Critics blocked on CBC freedom info

The Conservatives are calling on some of the CBC's harshest critics and competitors to testify about the broadcaster at a parliamentary hearing on access to information.

Tory MPs on the Commons access to information, privacy and ethics committee successfully pushed for a study of the use of taxpayers' funds in the CBC's court battle with the information commissioner. The Crown Corporation is fighting to keep records involving its creative, journalistic and programming activities completely exempt from the Access to Information Act.

Some of the witnesses requested by the Tories include Sun Television/Sun Media pundits Ezra Levant and Brian Lilley, and the president of their parent company Quebecor, Pierre Karl Peladeau. Quebecor's television networks compete directly with the CBC for viewers in Quebec.

Quebecor spokesman Luc Lavoie said Tuesday said Peladeau would attend, but that it wasn't appropriate for journalists to appear before a committee to explain their motives and methods. Peladeau has argued for a review of the CBC's funding and role. He has also been critical of its approach to access to information.

"To end up in a situation where an officer of Parliament has got to go to court to fight another Crown Corporation whose subsidy comes from Parliament...it's the taxpayer spending on both sides, this is really totally ridiculous," Lavoie said.

"What have they got to hide exactly, why don't they just reply to the requests that are made?"

The papers and the Sun Television Network have featured a regular series called the "CBC Money Drain." CBC President Hubert Lacroix accused Peladeau last year of using his Sun newspapers to smear the public broadcaster.

The Tories are also calling for CRTC chairman Konrad Von Finckenstein and representatives from the major cable and satellite companies to testify. The firms all own television networks that compete with the CBC. The Liberals and the NDP have asked advocacy group Friends of Canadian Broadcasting and some academics to appear.

Some MPs on the committee had originally wanted to call in CBC brass and Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault, but backed off out of concern they might prejudice the legal process. The parties are in the Federal Court of Appeal on October 18.

Conservative MP Dean Del Mastro, parliamentary secretary to the prime minister, said it was important to get the background on the issues behind the court case. He said the CBC would get a chance to respond to its critics once it had finished making it case before the court.

"This is not about funding of the CBC, it's not about programming at the CBC, it's not about Canadian content on the CBC...," Del Mastro told the committee Thursday.

"At a time when we're talking about fiscal restraint...I think a lot of Canadians would be troubled to know that we're spending an awful lot of money funding both sides of this case."

The CBC was "red-flagged" by Legault as having one of the worst response rates to access-to-information requests. She has also pointed out that the CBC was inundated with access requests immediately after it came under the Act for the first time in 2007.

David Statham, an access-to-information specialist working with the Sun chain, submitted 400 requests to the CBC in 2007 and mounted a court challenge to the corporation over its failure to respond to 389 of them. The CBC responded to all of them by 2009 and Statham's case was ultimately rejected by the Federal Court of Appeal last year.

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