CBC defends efforts to diversify workforce at CRTC licence hearing

The CBC is defending its efforts to diversify its workforce and rethink its overall approach to covering news and current affairs to make it more inclusive.

Public broadcaster also explains supper-hour news cuts during COVID-19 pandemic

The exterior of a large building bearing the CBC logo.
The CBC executives appear on fourth day of testimony before CRTC as it looks to renew its various broadcast licences for its French and English services. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

The CBC is defending its efforts to diversify its workforce and re-think its overall approach to covering news and current affairs to make it more inclusive.

A raft of CBC senior managers appeared at a CRTC hearing on Thursday. It was the corporation's fourth day of testimony as it looks to renew its various broadcast licenses for its French and English services. 

Commissioners focused Thursday on the CBC's pledge to hire more staff and managers from underrepresented groups.

"We are here to discuss how the public broadcaster can become even more representative of all Canadians over the next licence term," said Commissioner Claire Anderson as she opened questioning. 

The CBC has proposed making it a condition of licence that it report annually on the percentage of diverse and Indigenous staff and managers hired each year. It's also proposed reporting on diversity in its programming, as well as on the number of and budgets for programs created by Indigenous producers. 

"We've demonstrated both … a willingness to continue reporting and a willingness to have a condition of licence around that reporting," CBC President Catherine Tait told commissioners. 

Like other organizations, CBC has come under sharp scrutiny on issues of inclusiveness. Last summer, as protests by Black Lives Matter activists swept across Canada and the United States, a group of nearly 500 current and former CBC employees issued a public statement calling on the corporation to do more to address systemic racism within its own ranks. Soon after, the corporation announced an anonymous hotline for employees to report experiences of subtle or overt workplace racism. 

Tait told commissioners CBC employees are also being required to undergo training on unconscious bias, that the corporation is working to bolster the number of diverse hires in senior management, and that it's looking at its own Journalistic Standards and Practices in light of concerns it muzzles minority voices. She called it all "an ambitious plan" with a goal of making the corporation a more welcoming place. 

Diversity is just one of the topics CBC executives have been challenged on during four days of hearings before the CRTC. Earlier this week, CRTC Vice-Chair Caroline Simard raised questions about perceived bias at the CBC and Radio-Canada, pointing out the commission had received roughly 2,000 submissions from Canadians who believe news coverage on the two networks was biased, compared to roughly 1,350 that saw it as fair and trustworthy.  

Cutting supper-hour news

Brodie Fenlon, editor in chief of CBC News, told the commission the corporation takes concerns about bias "incredibly seriously," but argued that many complaints about CBC coverage were parts of organized campaigns rooted in politics. 

"We are working and operating in a world that is deeply politically polarized. There is more misinformation than ever before," he said. 

"There have been, frankly, concerted efforts by various camps and some senior political leaders to undermine the public trust and confidence in journalism. So the complaints we see fall within that background."

CBC executives were also called to account for their decision to temporarily cut back on local supper-hour television news early on in the COVID-19 pandemic. The move sparked outrage among CBC viewers, especially in Atlantic Canada. But the executives told commissioners the decision was forced upon them by stretched technical and staffing resources. 

"We had just pivoted, like all organizations, in getting our teams working from home; and then secondly, we were carrying more live coverage, more breaking news than ever before; and third, our Toronto resources team, which is like air traffic control, it's where everything comes in and goes out, was critically short-staffed because some people had to self-isolate returning from holidays, because some people were sick, because some people were away," said Susan Marjetti, the CBC's general manager of news and current affairs. 

"All of those things created this perfect storm."

The CRTC consultations on CBC licensing will continue through January. The CRTC will hear from individuals, industry and advocacy groups. The CBC will have an opportunity to reply to those submissions on the final day of hearings.