Friday, May 6, 2011

Lamenting Canada's Public Broadcaster: Does it Matter?

Is there any point or value in having a public broadcaster? I ask this a few days after Canada’s latest national election, where once again I was riveted to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) as my only source for election coverage on television. The Mother Corp, as it’s known, did not disappoint, offering comprehensive coverage of all 308 ridings, well-chosen interviews and a crack team of analysts and pundits commenting on an historic election. It was an election that saw Canada’s perennial third national party, the left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP), score a record 102 seats, thus moving it into second place and becoming the country’s official opposition for the first time since its inception in 1961.

The election also had me musing about why I only notice the CBC, which I otherwise take for granted, when something momentous or significant occurs, be it an election, an Olympics games, or even a Royal Wedding. Does it matter, in a country with two other major TV networks, Global and CTV, if we also have a CBC to bring us our daily news? I think it does – even if ironically, as I write this column, the CBC may be in its last days, at least in the form we’ve always known it to be.

Blue is Conservative, Orange is NDP, Red is Liberal
For our American readers, but not our European ones, the idea of needing a public broadcasting institution to bind one’s countrymen and women together, may seem quaint. That’s because Americans don’t spend a lot of time pondering what it means to be an American. They already know. When something like the killing of Osama Bin Laden happens, they spontaneously get together to celebrate who they are. It’s different for Canadians. As our election showed, with the majority of seats going to our Conservative party, a right-wing leading party very much the opposite of the NDP, Canada is a pretty polarized country. Of course, the U.S. has its Democrat/Republican divide, but it’s not as geographically spread out; nor does it contain a French-speaking entity that alternately is alienated or complaining. The United States also doesn’t possess three or more political parties to further split the national vote. (The Green party just gained its first seat; the separatist Bloc Quebecois was nearly decimated, losing all but four of its 48 seats. The long-lasting Liberal party, the most centrist of them all and which as been around since the founding of the country in 1867, dropped to a historic low of 34 seats.)

Add the various permutations of Canadian rivalries, French-English, the West versus the East, Newfoundland and Labradors’ quixotic tilting at the Federal windmill, the ethnic votes, and the urban-rural split and it’s clear that linking the disparate parts of Canada together is no easy feat. To a large degree, the CBC does that, especially on election nights and the like.

The At Issue panel, on CBC's The National
Yes, it has its liberal biases – references to terrorists like Osama Bin Laden suddenly turn into descriptions of "militants" whenever Hamas or Hezbollah are being covered – and its Toronto centrality is a problem. (Its very smart weekly At Issue panel, which comments on the news, is great. But it’s comprised of three people, all based in Toronto or Montreal. It should have a regular western pundit to balance things out. The just announced departure of At Issue panelist Allan Gregg gives the network a chance to remedy this imbalance.) But the CBC is also possessed of more professionalism than its rival private, pseudo-American networks and is far more Canadian to boot. CTV and Global only grudgingly offer up anything Canadian on their schedules – according to Canadian content regulations, the news counts as that so less entertainment programming has to meet that criteria. So with the odd exception, such as CTV's identifiably Toronto-set Degrassi: The Next Generation, their TV series (like Global's Rookie Blue or CTV's Flashpoint) are generally careful to disguise their Canadian setting and reality, lest the American network channels refuse to add them to their line-ups. The CBC has no such qualms, and their shows, good or bad or indifferent, like Being Erica and Little Mosque on the Prairie, nevertheless still enjoy healthy sales abroad. (The lame quality of most of its shows is for another column. Let's just say the CBC ain't the BBC, when it comes to proffering great television series.) In other words, the CBC doesn’t shrink from waving the flag, like all public broadcasters are wont to do. But unlike the privately run American news network CNN, it doesn’t navel gaze with a jingoistic perspective either. When 9/11 occurred, after a bit of time watching CNN, I asked for the TV, in the bar where we were congregating, to be switched to the CBC. I genuinely felt that I would get a clearer picture of what was going on than I would have if I stayed with the American cable channel.

Admittedly, the CBC has become more superficial in recent years, certainly compared to the halcyon days of the 1980s and early 90s, when its show The Journal, helmed by the late, great broadcaster Barbara Frum, made up the bulk of the networks’ hour long newscast and delved deeply into the headline making stories of the day. Nowadays, The National, its hour-long nightly newscast, is fluffier with more and shorter news items, but it’s also still capable of great journalism, as in its recent outstanding report conclusively linking the terrorist group Hezbollah to the 2005 murder of Lebanese politician Rafik Hariri. That news investigation garnered international headlines. It was a feat that Canada’s private networks wouldn’t have even attempted to perform, and when they do venture into investigative journalism they prefer to stick to exposés of consumer fraud or misleading advertising, something the CBC devotes a whole show, Marketplace, to exposing.

Peter Mansbridge, host of The National
Watching the CBC, as I did on Monday for our election, I thought that it was determined to represent us all on that momentous night. That is, all provinces, demographics and language groups. And I felt, too, that it really wanted to understand the forces that went into shaping the startling election results that evening. It wasn’t all about the commercial considerations. (I didn’t check out Global or CTV that night. But in past elections, they’ve still run commercials during their election coverage. The CBC does not.) Overall when I watch, say the CTV nightly newscast, I always feel that their reporters are just not as good or polished as their CBC counterparts. It's as if their sojourn to the private networks was their second choice of employment when they were deemed as insufficiently qualified for the CBC. (Sun News Network, Canada's recently launched and embarrassingly amateurish right-wing news channel sets the bar even lower, in terms of the 'quality' or rather lack thereof of its reporting staff. ) There is intelligence, wit and much thought in CBC's coverage. I came away, when all the results were in, better understanding why the election played out as it did. The daily newspapers, the next day, augmented that understanding, but they had the advantage of having a bit more time to reflect on it. They didn’t have to think quickly on their feet as veteran newscaster Peter Mansbridge and his live reporters/commentators were forced to do all night.

Similarly, whether it's in covering the 2010 World Cup, or the death of Osama Bin Laden, the CBC, which also encompasses an all news network, CBC News Network, offers a reflective and generous view of the world, recognizing, most of the time, that there are shades of grey inherent in what they’re showing. That complexity, or nuance, doesn’t sit well with many Canadians. Over the years, there’s been a steadily increasing drumbeat of criticism of the CBC, for its taxpayer-supported billion dollar budget, its left-wing bias (only partially true, since you could never refer to At Issue panelist Andrew Coyne, or the acerbic commentator Rex Murphy as doctrinaire lefties. In any case, they're likely representatives of the populace’s political bent as a whole), and its general existence. Too many Canadians, seduced by the American way of doing things, somehow, myopically, see the CBC as different from other valued and respected Canadian institutions, such as our government-run health care and our social safety net. But that's what makes us who we are. It distinguishes us from the often overly capitalist giant U.S. monolith next door. (As an aside, I’ve never understood why it's such a scandal for Americans, including many Republican politicians, that a mere pittance of dollars flow to such non-commercial entities as PBS television, National Public Radio and The National Endowment for the Arts. But, of course, all artistic endeavours in the United States are expected to pay for themselves and never to be helped along by the government. That’s baffling for a Canadian to understand. )

Prime Minister Stephen Harper
Unfortunately, one Canadian who's most ill-disposed towards the CBC is our Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, who finally, after three elections, achieved a majority of the vote. (The vagaries of the Canadian voting system, which is not based on proportional representation, means he could so with only 40 per cent or so of the total vote.) Now he's free to begin the process of starving the CBC of its funding (which has happened before and one reason why the network has to make do with running commercials is because of past cuts – not all by Conservative governments, incidentally) and, possibly, starting the process of dismantling it altogether. There was a telling and disturbing moment before the election when CBC reporter Terry Milewski was asking a tough question of the PM, who was taking very few questions form the media during the whole 35 day campaign. The PM refused to answer the query and one could clearly hear, as Milewski doggedly pressed on to try to extract an answer from the PM, a shout of ‘Shut down the CBC’ from someone in the audience. (At least, I hope it was someone in the audience, it could have been one of Harper’s contingent, too.)

That attitude, coupled with a sitting Prime Minister who makes no bone of his animus towards the public network, will likely receive much consideration in the nation's capital. If it does, Monday's election may be the last one where the CBC will shine. By October 2015, the date of the next election, if it’s still around, the CBC will likely be a shell of its former shelf. And considering that we're now saddled with a newly powerful PM, who doesn't broach much criticism at the best of times and has displayed more than his fair share of contempt for democratic Canadian values the last few years, losing the CBC as it is now would be a tragedy. The negative effect may only have its true impact felt when it’s not around to cover the next election as decisively as it did the last one. I hope I’m wrong about this state of affairs coming to fruition. But, given the current climate, I fear the worst.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches courses at Ryerson University's LIFE Institute.

1 comment:

  1. Nice post. Public broadcasting is a model that works, and has worked all over the world. For whatever reasons, the quality is higher, especially for newsy content.

    NPR (US) just recently faced an attack from the Tea Party and conservatives and lost some funding. The amazing thing about that is that they survive from other sources of revenue... In fact, government money was less that 10% of their budget...

    But, it would be better if we just kept the CBC and improved the quality. Let's hope Canadians have more sense about this, but perhaps it means doing some kind of awareness campaign or something...