Nearing the end of Dr. Heather Morrison’s daily briefing Friday, CBC reporter Wayne Thibodeau asked PEI’s Public Health Officer how she is holding up to the pressures of guiding the Island through the COVID-19 pandemic.
She offered a typically thoughtful response that included praise for her colleagues, appreciation for the kindness and diligence of Islanders, while candidly acknowledging her struggle to deliver messages involving children because she is also a mother missing her kids.
It was a very human moment in a sea of statistics and dire warnings. On a typical night this would have been part of CBC’s supper hour show, Compass, one of the highest rated newscasts in the country. Maybe not the lead story, given the importance of containment efforts, but an important piece to offer context and insight.
It never made it to Compass. Two days earlier CBC leadership in Toronto pulled the plug on all super hour shows across the country, save one in northern Canada. Rather than 60 minutes, PEI was allotted five minutes to offer up the highlights of the day, squeezed in between Nova Scotia and New Brunswick segments and directed by the national host of a political show carrying on business as usual.
The format is jarring. More importantly the local content is wafer thin. And in PEI this makes a massive difference to the ability of our health and political leaders to inform all Islanders. Our population is aging, a demographic most susceptible to COVID-19. Most Islanders are not tied at the hip to smart phones or social media. Rural internet is at best spotty. They rely on Compass for their daily news because it is trusted and relevant to their lives. Prince Edward Island is the only province in the country without a competitive television alternative on the ground locally.
In this crisis Compass is not a luxury. It is an essential public service that when removed has a very real and negative impact on our public health efforts.
In an interview with me Saturday morning, CBC’s national editor Brodie Fenlon says the decision to cancel local programming was not made lightly. He says if technical and staffing issues were not immediately dealt with the whole CBC television network faced the potential of crashing.
“Technical staff were saying we are about to go down. We needed to decide what do we lose in the moment to preserve capacity to broadcast.”
Compass was deemed expendable.
Islanders aren’t buying CBC’s excuses. Premier Dennis King immediately hammered the decision in a public release. He followed it up in conversations with both Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. The public intervention did not sit kindly with CBC President Catherine Tait, who complained the premier should have let her know before firing his broadside. King suggested she should have offered the same courtesy to Islanders and Compass staff.
Premier King did the right thing.
CBC is hearing our collective anger. Fenlon said Saturday Compass will return, but will not commit to when. “I have no idea. We’re trying to as fast as we can. Day by day. We did not walk away. We are trying to bring back Compass,” he said. “I know how critical it is for the Island.” An apology was delivered to staff for how headquarters handled the cancellation.
There are hopeful signs and speculation the show could return as early as next week.
As most know, I provide political commentary to both CBC radio and television. I know the diligence and dedication of its reporters. I’ve also watched as CBC has invested massive sums in national pet projects, like expanding its digital presence while cutting services to local television and radio, including the technical capacity to produce shows locally, a vital asset now centralized in Toronto and Vancouver.
When the dust settles CBC brass will have many questions to answer for. They’ll need to justify their fixation on digital expansion (not actually part of the corporation’s legislated mandate) to the detriment of local television in regions where CBC actually still matters to the lives of citizens. They’ll need to justify cancelling programming at the very moment rural Canadians needed them the most. And they will need to explain the institutional bias that has led to repeated strategic failures and a diminishing trust in the public broadcaster to do what is right for Canadians.
If Compass returns next week, let’s hope the damage done is not permanent. The reporters and crew know the importance of the moment. They appreciate the privileged place Compass holds in the lives of Islanders.
What we need now is for them to be immediately unshackled from bonehead decisions and misplaced priorities imposed from on high.