Category Archives: Communications

The CBC’s slow-motion death from a thousand cuts

 

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Given the tongue-lashing my esteemed colleague, Norbert Cunningham, issued to the CBC in his regular space this Tuesday, I hesitate, for a moment, to crack my own bull whip. Then again, whaddya know? The moment’s gone.

The sorry truth is that the public broadcaster’s English television network hasn’t been much good since I was glued to Mr. Dressup in the mid-1960s. The other sorry truth is that the public broadcaster’s English radio network, once fantastically varied, has become a mere echo of its former self (though, miraculously, the quality of its on-air journalism and talent hasn’t slipped).

In fact, through most of my life, my relationship with the CBC has been littered with routine, tedious disappointments with its upper management. And so, when the corporation’s honchos announced last week that it was slashing 657 jobs and cutting $130 million from this year’s budget, I quietly mumbled, “What took you so long?”

That’s the one question CBC President Hubert Lacroix did not address in his statement to employees, which began on an appropriately humiliated note:

“Well, here we are again. This is the third time I have to stand up before you in these circumstances, and, I have to tell you, I hate doing this. I imagine you feel the same way. So how did we get here?”

Yes, Mr. Lacroix – you of the inadvertently claimed (and repaid) $30,000 expense claim – do tell.

Well, first, of course, there was that whole hockey disaster. Losing the NHL broadcasts to Rogers was, let’s just say, disappointing. But that wasn’t the only thing that went sideways over the past 12 months.

“There’s an industry-wide softening of the television advertising market – down approximately 5 per cent overall in the last year,” Mr. Lacroix said. “This is common to all conventional broadcasters, and neither CBC nor Radio-Canada was spared. 

“In addition, on the CBC side, since last summer, our prime time TV schedule performed poorly in attracting 25-54 year-old viewers, the most important demographic for advertisers.”

Combine this with the loss of professional hockey broadcasts, and the revenue hit came to about $47 million. And that’s still not all.

“As you know, advertising sales on CBC Radio 2 and Espace musique are much weaker than expected,” Mr. Lacroix continued. “This is a major disappointment. We’re trying to fix this, but the initial projections won’t be met. We are not close. This represents a $13 million shortfall, nearly all of it impacting English Services.”

Throw in the federal government’s “two-year salary inflation funding freeze” of $72 million, and, hey presto, we arrive at our present dismal circumstances.

Of course, if all this feels somehow familiar, it should. None of Mr. Lacroix’s explanations/excuses seem particularly novel. To one degree or another, they are variations on a theme that has been playing and replaying since I was a kid: a business that – if left to stitching together its own safety net – should have been out of business  along time ago. 

Currently, 64 per cent of Mother Corp.’s $1.8 billion in annual revenue come from taxpayers. Another $330 million derive from advertising. The balance is from specialty services (subscription revenue and advertising from CBC News Network, bold, documentary, Explora, ARTV and the Réseau de l’information de Radio-Canada) and financing.

It’s that billion bucks from citizens that gets right-wingers and purse-string-pullers riled up. They don’t like anything that smacks of welfare (corporate or otherwise). And they don’t watch or listen to the CBC, which, in their heart of hearts, they believe is a nest of socially progressive vipers. 

Of course, they’re right, which is why I continue to be an avid consumer of CBC radio. I grew up with it. I fell asleep to Max Ferguson and Allan McFee. I woke up to Peter Gzowski. And despite the cutbacks, it still produces damn fine programming – just not enough of it.

I don’t give a fig about the public money. Make it $2 billion a year. But, for God’s sake, let us finally acknowledge what the CBC (radio, at any rate) does peerlessly well: public affairs journalism and documentary reporting that reflects the moral compass of the Canadian majority.

Forget the rest; just do more of that. Okay, mother?

 

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Has the webbed world finally killed civility?

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I’m not sure exactly when dread became my near-constant Internet-traveling companion – certainly, sometime after he first protocol suite went live back in the “me” decades of the late 20th century – but I’m having a hard time shaking my conviction that the online universe has rendered common courtesy deader that a door knob.

This is, by no means, an original observation.

“Have our brains become so desensitized by a 24/7, all-you-can-eat diet of lurid flickering images that we’ve lost all perspective on appropriateness and compassion when another human being apparently suffers a medical emergency?” CNN contributors Gary Small (M.D.) and Gigi Vorgan asked in a commentary posted (where else?) online a couple of years ago. “Have we become a society of detached voyeurs?”

Or worse?

According to a Canadian Press piece carried in newspapers across the country yesterday, “Research out of Simon Fraser University (SFU) suggests that the online abuse that has been so prevalent on the teenage battlefield is carrying through to the arena of adults at Canadian universities.”

The research, in fact, is the subject of a symposium, “Cyberbullying at Canadian Universities: Linking Research, Policy and Practice”, in Vancouver this week. One presenter, education prof Wanda Cassidy, notes the relatively high incidence of abuse hurled at faculty members these days.

In the abstract to her talk, she writes, “Survey data collected in 2012/13 revealed that 17 per cent of respondents had experienced cyberbullying either by students (12 per cent), or by colleagues (9 per cent) in the last 12 months.  Gender differences were apparent: 14 per cent of females had been targeted by students, compared to 6 per cent of males.  Only females experienced cyberbullying from colleagues, always by someone they knew, and primarily for work-related reasons. The messages were belittling, demanding, harassing, and/or excluding, impacting their work, mental health, and relationships.  Faculty members of racial minority status appeared more vulnerable to being cyberbullied.”

Another peresenter, SFU criminologist Margaret Jackson, says universities aren’t equipped to deal with the problem because their policy frameworks are out of date. “While most. . .outlined complaint procedures and possible sanctions, relatively few addressed the issue of prevention,” she notes in her abstract. “Only about one third made reference to ‘cyber’ behaviours, suggesting that the university. . .environment is not current with the information and communication technologies which occupy the daily lives of university students and faculty.”

As CP reported, “Cassidy said the emergence of cyberbullying in an older population comes with grown-up consequences, such as ruined professional relationships or reputations, anxiety, sleep deprivation and thoughts of suicide.

‘There was a fair proportion of people — both faculty and students — who said it made them feel suicidal. . .which is quite frightening, particularly when you think of faculty members.’”

If that’s not bad enough, the Competition Bureau of Canada issued a dire warning during its second annual “2 Good 2 B True Day” (Tuesday) this week. “Scammers are using the Internet in increasingly sophisticated ways to defraud Canadians of their money and personal information through malicious software, fake websites and online offers or job opportunities that are simply too good to be true,” it said in a statement.

What’s more, “Users of platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest may be exposed to scams from ‘friends’ or ‘followers’ whose social media accounts are designed exclusively to promote fraudulent products. Scams promoted through social media may seem more credible because they appear in the same place as content created by a consumer’s friends and family. Social media users may inadvertently promote these scams by liking, tweeting or pinning information about these products.”

But, then, I wonder what we were expecting when we embraced the notion of running what amounts to a live wiretap right through our homes and businesses. The great innovation of the Internet was nothing if not vastly facilitated communications and information gathering. That why the American military establishment was an early and enthusiastic adherent.

Still, I comfort myself by acknowledging that the technology that makes it easy to anonymously mudsling and defraud on an unprecedented scale also makes it easy to crowd-source funds for disaster relief.

In the end, the only moral filters in the online universe come factory installed in the mind if the Internet traveler.

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Modern mythologies in the post-apocalypse

 

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It’s been precisely 10 months and 10 days since the Mayan long count calendar ran down and the world, as we know it, was supposed to have ended in a cataclysmic fury. Not for nothing, but we’re still here.

Fortunately, as the world survives, popular myths and misconceptions continue to proliferate. I say “fortunately” because in the absence of such apocrypha, grim, intractable reality would be well-nigh impossible to bear.

A well-known, national newspaper columnist contends this week that “the idea that people ever achieved secure and stable lives with ease is largely a myth.”

Indeed, The Globe and Mail’s Margaret Wente writes, “My grandparents weathered the Depression. My folks lived with them until having their third child. My dad had health problems in middle age and lost his business. That’s life. I’m pretty sure that most of today’s up-to-their-necks-in-debt graduates will be fine.”

Sure they will, just as soon as they manage to obtain gainful employment, which is also “largely a myth”. Or so says the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives in a September 27 report, to wit:

“In 2013, the unemployment rate for Ontario youth aged 15-24 fluctuated between 16 per cent and 17.1 per cent, trending above the Canadian range of 13.5 per cent to 14.5 per cent and placing Ontario as the worst province outside Atlantic Canada for high youth unemployment.

“Windsor, Oshawa, Brantford and London stand out as youth unemployment hotspots: their youth unemployment rate is over 20 per cent, similar to the European Union rates. Toronto’s youth employment rate – the measure that determines how many youth actually have jobs – is 43.5 per cent. That’s the worst employment rate of any Ontario region and it may be driving some youth out of the province in search of work. Toronto also gets the prize for having the largest gap between youth and adult employment in the province, at 21.8 per cent. That’s the highest it’s ever been.”

Higher still, of course, is the percentage of voting-age Canadians, either employed or otherwise, who support the reigning federal Conservatives as they bob for apples at their policy convention tonight.

Received wisdom had called for a shellacking of Tory prospects in the court of public opinion – so appalled are we with the Senate expense scandal and the knobby knees of short-panted factotums in the Prime Minister’s Office.

But received wisdom begins to look like a myth when Ipsos Reid reports that the Conservatives currently enjoy a 30 per cent approval rating – virtually unchanged from a week ago, before the most serious allegations came to light.

Here, in New Brunswick, rank politics takes a back seat to. . .well. . .rank politics as we juggle the myths and realities associated with shale gas development.

The provincial government says it is committed to consulting with opponents of hydraulic fracturing, yet it has no intention of slowing down the exploratory work that has sparked most public protests and demonstrations.

Leaders of the Elsipogtog First Nation, chief among the anti-frackers, decry what they term unnecessary provocation in the debate, yet they formerly resolve to reclaim Crown land to “save our waters, lands and animals from ruin.”

Meanwhile, the stories we tell ourselves dip in and out of verisimilitude heedless of their sources.

“Britain’s energy secretary on Wednesday advocated a public awareness campaign to promote shale gas and dispel the ‘myths’ surrounding fracking, the controversial method for unlocking the natural gas,” the Wall Street Journal online reported this summer. “Energy Secretary Ed Davey said the concerns were being dealt with through study and regulation, suggesting they had given rise to false notions about the dangers. The industry’s main challenge is to win over the public, he said.

‘Because those myths have taken hold in some areas, and sometimes when a myth takes hold it’s quite difficult to dispel it,’ he told a cross-party parliamentary group on unconventional oil and gas.”

For its part, Friends of the Earth Europe reports, “The American myth of ‘cheap and abundant’ energy from shale gas is based on artificially low prices driven by speculation and industry overestimates. Trying to repeat this experience in Europe would only lead to even higher gas prices and would lock public subsidies into fossil fuel use at the expense of renewable energy and energy efficiency policies.”

Who’s right?

We may have survived the apocalypse, but we might not live long enough to know the truth.

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I spy with my digital eye

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It is, perhaps, amusing to discover that a city with more than three million closed circuit television cameras pointing in every direction where people gather and gambol can still get riled up over antiquated notions of privacy.

Of course, that’s London, England, for you – always wanting to have its tea and drink it, too. Frankly, advertising executive Kaveh Memari doesn’t see what all the fuss is about. So what if his company has installed digital technology in trash cans that “reads” people’s smartphone signals? As he exuberantly told The Associate Press the other day, “We will cookie the street.”

No you won’t declares the City of London Corp., which has ordered Mr. Memari to cut it out. A press release from the municipal authority is unequivocal: “The collection of data from phones and devices carried by people passing sophisticated waste bins in Square Mile streets should stop immediately. . .A spokesman said, ‘We have already asked the firm concerned to stop this data collection immediately and we have also taken the issue to the Information Commissioner’s Office. Irrespective of what’s technically possible, anything that happens like this on the streets needs to be done carefully, with the backing of an informed public.’”

The statement continued: “The bombproof waste and recycling bins, which also carry TV screens with public information, were installed as a way of re-introducing waste bins to City streets. ‘This latest development was precipitate and clearly needs much more thought – in the meantime data collection, even if it is anonymised, needs to stop,’ added the spokesman.”

What a party-pooper. And he’s not the only one. The New York Times reported last month that shoppers were none to happy to find that fashion retailer Nordstrom was spying on them with “new technology that allowed it to track customers’ movements by following the Wi-Fi signals from their smartphones. ‘We did hear some complaints,’ said Tara Darrow, a spokeswoman for the store. Nordstrom ended the experiment in May, she said, in part because of the comments.”

In fact, reported The Times, “Nordstrom’s experiment is part of a movement by retailers to gather data about in-store shoppers’ behaviour and moods, using video surveillance and signals from their cellphones and apps to learn information as varied as their sex, how many minutes they spend in the candy aisle and how long they look at merchandise before buying it.

“All sorts of retailers – including national chains, like Family Dollar, Cabela’s and Mothercare, a British company, and specialty stores like Benetton and Warby Parker – are testing these technologies and using them to decide on matters like changing store layouts and offering customized coupons.”

Now, back to London where the civil liberties group, Big Brother Watch, is so incensed its spokesman Nick Pickles told The Associated Press that “questions need to be asked about how such a blatant attack on people’s privacy was able to occur.”

On the other hand, just try and bar Internet access to an iconic work of English literature, and the subject of privacy assumes an altogether different complexion.

“In the latest development of over-zealous internet filtering, the British Library has blocked access to Shakespeare’s Hamlet because of its ‘violent content’,” declares a recent Big Brother Watch blog post. “We have repeatedly warned that there is a fundamental issue with filtering legal content based on a subjective moral view, often made by a third party and not the person operating the network. Does the British Library really think that the content of Hamlet is so violent to justify access being blocked to one of the most famous plays of all time?”

This is the paradox of our digital times. People want and expect all the world’s information to flow seamlessly into their desktop computers and mobile devices, just as long as none of that information pertains to them.

We may nurture the illusion of privacy by turning off our cell phones. Until, of course, we see the closed circuit television camera point straight at our furrowed brow.

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Telling the robocaller to leave a message

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No one calls me anymore. When I say no “one”, I mean no “person”, though the recorded voices at the other end of the line can display some uncannily human timing.

Every day, at precisely 12:30 pm, the phone rings. It goes off again at 12:45 pm. Suppertime brings a veritable chorus of bells and buzzers from various tech devices, scattered around the house, sounding like fire alarms.

The California Public Utilities Commission describes the automatic dialing

announcing device (ADAD), or “robocall” experience as such:  “When you answer your phone and find that you are listening to a recording. These calls are placed by machines (which) store hundreds, even thousands, of telephone numbers, and then dial them automatically and play a recorded message.”

Needless to say, political parties love to deploy ADADs. It’s the grown-up version of prank calling. Instead of, “Hey, do you have pop in a bottle? Better let him out, cause mom says dinner’s ready,” think, “Hey, it’s 11:00 o’clock and the Liberals are prowling the streets. Do you know where your children are?”

As it happens, California maintains some of the toughest robocall regulations in North America. In that state, the practice is lawful only when a real, live, breathing human being introduces himself before turning over the show to the recording.

The exceptions to this rule, says the Utilities Code, apply when you, the call’s recipient, “are a member or a client of a company or organization that uses (robocalls) to deliver messages, such as an announcement about a sale” or when public authorities need to reach you concerning an emergency.

In Canada, we’re a little less formal about how we intrude on hapless citizens tucking into their evening meals. Or, at least, we have been.

Word comes down from Ottawa that the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) is mightily displeased with certain political parties in this country and their habit of concealing (or, at least, failing to disclose) their identities in the automated calls they authorize on their behalf.

The regulator has slapped fines totaling $370,000 on the federal Conservatives, NDP, the Ontario PCs, the Wildrose Party of Alberta, as well as two MPs and a private robocalling company.

That’s not a stunning amount of money, but it sends a message to happy-go-lucky politicos and their staffers who seem to think that the ubiquitous telephone is their personal pipeline into the homes of the nation. The CRTC is, in effect, telling them, “Look it. . .You wouldn’t welcome a complete stranger into your home. Why would you expect anyone to tolerate a partisan message delivered by an unidentified caller?”

As Andrea Rosen, the Commission’s chief compliance and enforcement officer told the Globe and Mail this week, “Canadians have a right to know who is calling them. . .The robo-call rules have been on the books since 1982. We expect that people should understand the rules and should be able to comply with the rules rather easily given the length of time they’ve been on the books.”

You’d think, huh? But, it’s not that simple.

Common courtesy and plain dealing are the wooly mammoths and Dodo birds of modern society. They went extinct long ago. In their place have risen blithe disregard and crowning arrogance.

Not long ago, I made the mistake of answering a call at suppertime. To my surprise, a warm body was on the other end of the line, though he might as well have been a robot.

“So, I have a great opportunity to discuss with you,” he began right out of the gate. No “hellos”, no “good evening, my name is. . .” for him. Just “So, how do I get to your place?”

To which, I responded, “Well, pal. . .first you have to be invited,” before slamming the receiver down.

This is the sort of behaviour that one expects from a generation of brand-makers and salesmen. So, too, from the current machinery of politics, which is more concerned with the means of its messaging than of its content.

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