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Friends of Canadian Broadcasting is asking for signatures and money to help fight PM Stephen Harper's interference.

Friends of Canadian Broadcasting is asking for signatures and money to help fight PM Stephen Harper’s interference.

How much dissent can be aired by Canada’s public broadcaster?

This is about the CBC and I assure you that I don’t intend to sneer or be an anti-arts blockhead. My column is spawned by a letter I got from a neighbour, and friend, asking me to contribute to keep the CBC from collapsing under Stephen Harper’s jackboot. I just think it’s time to understand what role the CBC (English version) has on our national contract.

My first contact with the “mother corporation” came as a child during the Second World War when I listened to Hockey Night in Canada, which was always broadcast from Maple Leaf Gardens. (Montreal did get broadcast the one time they were in Toronto on a Saturday night.) Montreal games were on Radio Canada, it being assumed that French Canada unanimously supported the Habs while the “real” Canada supported the Maple Leafs (they have never, evidently, learned that the plural of leaf is leaves). The Leafs were owned by Conn Smythe who despised French Canadians and once famously opened a speech “Ladies, Gentlemen, and Frenchmen.” No French Canadian was allowed to play for the Leafs, the one exception being when Paul Bibeault was a back-up goaltender during the war.

It wasn’t until the late ’50s that the Saturday games alternated between Maple Leaf Gardens and the Forum. That this spawned Habs fans in the rest of Canada is a gross understatement. The great Canadiens teams of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s made Montreal without a doubt the favourite outside Ontario, and indeed, within Ontario too.

The Toronto-deep flavour in the CBC brew was not an evil plot by evil people but a natural result of having two CBCs. And I take this moment to emphasize that we’re not talking evil people, but good people following the mandate they concluded that they had.

The root cause of disaffection, I think, is that the CBC is not permitted to be nasty or be seen as such. And it must be intensely careful not to offend French Canadians or any other minority. Contrast this with Tim Sebastian’s HardTalk on BBC, which is brutally nasty but very informative. This doesn’t always work — what does? — but it makes members of the establishment visibly concerned. One need only look at the work of John Cleese and Monty Python to see that minorities, as with all citizens and groups, can stand being lampooned once they get used to it.

The epitome of gentle folks radio was Peter Gzowski, who so far as I know, was never nasty to anyone but did what was wanted — left controversy to private radio. Stan Persky, a man with a sugar coated nasty tongue, was a guest on Gzowski’s show — but not for too long. I can’t speak for Stan but I just couldn’t stand the whirlpool of sweetness I was required to bathe in.

After the Charlottetown Accord referendum, Peter came to my studio at CKNW and did an interview. (Interestingly he had three helpers for this radio bit.) We touched, oh so gently, on Charlottetown, and he asked me why I didn’t use my microphone to do good! I replied I was confident that I, in fact, had done a lot of good for my country on that occasion, but that I further saw my role as the same as that of BBC’s Sebastian — to hold the “establishment’s feet to the fire.”

The Mulroney test

Here we’re upon my bone of contention.

Brian Mulroney accepts a shopping bag full of money, at least $225,000 but said to be $300,000 by Karlheinz Schreiber who gave it. Schreiber was a crook on the lam from the security authorities of Germany and finally extradited to that country. After a long stretch of dithering, the Harper government set up hearings and called upon one David Johnston, a staunch Tory lawyer, to set out the terms of reference.

What was it the public wanted to know, more than anything else?

This: why did Schreiber pay all this money to Mulroney? What was the deal?

Johnston held that this was a “much tilled field” (in fact it was anything but), and kept the question out of the terms — meaning we were denied a way of knowing what Mulroney may well have got away with. (Johnston, by the way, went on to be made Governor General.)

Rick Salutin, a very fine and courageous journalist, raised hell about the limited nature of the hearings in the Globe and Mail. For some reason, he was dropped by that paper and now pens his words with the Toronto Sun.

I, too, did a blog on this but since I couldn’t fire myself I keep plugging along.

My question is: why didn’t the CBC raise hell about this? I think it’s because the issue was outside the establishment’s acceptable circle of dissent. It’s the same circle that Mulroney-focused investigative journalists Stevie Cameron and Claire Hoy, as well as Rick Salutin and Rafe Mair, are on the outside of.

Again, this isn’t evil. Those who work for the CBC, just as those who work for Postmedia, don’t need to ask what not to do or say.

Managing the boundaries

Now let me get personal — and I assure you that I have no bitterness about the CBC. The amounts of money involved in my own work for the CBC have been trivial.

The CBC censors, plain and simple.

A few years ago I “subbed” for Anna Maria Tremonti, host of the national CBC radio program “The Current,” doing one or two shows in Vancouver and the rest in Toronto. My first guest was Cindy Sheehan, mother of a son who was killed in Iraq. She had been squatting on former president George W. Bush’s ranch while speaking out against the war.

I was proceeding splendidly when I heard “go to question two” in my ear. I mentally mumbled the international words for “go away” and continued. It was the same for all the broadcasts. At the risk of sounding boastful, I was a hall of fame broadcaster being told as I went what questions to ask. I can only assume that the guests were given a general idea of what I was going to ask.

For seven years I was a guest on the political panel Rick Cluff had on Vancouver-based CBC Morning Edition. I enjoyed the to-ing and fro-ing with Moe Sihota immensely. On the day Gordon Campbell resigned, I was told that each of us was to say what the three best and the three worst things were that Campbell did. I told the producer that I couldn’t think of one thing positive and that to me he as the worst premier we’d ever had, and then some. I believe that events have proved me right. I was kept off the show.

Mild censorship?

Maybe, but censorship nevertheless.

In 2012 I was fired from Cluff’s show. One suspicion of mine is that the BC Liberals didn’t think I treated their loyalist, Suzanne Anton, fairly. I was in fact rude to her.

When I put to the CBC that I was a victim of censorship prompted by the Liberals, I received no reply.

These examples are not “poor Rafe.” I’ve been fired too often to feel that way. I tell you because you ought to know that the CBC does operate within an acceptable circle of dissent and I don’t believe they would deny it. They are Captain Canada.

Having said that, I support the concept of the CBC as a public institution to help Canadians get ahead and to support Canadian endeavours. My concern is that when people hear two or three points of view from the CBC, they believe that all that can be said just was. That is demonstrably not true.

When the CBC really does give dissidents, irrespective of their case, time to state that case, that will be the time to pass the hat to me.

One Response to “We Need the CBC, but Be Real about Its Limits”

  1. Rod Pugh says:

    Rafe may be right about the CBC. There federal political reporting sticks to the facts. They have broadcast hours on the Senate finance expense claims … They may not openly offer an opinion but the facts and clips of harper defending his senators makes the point. Same for the Lac Megantic oil spill clean up, as costs keep soring ever higher with every report. At least the CBC lets the viewer make the decision. Compared to the private broadcasters. We can rest assured that a BC Rail style obliteration of the CBC is always on the horizon. Or the preferred option, a BC Hydro styled decapitation.

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