In yet another of those bad-news-wrapped-in-good-news announcements, CBC last month said it was going to be “modernizing” its international service through a “major transformation” that would see it add two languages and giving its stories more visibility.
But also cutting its staff in half and shutting down its website.
It didn’t get a lot of media attention at the time, mostly I think because most Canadians don’t know what Radio Canada International is. So I wrote about it in a story for Cartt.ca subscribers, in which I interviewed Crystelle Crépeau, head of digital news for Radio-Canada, Luce Julien, executive director of Radio-Canada News and Current Affairs (RCI, based in Montreal, is managed under French services in the organizational chart) and Wojtek Gwiazda, a former RCI employee who manages the RCI Action Committee.
For Gwiazda, who has been fighting this battle for quite some time, this is just another cut that will eventually see RCI disappear completely. Instead of 20 employees, it will be down to nine — five journalists doing translations of news articles in five foreign languages, three field reporters (Chinese, Arabic and Punjabi) and one chief editor. There will be no original reporting (except for those field reporters) and stories will just be taken from CBC.ca and Radio-Canada.ca instead of being written specifically for an international audience.
For Julien and Crépeau, it’s a necessary transformation because much of RCI’s work is redundant, and their metrics show foreign audiences get more content from CBC and Radio-Canada’s news sites than from RCI. There’s a reduction of staff, Julien admitted, but she’s had to make a lot of difficult decisions in her job. And integrating RCI with CBC and Radio-Canada just makes sense and is more efficient.
I’m sympathetic to the argument from both sides. This is definitely yet another in a long series of cuts to RCI and I would not be surprised if it simply fades away over time. But RCI is not a success right now and a transformation is warranted.
Or maybe they should just pull the plug entirely. And maybe they would do that, except they can’t.
Radio Canada International is part of CBC’s mandate, expressly referenced in the Broadcasting Act. CBC has to keep it running.
Unti 2012, RCI was a shortwave radio service, with an impressive transmitter array in Sackville, N.B., carrying the signal to the world. But CBC shut down that service, moving RCI entirely online and dismantling the transmitters, a move Gwiazda and others fought a hard battle against and ultimately lost.
Without a shortwave signal, RCI can simply be blocked by any government that doesn’t want its citizens to get an outside perspective. And without a broadcast schedule to fill, CBC gutted RCI’s staff and output, so it just doesn’t do that much anymore.
I learned through this reporting that apparently there’s some … let’s be generous and say disagreement … about what RCI’s mandate is.
The government’s 2012 Order in Council resetting RCI’s mandate (and removing the obligation to broadcast on shortwave) says RCI is to “produce and distribute programming targeted at international audiences to increase awareness of Canada, its values and its social, economic and cultural activities.”
But the CBC’s own mandate for RCI says “RCI targets audiences who know little to nothing about Canada, whether they live in Canada or abroad.”
Julien said serving new Canadians has always been RCI’s mandate. Gwiazda said its mandate is solely to serve people outside the country.
I think it’s time the federal government stepped in and decided what it wants to do with RCI. Gwiazda thinks it should be separated from the CBC and run as its own separately-funded service.
CBC seems to want to turn RCI into an add-on third-language service providing some news to ethnic Canadians. (Julien said content produced in third languages would be made available free of charge to ethnic media, to avoid competing with them.)
It’s up to the politicians to decide which is the best course. Or to pull the obligation from CBC and let RCI die an honourable death.