Sunday, 1 July 2012

Why Does CBC Get 'Hundreds' of Access to Information Requests?

The CBC has faced criticism from not only its most perfidious enemies but also its most devoted friends for the way it has responded to requests for information about its financial affairs and staff.  The CBC became subject to the Access to Information (ATI) act in 2007, meaning it has had to deal with a new, unfamiliar level of accountability.

Until recently CBC has waged a pitched battle to keep secret even the most mundane information about its finances and activities.  This was revealed in some detail at a Parliamentary Committee last fall.  Sun Media, who have made "hundreds" of ATI requests since CBC fell under the Act, explained how intransigent the CBC had been up until that point. CBC didn’t want to reveal how many vehicles it owned or leased, for example, and only reluctantly did so after a long delay.

Six vehicles parked for the better part of a week at a neighbour's, Col. Williams
CBC went so far as to not only refuse information to those requesting it, usually citing section 68.1 of the Act which allows the CBC to withhold any information related to journalistic, creative or programming activities, but when decisions were appealed, it would not provide the requested information to the Information Commissioner, an independent officer responsible for ATI.  It went further and would not even search for documents that it felt would be subject to 68.1. 

The Information Commissioner, Suzanne Legault, took the CBC to court and won a court decision in 2010 that would force the CBC to provide her all documents unredacted.  The CBC appealed that decision, lost the appeal in 2011 and afterwards, wisely, said it would start to provide documents to the Commissioner, unless they involved journalistic sources and such.  During this period the CBC president was asked to appear before a Parliamentary Committee to explain himself, which is often the only way to get the Corporation to change its position, as detailed in an earlier post.

To test the system I made an official request for information in 2008; very simply, I requested CBC correspondence or documents referring to me or CMRI during 2007 and 2008.  After a year’s wait I received dozens of pages of information, the great majority of which was redacted, i.e., excluded under section 68.1, although my request had nothing to do with journalism or creative matters.  The response I received from CBC was signed by a mid-level manager but I understand that in the first year or so, all responses were personally reviewed and signed by Robert Rabinovitch, then president of CBC.

The ATI Act states that a requestor must pay a $5 application fee upon making a request.  The CBC has the right to charge search fees if a request is deemed to take more than a prescribed amount of time.  I was told initially that the search fees would be over $700, unless I could narrow the terms of the search to take no more than 5 hours search and 125 pages of documents. This is the limit stated in the Act before additional fees apply. CBC estimated that it would take over 70 hours of searching to fulfill my request. Originally I had requested documents from 2001 to 2008, so I narrowed the search to 2007-08 and paid a fee of $355.  Just recently I learned that one can avoid search fees by making numerous smaller requests that fall within the 5 hour/125 page limit.  One only pays $5 each and this is why Sun Media has made “hundreds” of small requests, that is, to avoid paying search fees.

For the past decade CMRI's Media Trends Survey, the only survey in Canada that has tracked attitudes towards and usage of TV, radio and the internet in this period, has asked Canadians their opinions about various issues. This year I thought it appropriate to ask Canadians whether they thought CBC “should provide the public detailed information about its finances.” 

The great majority of Canadians agrees or strongly agrees that CBC should be open about its finances. Only 1.2% of respondents fell into the strongly disagree category, which is rare in opinion research. Young, old, male, female, there is widespread agreement demographically that the CBC be an open and transparent organization.  CBC has been been making an effort in this regard.  For example, it now publishes a quarterly performance report, which contains targets and measures of success.  A future post will explore these targets and measures and explain why some are contradictory and often conceal as much as they reveal. 

People who voted for all the main political parties also agree that CBC should be open about its finances but, interestingly, it is the NDP and Conservative supporters who feel most strongly about an open CBC.  Of course, the NDP are the most supportive of CBC TV and radio, while the Conservatives are the least supportive, but both want an open and transparent CBC.  Some 8 out of 10 Conservative and NDP supporters feel this way but only about 6 in 10 Liberal supporters agree that the CBC should be open  regarding its finances. 

The 2011 survey results are from CMRI's Media Trends Survey conducted November-December 2011 among a representative national sample of approximately 900 Anglophone respondents aged 18-plus.  Margin of error +/-3.3%.  The Media Trends Survey has been conducted for ten consecutive years and has surveyed over 15,000 Canadians in total in this period. It is the only survey to have measured media use and attitudes continuously over this decade. The Media Trends Survey is not sponsored by any one industry or affiliated with a media company.  Therefore, the surveys are scrupulously designed not to bias respondents into favouring one medium or media outlet over another. 


  1. I'm surprised, Barry, by the simplistic question you asked in the survey — especially someone like you who, I think, has a lot of expertise in survey methodology.

    Was no background presented to respondents about the competitive environment in which CBC TV operates? Were respondents told the effect that ONE media company releasing "detailed" financial information without the others doing so as well would put that one at a serious disadvantage?

    Don't you think CTV/Global/City would be all over that info? (let alone Sun, which I think we all know isn't a real news operation).

    This is like asking someone "Should your MP do what his constituents tell him at all times?" Who'd say no? Unless you provide them with background like how governments that ran on platforms (people largely vote for parties and platforms, not people) wouldn't be able to implement those policies without full-party votes?

    The question you asked respondents was simplistic and beneath you.

    Shame on you.

  2. Just to round the survey out, though, you really should also have been taking the pulse of the public's feelings about apple pie. Hard-hitting stuff, here -- you go get that big bad CBC, sir!