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CBC planning more cuts: watchdog group

CBC planning more cuts: watchdog groupThe exterior of the CBC building in Toronto on Thursday, April 10, 2014. CBC executives are planning a fresh round of service cuts, including making Radio 2 online-only and merging some French and English programs, according to an arm's-length watchdog group.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Peter Power

TORONTO - A watchdog group says the CBC is planning a fresh round of service cuts, including making Radio Two online-only and merging some English and French programming — but the public broadcaster denies the claims.

Friends of Canadian Broadcasting says executives are set to propose several major cuts when the board of directors meets in Ottawa on June 17 and 18. The group says they learned of these plans through "high-level sources inside the CBC."

"This is very serious stuff. Eighty per cent of Canadians like public broadcasting, and they're going to be very angry when they hear about this," said the arm's-length group's spokesman, Ian Morrison.

"This is the result of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's antipathy to public broadcasting. We're going to see it play out in about a month's time and what we're doing today is blowing the whistle."

According to the watchdog, the proposed cuts include a plan to shut down over-the-air distribution of Radio Two — CBC's FM radio network that plays primarily adult contemporary, classical and jazz — in favour of distributing music solely online.

The broadcaster also plans to significantly reduce CBC-TV's non-commercial morning children's programs, such as "Arthur" and "Poko," the group says. It also says acclaimed shows like "Republic of Doyle" may be on the chopping block.

In addition, the group asserts that cuts will target more local programming. Last month, the broadcaster cancelled the afternoon radio show in Thunder Bay, forcing the small Ontario city to receive programming from Sudbury, some 1,000 kilometres away.

Morrison added that cuts would target French-language services, including uniting some English and French shows. Quebec regional newscasts in Mauricie, Saguenay and the North Shore would be halved and further centralized in Montreal, he said.

CBC/Radio-Canada spokesperson France Belisle called the claims "speculation, inaccurate and misinformation."

The public broadcaster announced in April it would cut some 657 jobs amid federal budget cuts and lagging TV ratings. It has also lost the rights to "Hockey Night in Canada" to Rogers Media, which paid a whopping $5.2 billion for a 12-year deal.

Friends of Canadian Broadcasting has been accurate in the past at predicting changes at the CBC, including the job cuts last month. Morrison said his sources were "trusted senior people whose identities I have to protect."

The group also released a satirical video and petition addressed to Harper at FreeTheCBC.ca. The website accuses the Prime Minister of systematically attacking the CBC through "draconian budget cuts" and "stacking its board with Conservative party donors."

At a news conference Thursday, Morrison said the CBC's political autonomy was being threatened by Harper appointing Conservative supporters to its presidency and its board of directors.

"The evidence suggests there's a conflicted loyalty. In other words, that there's an effort to turn the CBC into a Conservative broadcasting corporation, to cut the arm's-length relationship," he said.

He also said that the Harper government's 2013 budget implementation bill brought the CBC under the Financial Administration Act, meaning "journalists were effectively being supervised by the Treasury Board, which is supervised by the government."

Mike Storeshaw, spokesman for Minister of Canadian Heritage and Official Languages Shelly Glover, said the government made the changes to ensure public service labour costs align and taxpayer dollars are used wisely.

"CBC/Radio-Canada is an independent Crown corporation responsible for its own day-to-day operations, and is accountable to Parliament and Canadians for the use of public funds," he said.

Storeshaw added that the government makes appointments to the CBC board based on merit, following a rigorous selection process.

CBC president Hubert Lacroix has called for a "national conversation" on what the broadcaster should become and launched an online survey to allow Canadians to weigh in.

But Morrison said Thursday that CBC's management is treating its audiences in a "cynical, manipulative and disrespectful manner."

"In reality, CBC management has stacked the deck towards decisions already made behind closed doors. If Canadians who love the CBC take a stand now and reject the planned cuts we are exposing today, we could force Mr. Lacroix and others installed by Prime Minister Harper to go back to the drawing board."

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. The previous version included an incorrect figure in the 10th paragraph

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