Guild leads protests as CBC cuts local English TV news during health crisis

2020.03.20 | CWA Canada Local 30213 - Canadian Media Guild

The CBC is facing a growing chorus of criticism for its decision to cancel local English television newscasts across the country amid the coronavirus pandemic.

CWA Canada’s largest Local, the Canadian Media Guild (CMG), which represents thousands of workers at the public broadcaster, was quick to express its disappointment with the “brash decision … at this time of heightened concern about public safety.”

CMG President Carmel Smyth and Kim Trynacity, president of the Guild’s CBC branch, said in a joint statement the union “shares Canadians’ surprise that the public broadcaster would decrease its service during an unprecedented health crisis, at a time when Canadians need reliable, trusted information more than ever.”

The corporation announced on Wednesday its intention to replace local supper-hour and late-night newscasts with broadcasts from CBC News Network in Toronto for the duration of the COVID-19 crisis. It said the one-hour national show would have “additional” regional content, but provided little detail of what that entailed.

The decision to cancel local news “has caused outrage among CBC workers, who are ready to use technology and the tools recommended by public health officials to do their work remotely and continue serving the public interest,” said the CMG.

Brodie Fenlon, editor in chief and executive director of daily news for CBC News, said in an Editor’s Note that “a story of this magnitude — one that changes by the hour — places incredible demands on our staff and our infastructure in order to get the most accurate and up-to-date information to audiences. Television is especially resource-intensive, and many jobs are difficult to do at home. Our systems are overtaxed, and we had to make adjustments as a result.”

Scott Simms, Liberal MP for the Coast of Bays-Central-Notre Dame riding in Newfoundland and Labrador, appealed in a letter to CBC President Catherine Tait to maintain the provincial newscast Here and Now, even with reduced local content and more frequent national updates.

“To me and many of my constituents, we are deeply concerned that Here and Now will be temporarily replaced with a national newscast. I cannot stress how shortsighted this would be in our province given our reliance on local news,” wrote Simms.

Journalist Jonathan Crowe, who worked for Here and Now for 30 years, said in a Facebook post that “viewers expecting local news got cookie cutter network coverage of the COVID-19 crisis. They were not able to see stories about their community told to them by the familiar faces they’ve come to know and trust over the years.”

“I know what journalists are going through in the local CBC Newsroom right now. They are gutted that they can’t tell you YOUR stories live on air at 6 o’clock,” Crowe wrote. “I am writing this for all my former colleagues who’ve been muzzled and all of you who still care about seeing the stories about this place.”

Robert Hurst, former president of CTV news, in an opinion piece published Friday by The Globe and Mail, lambasted the CBC for “eliminating more than 75 hours a week of original local news reporting at a time of crisis.”

“It is not clear from CBC statements exactly why local newscasts are being shut down,” wrote Hurst. “There is a suggestion that there are not enough technicians to run master control in Toronto. This does not make sense because, at times of crisis, newsrooms ramp up. Reporters and editors volunteer and work long hours. Journalists want to cover the big story. That is why they got into journalism — to make a difference; to provide a community service.”

Hurst faulted CBC management for changes in coverage over the years that resulted in a slide in suppertime ratings. “Today, CBC English language local TV news is dead last in almost every Canadian market except P.E.I., St. John’s and Winnipeg. It is a stunning failure by a Crown corporation.

“At this time of crisis, there was an opportunity for the CBC to re-establish its local credentials. But CBC’s managers either did not see it or did not care to pursue it. We are all poorer for it, as an important voice is voluntarily silenced.”

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