Evidence of meeting #82 for Procedure and House Affairs in the 42nd Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was debate.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

Jennifer McGuire  General Manager and Editor in Chief, CBC News, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation
Michel Cormier  General Manager, News and Current Affairs, French Services, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation
Troy Reeb  Senior Vice-President, News, Radio and Station Operations, Corus Entertainment Inc.
Wendy Freeman  President, CTV News, Bell Media Inc.
Stéphane Perrault  Acting Chief Electoral Officer, Elections Canada
Michael Craig  Manager, English and Third-language Television, Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission
Peter McCallum  General Counsel, Communications Law, Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission

11 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Larry Bagnell

Good morning. Welcome to the 82nd meeting of the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs.

I'd like to let the committee members know that we had a great meeting yesterday with the delegation from Ghana. As well, just a few minutes ago I presented our report to Parliament that would enhance the participation of MPs with babies and infants in the political system. That was great. Good work, committee.

Today we are continuing our study on the creation of an independent commissioner responsible for leaders' debates. For this morning's panel we're pleased to be joined by a number of witnesses.

From CBC/Radio-Canada we have Jennifer McGuire, general manager and editor-in-chief, CBC News,

Also from CBC/Radio-Canada, we have Michel Cormier, General Manager, News and Current Affairs, French Services.

From Corus Entertainment we have Troy Reeb, senior vice-president, news, radio and station operations, and from Bell Media we have Wendy Freeman, president, CTV News.

I know that you are all very important and busy people, so we are very honoured to have you here. We look forward to hearing your opening statements in the order I introduced you.

Jennifer McGuire, we will start with you.

11 a.m.

Jennifer McGuire General Manager and Editor in Chief, CBC News, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation

Thank you very much.

Thank you for offering us a chance to speak with you today. We are a collection of broadcast networks with a large and pivotal role to play in making Canadian democracy function. In coming here today, we share the same objective as this committee—to find the most effective way of providing voters with the tools they need to make thoughtful, informed choices and to engage Canadians, ultimately, in the democratic process. That's especially true for Canada's public broadcaster, but it applies to each and every one of us. Not only do we bring programs to people in every nook and cranny of this country but we have direct experience with every manner of election coverage, including leaders' debates.

Our experience with federal election debates goes back to the very first one in 1968. At that time, CBC/Radio-Canada and CTV started with a blank slate, negotiating the terms with the parties. The arguments over inclusion were not so different from what you hear now. That first debate was split into two sections. Part one had the Liberals, Conservatives, and New Democrats. Part two added the Créditistes. The Social Credit Party was excluded altogether.

Over the years, more broadcasters signed up while political parties came and went. We added debates in French, and have always experimented with format, from round tables to live audiences to social media. Each campaign, lessons and productions evolved.

Certain themes pop up every time. My colleagues and I will discuss the most important today, and we urge you to give them considered attention.

One, we need debates that have the potential to reach each and every Canadian. Again, the shared objective here is public service. How do we improve Canadians' knowledge of the parties, their leaders, and their policy positions? Debates help achieve that by testing candidates for their knowledge, their values, and the nimbleness of their thinking under pressure. We benefit most when the leaders offer depth beyond their prepared messages. Don't underestimate the importance of reaching a vast audience. In this modern world of fractured discourse, this is a rare chance for Canadians to assess candidates in the same time, in the same place, and in the same context. The impact of a debate increases exponentially when they are part of a shared national experience.

Two, we need debates that people will actually watch. Reaching an audience doesn't do much good if people don't engage. You need to have a format that works, a set that looks good, lighting, and a moderator with skill. You need to push and challenge the candidates to stay on topic and relevant to the issues of the day. That's one reason broadcast journalists bring so much value to these debates. Of course, you need producers who understand what it takes to keep eyeballs on the screen, not just television screens but the digital and social spaces too. In that context, I'm sure you know that CBC News is not only a television and radio broadcaster but also a digital leader in Canada, reaching 18.3 million unique visits. In big moments, though, as I think all of us will echo, nothing matches the power and draw of television when it's done properly.

Three, we need to redefine the parties' role in the process. I recognize that's risky—you're all affiliated with political parties—but bear with me. It's our assessment that the biggest flaw in the current system is that the parties are able to use their leverage to direct the debate process. Although it became fashionable in 2015 to attack the major broadcast networks, the truth is that we have never controlled the terms of the debates. They have been the product of a delicate negotiating dance with the political parties themselves. Each party pushes for every edge it can get, from where and when the debate takes place to who can take part to what format is acceptable. They threaten to withhold their participation as they seek terms to give them advantage.

In 2015 the networks acted in good faith but were strung along for months, until we were pushed right off the stage, at least in the English debates. In this the public was not well served. A fraction of Canadians were reached when you compare the audience numbers with those of 2011. If we accomplish nothing else here, it should be to depoliticize the process, put the public interest out front, and ensure that partisan interests are kept in check.

My colleague Michel Cormier of Radio-Canada will explain how this played out in the 2015 campaign.

11:05 a.m.

Michel Cormier General Manager, News and Current Affairs, French Services, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation

I get to do this because I was intimately involved in negotiating the debates, especially the French one.

The 2015 election debate context was a strange one indeed. There was no national televised debate in English because one of the parties declined to participate. In French, there was a national debate with all the major party leaders but without the participation of one of the two major television networks. I'll come back to the French debate later.

There is a point of view that the reason the debate negotiations failed is because the consortium model is a failed one. That broadcast executives negotiating behind closed doors with party representatives is undemocratic, that debate rules and parameters set by journalists may serve the interests of television but not political debate.

While we agree that the process has to evolve, let me inject some nuance into this argument by revisiting what happened.

The English debate did not happen because the whole negotiation process was highly politicized. From the early spring of 2015, when we made our first approach to the parties, to the dying days of the campaign, when we still held out hope for a debate, we could not get a commitment from the party in power to participate. The misgivings were not about inclusion or the use of social media or format or content, they were about the consortium itself.

We have always been open to widely distribute the debate and were already in discussions with Google and Facebook to increase its reach on digital platforms. Essentially, as long as the consortium was involved in the exercise—

November 30th, 2017 / 11:05 a.m.

NDP

David Christopherson NDP Hamilton Centre, ON

I have a point of order, Mr. Chair.

I'm sorry. I'm having some confusion understanding why we don't have copies of this presentation. I understand that there were copies given in both official languages, but for some reason they're not in front of us. Please help me.

11:05 a.m.

General Manager, News and Current Affairs, French Services, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation

Michel Cormier

Am I talking too fast for the interpreter?

11:05 a.m.

NDP

David Christopherson NDP Hamilton Centre, ON

No, it's not that. It's procedural. Normally we have copies of what you're saying in front of us for accuracy, but I don't. I'm trying to find out why because apparently you sent them in, in both languages.

11:05 a.m.

General Manager, News and Current Affairs, French Services, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation

Michel Cormier

I have a copy in English here if you want.

11:05 a.m.

NDP

David Christopherson NDP Hamilton Centre, ON

That's fine.

11:05 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Larry Bagnell

Apparently there weren't enough copies. They're just making copies.

11:05 a.m.

NDP

David Christopherson NDP Hamilton Centre, ON

If I hadn't raised a point of order, we wouldn't have gotten them because we didn't have enough copies. That can't be correct. Is that what happened?

11:05 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Larry Bagnell

The clerk says that they had confusion between them; it's their fault.

11:05 a.m.

NDP

David Christopherson NDP Hamilton Centre, ON

Okay, I just wanted to make clear what happened.

Did you say we're getting copies done ASAP?

11:05 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Larry Bagnell

Yes.

Mr. Reid.

11:05 a.m.

Conservative

Scott Reid Conservative Lanark—Frontenac—Kingston, ON

I think I'm right in saying that there may be more than one copy of some of these. If so, why don't we just give one to each party if there are enough to do that. The three Conservatives could share, for example. That way, Mr. Christopherson could have one.

11:05 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Larry Bagnell

Good idea. We'll do that.

11:05 a.m.

NDP

David Christopherson NDP Hamilton Centre, ON

But please, in the future, there's no reason to keep copies of these in an envelope because there aren't enough copies. Do you know how many photocopiers are probably in this building?

Anyway, that's fine. Thank you.

11:10 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Larry Bagnell

The Corus one is not in both languages, so we won't be able to distribute that one.

Monsieur Michel Cormier, please continue.

11:10 a.m.

General Manager, News and Current Affairs, French Services, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation

Michel Cormier

I was saying that we were even in discussions with Google and Facebook to increase the reach of the debate on digital platforms. Essentially, as long as the consortium was involved in the exercise, the debate was not possible. There was also an opinion that a number of smaller debates was better than one big television debate. This is what eventually happened in English.

Was the voting public better served by this? We think not. The combined audience of these debates was far less than what a national television debate usually gets.

Let me reiterate. We, the major television networks, were open to revisit the format, to make it less staid, to include more partners in making sure that the highest number of voters could access the debate, through Facebook and other platforms. But the discussion never got there. Excluding the consortium from the exercise, in our view, was a disservice to Canadian democracy.

The experience in French was radically different. After much negotiation, all parties eventually agreed to a debate organized by Radio-Canada under the umbrella of the consortium. The parties, at some point, concluded that it was in their interest to participate. We, at Radio-Canada, partnered with other media. TVA held its own leaders' debate on Quebec issues for a Quebec audience. We included the newspaper La Presse, Télé-Québec, Quebec's public broadcaster, as well as Facebook and YouTube, and we made our signal available for a minimum fee to broadcasters like CPAC. We also broadcast the debate on radio and streamed it on all our digital platforms. CBC and CTV, by the way, broadcast the French debate in translation on their all-news networks and Global TV also broadcast the debate on its website.

Radio-Canada produced the debate in our studios and we picked up most of the tab because we believe that it is part of our mandate as a public broadcaster. We also were the only ones with the technical resources and expertise to produce and distribute the debate. The event was a democratic success. We reached more than 1 million viewers on all combined platforms. A national audience that had access to the same information to help them make an informed decision about the leadership of the country.

In a way, the French debate addressed many of the issues that concern the committee. It was inclusive, we reached out to many partners and made the signal available to many others to make sure as many people as possible had access to the debate. We used social platforms to reach other audiences, cord-cutters, who do not subscribe to television service. For the record, our digital reach is as important as our television audience.

So, to conclude, the post-consortium or consortium-plus model we are all looking for may already be out there. What we need, and what we are open to, is a structure that de-politicizes the process, and a commitment from all parties to participate in a wide-ranging, readily available, national debate.

My colleague Troy from Global Television will now explain why it is imperative that major broadcasters be active participants in this process.

Thank you.

11:10 a.m.

Troy Reeb Senior Vice-President, News, Radio and Station Operations, Corus Entertainment Inc.

Thank you. Good morning.

As mentioned, my name is Troy Reeb. I currently serve as the senior vice-president in charge of Global news, radio and station operations for Corus Entertainment. In a previous capacity, I also served six years as chair of the broadcast consortium on debates and elections and oversaw the process that helped to create the highly successful and highly watched 2008 and 2011 televised leaders' debates.

I will recognize right off the bat that the word “consortium” conjures up images of a grandly organized body, though I should point out that we are very much competitors every day of the week, and we do not speak with a single voice despite the fact that we are all here in front of you today. In the case of the consortium, it simply represents an ad hoc agreement of various news organizations to work together in the public interest. Its creation stems from a desire of the parties to not participate in multiple debates, and a desire of the broadcasters to not be pitted against one another for the right to hold a debate and then to reach as large an audience as possible when a debate was held.

The consortium was never designed to limit the number of debates. I say to you firmly today, the more debates, the better. Indeed, during past elections Global News and other members of the consortium have staged their own supplementary debates. We've staged regional debates, specific topic debates, often featuring candidates beyond the party leaders. This diversity of debates should be encouraged, but there should also be at least one well-produced national debate in each official language that meets broadcast and journalistic standards and is distributed as broadly as possible to Canadians.

To be frank, a chamber of commerce debate does not meet that test. A debate live-streamed by an online magazine does not meet that test: proper lighting, camera placement, pacing, topic choices, a skilled moderator, a set not emblazoned with advertising. As we saw in 2015, all of these things matter, and all of these things also cost money.

A witness earlier this week pointed out, quite correctly actually, that one could now stage a debate and distribute it online for almost zero cost. What he failed to point out is that without production values, proper facilities, and I would say very importantly a journalistic frame for that debate, then there would be almost zero viewers as well.

In the past, consortium debates have been paid for by the participating news organizations and distributed to other media either on a cost-share or sometimes free basis. It has, of course, been up to the individual choice of any media organization as to whether they choose to carry it, and often that's based on whether it meets their standards and the standards that their audience would expect of a debate. This needs to continue to be the case, regardless of how future debates are produced. We, as broadcasters, as journalistic organizations, have the responsibility for upholding our conditions of licence and our journalistic standards. The ability of news organizations to make programming decisions independently is as key to the free functioning of democracy as is the ability to engage in vigorous debate.

I look forward to your questions later, and I'll turn it over to my colleague, Wendy Freeman.

11:15 a.m.

Wendy Freeman President, CTV News, Bell Media Inc.

Good morning. Thank you for allowing us the opportunity to provide our feedback on this important process. As broadcast networks, Canadians have long counted on our involvement in the debate process. We consider it an obligation to our viewers and the communities we serve. We believe that it is in the best interest of democracy to expose as many Canadians as possible to our potential leaders as they debate the issues affecting our nation.

We are open to working with an independent commission or commissioner. It is imperative that we have a seat at the table to create a process that works for Canadians. As broadcast networks, we play an indispensable role in ensuring a functioning democracy, one that is designed to properly inform our citizens through inclusion and transparency. Together our networks reach the most Canadians of any communications platform. This was the reason we formed the consortium in the first place, to ensure that the largest audience has access to the debates. We can all agree that an informed citizenry ensures that more Canadians make educated decisions at the polls, and we take great pride in this role.

In 2011 the consortium's English-language debate reached over 10 million Canadians, or 46% of the population, and four million Canadians tuned in to watch the consortium's French-language debate, or 50% of the population. In 2015 a different debate structure, without the involvement of Canada's national broadcast networks, was proposed and followed. The debates were smaller and much more scaled down, and unfortunately, viewership, compared with previous years, was alarmingly low.

You may ask yourself if, in today's social media and digital streaming universe, TV networks even matter. The answer is yes, they absolutely matter. We can demonstrate with hard data that Canadians still very much tune into television, especially live-event television. In fact, we only need to look south of the border, where last year's U.S. election debates drew a record 259 million viewers.

There have been calls for the debate process to be treated as a democratic exercise and not to concern itself with the journalistic integrity that established and trusted news organizations deliver to Canadians each and every day. I ask you, should we not strive for both? The consortium was founded on journalistic values and the broad experience of its members. As a consortium, we have the journalistic broadcast and digital production expertise to deliver the best possible debate content, adequately representative of the Canadian political reality, in a format that can generate the broadest possible audience.

Successful debates are a high point of our democratic process. With the onset of the fake news phenomenon, it is even more important that credible journalism play a strong role in our debates. Voters should not be forced to get their information second-hand via highlight reels, clips taken out of context, or through the delivery of coordinated fake news.

Moving forward, as my colleague said earlier, there are many questions that need to be answered. How do we reach the most Canadians possible? How do we provide the best experience, in a journalistic and non-partisan way, to involve Canadians and maximize voter engagement while drawing the biggest audience? How do we depoliticize the process without cutting off more debates from happening?

Once again, the best way to serve democracy is through reach and credibility. In 2015 the debates went unseen by millions of Canadians. We owe it to Canadians to do better. Together we can create a solution that strengthens our democracy, and we are committed to meeting that objective.

Thank you, and we look forward to your questions.

11:20 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Larry Bagnell

Thank you, everyone.

Now we'll go to questions, from one broadcaster to some others.

Mr. Simms.

11:20 a.m.

Liberal

Scott Simms Liberal Coast of Bays—Central—Notre Dame, NL

I was a weatherman, so it wasn't quite the same. Anyway, I'll leave it at that.

11:20 a.m.

NDP

David Christopherson NDP Hamilton Centre, ON

Fake weather.

11:20 a.m.

Voices

Oh, oh!

11:20 a.m.

Liberal

Scott Simms Liberal Coast of Bays—Central—Notre Dame, NL

Yes, I didn't even have to be right. It's a great business to be in.

Everything was going hunky-dory as far as the paradigm that you've outlined here.

Mr. Reeb, I appreciate what you're saying about the form of this thing. A leaders' debate run through the Fogo Island chamber of commerce does not quite have the same impact as what you're doing. I get that. The journalistic principles, the lights, the sets, the shooting, all of that I get. Things are going fairly well from the 1968 debate all the way through. Now in the last one, things started to go a little awry. We have all these platforms, and now you have major leaders saying they're not doing a debate, or they are, and who's involved, so on and so forth.

I have two questions. The first one is, basically, how do you look at a leader of a national party who doesn't want to participate in what you're offering? Should there be penalties in place by which they should be at that debate?

The second question I have is, what you outlined, that paradigm you outlined, we're here to see if we can hand that paradigm over to an official body that does just that, as deemed by Parliament. How do you see that working?

I apologize for the two questions, because I want to get all of you on this.

Maybe, Mr. Reeb, we'll start with you.