The main objective of my research was to review the role of the CBC.
To accurately measure public television’s role in news dissemination, I ask a basic and fundamental question: What is CBC’s mandate and is there a need to redefine this mandate, or at the very least, try to clarify diverse interpretations that one encounters. Following the definition of this mandate, there should be an analysis of the rules which are imposed on the CBC-SRC. Are they justified? Should there be other conditions? Should the CBC, as a public operation, be exempt from scrutiny? If not, by whom and how? And finally, how does one explain the serious drop in the ratings?
Several other questions are raised by the debate over publicly-owned television. Is its mandate clear? Should it be reviewed? Are the definitions and roles of each television information program clear? Is the targeted audience well defined? How important are ratings? Should ratings be as important for public television as it is for the private sector?
These are important questions because the answers depend on what we want Canadian news to be about and what vision we wish to give public television information programs. Many feel that Canadians are very well served by private sector television companies. If it is not possible to distinguish these programs from the publicly-owned CBC-SRC programs, then there is logic in the argument that Canadians should not have to pay for what is already available. The counter-argument to this is that with the proliferation of news programs and new monopolies, the presence of an independent television network is critical and desirable.
The Future of CBC/Radio Canada
I am what is called a “Radio-Canadienne.” Glued to the TV screen from the age of four to watch Bobino, followed by Pirate maboule, La riboudingue and Sol et Gobelet, I belong to that generation that a few years later swore by Bernard Derome and Le Téléjournal to keep informed. I am even one of those who dreamed of working at Radio-Canada, and actually made their dream come true. Twenty years ago, no one questioned the existence of the CBC/Radio-Canada. This was a veritable institution, virtually untouchable.
In the past few years, Canada’s private networks have been assailing the CBC from every direction by presenting similar programs, and the proliferation of channels has fragmented audiences. The Corporation has struggled to hold onto its audience by altering the form and content of its programming. This has raised serious questions about the mission and very existence of the CBC/Radio-Canada and suggestions of privatization have shaken its very foundations.
Against this background, the primary goal of my proposal to the Michener Award is to assess the relevance of maintaining public television in Canada. The first step in this process was to conduct a thorough review of the changing vision and mission of the Corporation since its inception.
The idea of creating a national broadcasting service arose from the urgent need to link all corners of this large country to counteract the spread of American culture and its ultimate domination of our society. The issue was respect for the democratic right of Canadians to see themselves, and to see the rest of the world through Canadian rather than American eyes. The 1929 Royal Commission on Broadcasting, chaired by Sir John Aird, therefore had a very clear vision from the outset. The first goal was to provide Canadian content; then to promote national unity; third, to provide a public service that reflects the public interest; and finally, to continue the democratization of government through public education.
Broadcasting, primarily, is an instrument of education in its widest significance, ranging from playing to learning, from recreation to the cultivation of public opinion, and its concerns and influences not any single element in the community, but the community as a whole. A national radio system, intelligently directed, would enable different sections of Canada to communicate their hopes and problems to others. (Graham Spry (1931) A case of national broadcasting, in Missed Opportunities, p. 36)
Unfortunately, this social and democratic vision of broadcasting by and for Canadians was never defined in any terms of reference assigned to the CBC/Radio-Canada. Despite the 1932 Broadcasting Act and subsequent legislation officially creating and governing the Crown corporation (1936 and 1958), it was not until the 1968 Act that the Corporation’s terms of reference were actually defined. And what a mission it was given! The content of the Corporation’s programming had to be predominantly Canadian, enriching, focused on information and entertainment, reflect Canadian regions and culture, and contribute to national unity. In this vast role, national unity would come to dominate, but contrary to the social meaning attributed to this goal in 1927, would take on a political aspect.
Already accused of becoming a political instrument during the Second World War, the CBC/Radio-Canada was long referred to as “the government’s CBC.” It must be pointed out that the Corporation did nothing to help its cause. Over the decades, it cancelled such key programs as Citizen Forum (1949), a program fostering debate over controversial issues, Preview Commentary (1959), a program on federal politics, and This Hour has Seven Days. Under CBC journalistic policy in 1959, “News would never be presented in such a way as to encourage antagonisms which could be dangerous to national unity.” Many criticized links between government and the CBC as too close, and described the Corporation as a “mass propaganda agency.”
The controversy over journalistic independence at the CBC peaked under the Trudeau government, when the Corporation was accused of serving as the federal government’s pipeline. CBC decisions were challenged when it ordered journalists not to film police officers attacking protesters during the famous Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day parade. A journalist was suspended for broadcasting such material and making references to violence. Some members of Cabinet went even further. In their view, the CBC was actually promoting the separatist movement. Former Minister André Ouellet was quick to ask Minister Gérard Pelletier if he would “at last agree that a clean-up is required at all levels of CBC… so that the CBC will no longer be used as a medium for separatist propaganda.” Despite Pelletier’s flat refusal, there were clear attempts at editorial interference.
This debate has subsided over the past two decades as controversy has arisen over repeated budget cuts. Yet these cuts did not prevent the government from expanding the role of the CBC/Radio-Canada in the latest Broadcasting Act of 1991. The Corporation must now place even greater emphasis on regional programming, which CBC President Robert Rabinovitch claims is impossible. “In those areas we may have to withdraw, because we cannot be all things to all people. The mandate, as it is expanded to include local news coverage, etc., cannot be fulfilled under the existing budgetary circumstance.” Regional programming was subsequently cut in half.
Originally, the CBC was intended to be a tool for democratization and to allow Canadians across the country to learn from each other. But the CBC’s vision and terms of reference have changed significantly since 1927. Political pressures as well as budget cuts, not to mention centralization of programming, have obscured the real reason for the institution’s very existence.
The CBC/Radio-Canada has failed and continues to fail to convey the culture (in the broad sense) of French Canadians to English Canadians, and vice-versa. The CBC and Radio-Canada are two parallel networks that function separately to a very large extent, and in many respects regard each other as competitors. Even within the French and English networks, turf wars rage on between departments. To serve as an instrument of democracy as initially intended, the two networks must display an open attitude and willingness to work together.
With this in mind, the information section of the French television network this year created CDI, the Centre de l’information, in an attempt to forge closer links between news programs on La première chaîne and RDI. All programs are now produced in the same location. The various researchers have been pooled to serve all programs. Similarly, an international module generates headlines and montages for the entire world. Should this centralization approach be continued and even expanded to include the French and English networks, radio and regional services?
Although there are benefits to pooling efforts, there is a definite danger in harmonizing and standardizing production, encouraging the sharing of resources, and cutting production costs by combining separate forces. This danger is called “single-minded thinking,” a phenomenon furthered by the globalization of media. The most obvious example is media convergence, designed to eliminate competition, thereby leading to a monopoly of thought and opinion. In this environment, public television and radio have a duty to ensure diversity in the handling of news, to generate debate and present all facets of a story. The public has a duty to hold the public broadcaster to a high standard of quality and content totally free of any influence.
There is no doubt that media globalization actually increases the need for independent public radio and television in Canada that truly reflects Canadian reality. To reflect the full diversity of Canadian reality, we must understand that only by acknowledging this diversity do we become whole.
Recognition of this diversity can and must entail a change in structure driven by more than simple economic concerns. Walls must be torn down and silos discouraged. This also requires a review of our approach and a change in attitudes. To succeed where others have failed, we must focus on two goals.
First, we must achieve a new openness between management and talent on the contribution made by each branch of the CBC/Radio-Canada (radio vs. TV, regional vs. national, English vs. French, news vs. public affairs). Second, we must convince each person in the talent section that cooperation is not another word for amalgamation or assimilation. We must show respect for differing editorial approaches and demonstrate that integration will not be achieved through dominant thinking. (Given ongoing criticism of too close a relationship with the federal government, CBC/Radio-Canada management would be wise to promote the diversity of opinions and identities that characterize Canadians.)
Only in this way can the CBC/Radio-Canada rediscover the reason for its existence and once again become a tool for democratization.
Analyzing the future of such a vast institution obviously is a highly complex challenge. Many factors must be considered. The Michener-Deacon Scholarship allowed me to examine the full scope of this topic and conduct an initial analysis. Above all, it demonstrated to me that more thorough work was required if I was to produce more than a simple observation of fact. I am now taking a masters program at Carleton University, to be completed by next year.
To date, I have written an essay on changes to the CBC/Radio-Canada vision and mission since 1927, as well as another on the impact of new media on traditional news programs such as Radio-Canada’s Le Téléjournal and CBC’s The National, based on an analysis of new media compared with the written press.
Finally, I have conducted a comparative study of television networks in the United States, Australia and Great Britain on news coverage during the American elections in 2000, development of concepts of objectivity, and “pack journalism.”