CBC head defends broadcaster on access to info

CBC president Hubert Lacroix defended the broadcaster Thursday before MPs studying its dispute with the information commissioner over access to information requests.
CBC President Hubert Lacroix. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)
CBC’s president shot back at critics Thursday, arguing the broadcaster is accountable for the money it spends.

Hubert Lacroix said the CBC's record on accountability and access to information has been lost in general confusion or distorted in coverage of its court case against Canada’s information commissioner. Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault on Wednesday won a Federal Court of Appeal case giving her the authority to review documents CBC doesn’t want to release because they deal with programming, creative or journalistic issues.

Lacroix said CBC executives are still considering appealing the case to the Supreme Court.

Both government and opposition MPs on the House Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics committee pressed Lacroix not to appeal the decision but to cooperate with the information commissioner.

Dean Del Mastro, the Conservative MP who started the committee’s study, suggested the phrasing for the access to information exclusion should be tightened up.

The committee has already heard from Pierre-Karl Péladeau, the head of Quebecor, a competitor of Radio-Canada. Péladeau said CBC wasn’t being open enough about how it spends the money it gets from taxpayers, arguing the broadcaster doesn’t respond to access to information requests.

Lacroix noted the law allows CBC to stop short of releasing information that would prejudice its competitive position.

"If you or another broadcaster that competes against us for audiences, producers, talent, and programs, want to know how much Peter Mansbridge gets paid …or CBC’s promotion strategy including how much it spends on advertising Stromboulopoulos on billboards or through a special launch of his season at [the Toronto International Film Festival], that information will not be disclosed publicly," he said.

Lacroix said Quebecor accused the CBC of spending $1 million on a party to launch George Stroumboulopoulos' show at TIFF.

"We chose that time to give it maximum exposure [among potential guests of the show]," he said. "It cost us the equivalent of putting one ad in ... the Sun Media newspapers in five cities in this country."

Lacroix says the launch cost $64,000.

MP alleges hiding controversial expenses

Del Mastro said CBC could reclassify its expenses to hide controversial items under the journalistic exemptions.

"If you didn’t want to provide access to that, it seems to me that you would simply move your expenditures to a place where your 68.1 exemption would apply, move your hospitality spending under a new column, call it programming, call it creative, call it journalistic, and now all of a sudden you don’t have to provide that access to information or that transparency."

That kind of tactic would be cheating, Lacroix said, pointing out the auditor general reviews CBC’s financial statements.

"If we did what you suggest we could do, we'd be cheating. We have a board of directors that oversees, through its audit committee, the expenses that we use for our activities."

"You have more financial info about how we deal with the dollars, the $1.1 billion that we get from government and from taxpayers, for which we are grateful, than you ever have had before."

Del Mastro, parliamentary secretary to the prime minister, kicked off the meeting by saying the committee would return to CBC a set of documents the broadcaster provided in a sealed envelope last week.

The committee had previously passed his motion ordering the CBC to release some of the documents at the heart of the access to information dispute to the committee. The documents subject to the court dispute were in a sealed envelope that the CBC asked the committee not to open.

Read Kady O'Malley's full coverage of Thursday's ethics committee testimony in Ottawa, below.

Mobile users, follow the live blog here.