The first thing to know about populism in politics is that it’s not an ideology but a show, a morality play featuring villains and heroes. You are expected to boo the villains. The Conservative Party of Canada is engaged in some political theatre right now with a “Defund the CBC” campaign.

The latest episode: party leader Pierre Poilievre lobbied Twitter to label the CBC and its “various news-related accounts” as “Government-funded Media,” as the social media company had done already with NPR and PBS in the United States. Twitter policy defines “Government-funded Media” as an outlet in which “the government provides some or all of the outlet’s funding and may have varying degrees of government involvement over editorial content” (italics mine). It’s a label that suggests you’re reading spin, agitprop, the party line. Poilievre got his wish. On April 16, with Elon Musk’s blessing, Twitter applied the label to the CBC’s main account. Poilievre was thrilled. “BREAKING,” he tweeted, “CBC officially exposed as ‘government-funded media.’ Now people know it is Trudeau propaganda, not news.” At once, CBC media relations director Leon Mar denied “government involvement over editorial content.” When asked for a comment by the Canadian Press, Twitter emailed back a poop emoji.

The CBC paused activity on its corporate and news accounts on Twitter, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau accused Poilievre of running “to American billionaires” to attack the CBC. Later, some angels-on-pinhead negotiations led to Twitter modifying the label to “70% Government-funded Media.” Within the hour, in a classic trolling move by Musk, it was changed to 69 percent after the CBC explained they were “less than 70% government-funded.” According to the CBC’s 2018/2019 annual report, the corporation took in over $1.2 billion in federal funding. That this means Ottawa directs content is a Twitter assumption. Would a reasonable person say that much money, by definition, buys influence? The Conservative leadership thinks it does, the CBC says it doesn’t. As a former CBC employee, I can only say no one I know who worked in the trenches made any editorial choices based on who was in Ottawa—Liberal or Conservative—ever.

What does it matter what Poilievre thinks of the CBC? It matters because he is setting party policy based on the idea that the CBC is a de facto Liberal mouthpiece. It matters because, as part of the mandate of a future Conservative government, he wants his base to support a plan that would likely kill the corporation.

The call to defund the CBC (Poilievre has suggested he’d preserve French services) is a cornerstone of the populist strategy of the Conservative Party. It’s nothing new. Both Andrew Scheer and Erin O’Toole beat this drum when they led the party. O’Toole called for both defunding the CBC as well as modernizing and reforming it, so the message was a bit confused. At its heart, the existential attack on the CBC feeds conservative dislike of public institutions. The CBC competes unfairly, goes the logic, with private for-profit media. The CBC is seen as biased by other conservatives. When CBC president and CEO Catherine Tait told the Globe and Mail that Poilievre’s “Defund the CBC” platform was a fund-raising “slogan,” Conservative MP Marty Morantz tweeted, “The head of the CBC is now publicly bashing the Conservative Party of Canada. CBC bias is now on full display.”

Think of the CBC and the Conservative Party as two punch-drunk boxers in a round-after-round clinch, going back decades. In 1959, according to Peter C. Newman in Renegade in Power: The Diefenbaker Years, Conservative prime minister John Diefenbaker would tune in to the morning CBC news on radio, either in the car while being driven to work or on his desktop clock radio. He would listen to a program called Preview Commentary (as a former CBC employee who left in 2006 but still contributes documentaries to CBC Ideas, I can say the corporation struggles—and has always struggled, rarely valiantly—with naming programs), which grew, that year, increasingly critical of the government. Newman writes that “rumours began circulating in Ottawa” that the prime minister was displeased. Soon enough, Charles Jennings, comptroller of broadcasting, ordered the cancellation of Preview Commentary on the grounds it did not “permit . . . a considered approach.” If Diefenbaker’s plan was to get the show off the air, it worked. (It was eventually reinstated.)

Conservative animosity toward the CBC would eventually expand from fist shaking in the PMO to bringing the electorate onside—with some success. According to a 2022 Mainstreet Research poll, 31 percent of all voters today support defunding the CBC, with 54 percent of Conservative voters “strongly supporting” the move.

The roots of this thinking go back to the United States, in the 1970s, when New Right conservatives stung by Watergate appealed to what Republican senator Jesse Helms called the 62 percent of Americans who don’t vote but would be willing to support a conservative majority if they were just given a reason to do so: the idea was to set a new tone in discourse by engaging with working-class emotions and generating convenient and easy-to-paint enemies—media and cultural institutions—in the spirit of black-hat, white-hat westerns. The goal, according to former strategist Kevin Phillips, and as quoted by Rick Perlstein in his book Reaganland: America’s Right Turn 1976–1980, was to self-mythologize and build “a cultural siege-engine . . . [to] then blast the Eastern liberal establishment to ideological-institutional smithereens.”

So the media was painted as part of the liberal establishment. It took a while for the New Right culture wars to come to Canada, but they did—with Preston Manning and Stephen Harper. In 2015, Harper said the budget crunch at the CBC—a $130 million shortfall and 657 job cuts—had less to do with federal funding and more with declining interest in what they put on television. Then president and CEO Hubert Lacroix denied this and said ratings were “healthy.” It was a standoff. Many online liked Harper’s explanation: this was on the CBC. In any case, it spoke to the relationship. The prime minister didn’t seem to care much if the CBC was in trouble; for him, it was their problem. The same year, he told Quebec private radio that “a lot” of Radio-Canada employees “hate” conservative values.

The implication: the CBC is un-Canadian. NDP labour critic Alexandre Boulerice called Harper’s comments “deplorable,” adding that they lay bare “the whole ideology of the Conservatives who don’t like Radio-Canada.” Those comments made it easier to frame the debate around the CBC as a fight between “us” and “them.”

“Populism and anti-elitism go together,” says Christopher Adams, adjunct professor of political studies at the University of Manitoba (who also works from time to time as an election pundit for CBC Manitoba), and while leaders like Trudeau represent “the Laurentian elites,” he says (the old power stretching from Quebec to Toronto along the St. Lawrence), so too does the CBC, especially to some Western Canada voters. “I think the CBC is seen as part of the elite by many people who support the Conservative Party and Pierre Poilievre,” says Adams.

But then charges of elitism are not new. What seems different is how Conservatives are now scripting the CBC directly into their politics of performance, where debate is set aside in favour of bold, theatrical, partisan pronouncements which stir up conflict and interest in a world where voters need to be startled to pay attention. Example: “It is time to take the old CBC out behind the barn and shoot it like a spavined horse,” writes Conrad Black in the National Post. The politics of performance is loud and brash and usually involves props—as in the campaign rally that Poilievre led in North Bay, April of 2022, in which a young boy held up a “Defund the CBC” sign and Poilievre joked the kid would be prime minister someday. The politics of performance ties the CBC to black-hat villains, like so-called woke Liberals, feminists, LGBTQ activists, and any number of the malign “actors” seen as threats to the country. It’s also about treating the CBC as a resource squandered by what Black dismissed as “a riffraff of failed or inadequate media bureaucrats.” This is in line with the attempt, post Watergate, to reinforce government not as the solution but the problem.

By tying it to government, Poilievre is using the CBC as a metonym: it represents, in digestible form, what’s wrong with Liberal Canada. “Trudeau propaganda, not news.” Where does it end up? As Tait suggested, it’s a hook for fundraising. The party website has a petition for those who support “Defund the CBC,” and when you sign it, your email is fast-tracked to a request for donations. But it’s also a boon to single-issue voters who find no foothold in other issues like taxation or health care. If you hate Trudeau, in other words, you’ll really hate the CBC, even if you never watch it or listen to it.

For those outside the anti-CBC circle, it’s unclear whether “Defund the CBC” is supposed to be a serious policy proposal (beyond a vague argument that the private sector can do it better, which is unlikely as long as rural coverage is a nonstarter for corporate media; Canada is a lot of rural) or a killer chant at rallies. Only one thing counts: how it shows up in polls and on election day. And that plot twist is yet to come.

Tom Jokinen
Tom Jokinen has written for the Globe and Mail, Literary Review of Canada, and The Walrus. He lives in Winnipeg.