It’s nice that people are rising to the defence of the CBC, which has genuinely been in the Harper government’s crosshairs from day one. But I find the rhetoric of this Reimagine CBC project perplexing and more than a little problematic. Its primary mission is clearly to rally Canadians behind the CBC as the Conservatives proceed to slash the much-loved Crown Corporation’s budget. The campaign has undertaken a “crowdsourcing” effort to address some of CBC’s deficiencies and channel the institution into the 21st century. But the overall tone of the project is much more laudatory than critical, and this prismatic “reimagining” actually amounts to little more than a tepid request that the government reverse the cuts and the CBC tweak its programming strategy.
Whenever I’ve talked to or eavesdropped on people who are enthusiastic about this “Reimagine” project, or just about the CBC in general, I’ve never ceased to be amazed by the dangerously caricaturish ideas that many Canadians seem to have about what precisely the CBC is, what motivates its executives (not to mention its stable of minor celebrities), and what role it occupies in the public imagination.
A number of years ago, in the lead-up to the Olympics, I was working with a friend, who is a CBC freelance journalist, on the issue of VANOC and corporate nepotism. We had both read Helen Lenskyj’s excellent book Inside the Olympics Industry and had a good idea what lines of inquiry to pursue. We focused most of our attention on investigating the seemingly-problematic relationships between VANOC (an untransparent quasi-governmental agency that was endowed with billions of dollars in taxpayer money) and influential real estate, construction, hospitality, forestry, and engineering interests. At first, the CBC producer was mildly encouraging. But as we exhumed more and more corporate-governmental skeletons, she became noticeably uncomfortable. In the end, she put the kaibosh on the project for fear of stepping on the wrong toes.
I was shocked that a representative of the CBC, Canada’s supposedly non-corporate media organ, would act in such a cowardly fashion. The aforementioned journalist told me that he wasn’t actually all that surprised. Since the then-recently-elected Stephen Harper had come into power, my friend had seen sycophantic network executives rapidly water down the CBC’s content in a foolhardy effort to ingratiate the corporation with the new PM’s office. The strategy has by now become common knowledge in the Canadian media world.
Much of this has entailed moving farther along the slippery slope of broadcasting “marketable” content: George Stroumboulopoulos and Jian Ghomeshi interviewing celebrities about their dating habits, Dragons’ Den’s hosts taking potshots at desperate poor people, Don Cherry’s lovable bigotry, etc…. This transition to marketable programming has also involved shifting the emphasis to markedly Tory-friendly content (see last month’s Georgia Straight article about the CBC’s disproportionate coverage of the Harper Conservatives’ views on political issues). Whether you’re tuning in to an atrociously heavy-handed Afghanada radio drama, Peter Mansbridge lobbing softballs at Stephen Harper, Stephen Quinn and Carol Off unreflectively regurgitating government talking points about Enbridge and Occupy Vancouver, or Kevin O’Leary berating Chris Hedges for being a “left-wing nutbar,” the cumulative message is the same: don’t think too hard and don’t challenge authority.
Contrary to the relatively naïve views espoused by Reimagine CBC’s Kathleen Cross, an SFU Communication professor who characterizes the network as a beacon of “independent” “non-profit” programming, in reality the CBC’s current programming strategy makes it increasingly beholden to the Harper Government, media consumers (however broad their demographics) who just want to be entertained, and corporate advertisers who desire a captive audience. Of course, Cross is right about standouts like The Passionate Eye and The Nature of Things, but such exceptions are today being drowned out by servile monetizable content. And even though CBC Radio is currently commercial-free (and should obviously stay that way), when it comes to the news, it isn’t appreciably different from its television counterpart. Even CBC Radio 2’s music offerings have pretty much scraped the bottom of the barrel since Brave New Waves was cancelled in 2007.
And yet, when I speak with many progressive, intelligent young Canadians, they often have such a soft spot for the CBC that they willfully overlook its deeply-ingrained flaws. In spite of abundant evidence to the contrary, they buy into the pervasive fantasy that the CBC is a fundamentally progressive institution. When I ask for evidence of CBC’s progressive dynamism, their response is usually quite telling. They tend to look to luminaries like Rex Murphy and George Stroumboulopoulis as indices of the network’s thought-provoking vitality. This concerns me because what Murphy and Stroumboulopoulis have most in common is the manipulative way in which they are presented to the Canadian public as significantly more free-thinking, subversive characters than their words and actions evince.
Though Rex Murphy makes a point of name-dropping classical philosophers in his retrograde rants, he gives no indication of actually having read them as he goes on inarticulate diatribes against, to pick a few examples from recent history, the Occupy movement, Harper’s detractors, and the scientific consensus on anthropogenic global warming. Mentioning Descartes or Socrates doesn’t in any way buttress the case that Stephen Harper is basically a good guy or that Ralph Klein deserves a Governor General’s medal for being “plain-talking.” When I first heard Murphy, I actually thought he was a hilarious Newfoundland parody of American cable news. It blows my mind that supposedly progressive Canadians revere this imbecile and applaud him as he goes on pompous Andy-Rooney-like screeds against everything they hold dear. In fact, his pandering to the Conservatives has become so egregious in the last year that I can only assume he’s vying for a Conservative senatorship. And I have little doubt he’ll receive it. Imagine that.
The admittedly significantly more innocuous George Stroumboulopoulis show begins with a flash montage of a thousand stylized shots of George looking punkily rebellious and contemplative as he stares wistfully into your eyes or off towards a distant profound abyss. But once you look past the auratic wall of charisma, at the level of content, his interviews don’t really provide anything more substantive or subversive than Entertainment Tonight.
This conundrum – this disconnect between presentation and reality – reminds me of CBC’s short-lived Da Vinci’s City Hall, a faux docudrama loosely based on the life and career of former mayor Larry Campbell. Dominic Da Vinci is a compassionate, street-wise cop who becomes the judicious mayor of a troubled city. The real Larry Campbell, on the other hand, was widely known, even to those in his own party, as a petty tyrant who had an excessively cozy relationship with big developers. Many Vancouverites were shocked when Campbell, who had originally been a vociferous cheerleader for affordable housing in the cost-overrun-plagued Olympic Village development, suddenly backed Vision Vancouver’s decision to sell off social housing in the Village.
While CBC’s Da Vinci was beyond reproach and immune to corruption, Campbell’s renege on affordable housing in the Village, it turned out, conveniently coincided with his purchase (or receipt) of a luxury unit of his own in the taxpayer-funded boondoggle. His son suddenly had one too, for good measure. (For the record, I would never suggest that developers paid Campbell off. But Dominic Da Vinci would be the first to point out the glaringly obvious conflict of interest.)
If anything, this discrepancy between the iconically noble Da Vinci and his perhaps more self-serving, cynical real-world counterpart is emblematic of the gulf between the CBC’s glossy public image and the real-world behind-the-scenes machinations of Canada’s public broadcaster. At its core, the CBC is not a benevolent egalitarian institution. It is a battleground of vested-interests, most of which are deeply-entrenched and have pushed the network very far in the direction of bland infotainment and unfairly imbalanced coverage of the issues.
At a recent Reimagine CBC event, activist Sean Devlin said, “There’s a war happening in this country…. It’s a cultural war. And the front line of that fight is over the Canadian identity because this government wants to define what it means to be Canadian. And they want to do it in a singular fashion so that they can go ahead and do this stuff that we actually don’t want them to do…. To me, the CBC is the front line of a culture war.” Why Devlin positions the CBC as fundamentally opposed to Harper in this culture war is beyond me.
If forced to choose, I suppose I’d rather have the CBC around than dissolve it. It still has potential. But until the people who run our nation’s public broadcasting company develop the courage and integrity to conduct inquests into the likes of the real-world Da Vinci, I’m not going to waste my imagination on the CBC. After all, one of the truly amazing things about digital modernity is that we no longer have to be so reliant on conventional information channels – we now have more credible news sources at our fingertips than we know what to do with.
But if what you’ve really been craving is a facile, derivative attempt to stage a Canadian version of Mad Men, you’ll love CBC’s new radio drama Trust, Inc. What it lacks in imaginative social critique, it more than makes up for in interactive bells and whistles.