for any other story,” Achi wrote.

It was noted in another email that Tait would continue to discuss the importance of the public broadcaster with politicians from all parties.

In 2021-22, the CBC received more than $1.2 billion in government funding. Its board of directors determines how the funding it receives is spent.

Leon Mar, a spokesperson for CBC, said Tait was unavailable for an interview to discuss the documents, adding: “We don’t comment on internal employee conversations, which by their nature are confidential.”

The union representing CBC staff raised concerns about the February interview, documents show.

Emails say the Canadian Media Guild was preparing to issue a public statement over Tait’s remarks the day the story came out, but agreed to delay it by a day to await clarity from management.

They wanted to know where the 10-year window came from and why it appeared in the Globe newspaper for the first time, with one email saying Tait’s remarks fell outside the spirit of “no surprises.”

The union was also concerned about job losses, shrinking newsrooms and increased workloads for employees should there be cuts to TV and radio. A common question from staffers, one email said, was: “Does this mean I will be out of a job in 10 years?”

Shaun Poulter, executive director of strategy public affairs and government relations at CBC/Radio-Canada, said in an internal email at the time that union representatives claimed they felt “blindsided” and “betrayed” by the digital-first language.

“Is there someone you can speak to there and ask them to read the article and not get sucked in by click bait. We are not abandoning TV and radio ffs,” Poulter asked a colleague in another email, using an abbreviation for an expletive.

The CMG didn’t respond to a request for comment about the documents.

They show that Tait’s comments also invited criticism from the general public.

One person wrote an email to Tait and Canadian Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez saying that “CBC is giving up on aged Canadians” whose life-long taxes have supported the broadcaster.

“As a Liberal, I would take great exception to have my tax dollars used to provide services I don’t want,” said the individual, whose name was redacted in the documents that were released.

The person, who identified themselves as being older than 65, suggested that going “online only” could cause them to stop supporting the broadcaster.

They cautioned CBC about throwing the baby out with the bathwater. “Caveat to the caution: Old babies can cry like hell!”

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