A Tough Act To Follow
Under the Broadcasting Act, the CBC was asked to be something it couldn't be: the glue to hold Canada together
In CBC newsrooms, February 1, the day the new Broadcasting Act finally lumbered through the Senate, was just another hectic day of keeping up with news from the Middle East. In the end, the controversy over Bill C-40 fizzled out like a wet firecracker, virtually unnoticed amidst the thundering of weapons in the Gulf.
It was hardly surprising. The political wrangling about the bill had always centred on se-mantics. A battle over the interpretation of a few words in the act governing the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation was hard for journalists to get ex-cited about when massive budget cuts had 1 V and radio personnel worried about their livelihoods.
The troublesome words were “national unity” contained in the clause setting out the CBC’s mandate in the 1968 Broadcasting Act. The new act leaves those federalist-tinged words out of the instructions to the CBC and instead directs the corporation to “contribute to shared national consciousness and identity.” The government argued that the national unity clause posed a threat to the CBC’s independence and, in fact, constituted a tool by which the CBC could be used as a propaganda arm of Ottawa.
CBC chairman Patrick Watson agreed. He told a House of Commons committee that he had been opposed to the clause since it was first written. The CBC’s job, he said, is to “reflect realities” rather than to influence them. But Liberal and NOP critics charged that removing the CBC’s responsibility to promote national unity was another step in the Mulroney government’s balkanization of the country. Without the glue of a committed national broadcaster, the argument went, the country would split into smaller, more separate regions. Critics called C-40 “the Meeching of the CBC.”
The national unity clause was so contentious that it stalled the bill in the House for two and a half years, turning the issue of broadcasting into a volatile political scrap, The bill finally cleared the House of Commons before Christmas but even at the eleventh hour the Senate was the scene of desperate attempts to have the clause reinstated. Amidst harangues about promoting propaganda and charges that the Opposition was attempting to jeopardize journalistic integrity, the bill finally passed. It had been a five-year grind through the legislative machinery.
Senator Norman Atkins defended the new act by saying “there must be no suggestion in the act that the CBC has any obligation to serve as a propagandist, even for a cause as legitimate as national unity.”
Communications Minister Marcel Masse-who had declared that “the role of our information media is to describe events, not to promote policy”-was well pleased.
The danger that the national unity clause could be used to foist a propaganda role on the CBC had scarcely occurred to anyone before Pierre Trudeau. In 1976, the former prime minister launched a CRTC inquiry into alleged CBC pro-Parti Quebecois bias during the election that saw Rene Levesque become Quebec’s premier. Liberal campaign workers were looking for someone to blame for the defeat of incumbent Robert Bourassa and they charged there had been pro-separatist coverage by CBC reporters. Radio-Canada, the CBC’s Quebec arm, was riddled with Parti Quebecois sympathizers, they claimed.
Four months later the CRTC inquiry began its hearings. Among the accusations: RadioCanada stopped playing “0 Canada” as a radio sign off signal, and one announcer referred to the “execution” rather than the “murder” of Quebec Liberal cabinet minister Pierre Laporte, kidnapped and killed by the FLQ in 1970. Trudeau claimed that a separatist slant at Radio-Canada went against the national unity clause of the 1968 Broadcasting Act. Separatism didn’t “promote national unity,” so it brought bias in CBC coverage into question. In a 114-page report tabled in July 1977, the CRTC cleared the CBC of the charge that the “overwhelming majority” of Radio-Canada employees held separatist beliefs, But both private and public broadcasters were accused in the same report of “journalistic malpractice” for failing to program enough Quebec-related news in the rest of Canada, and Canada-related news in Quebec,
Despite Trudeau’s accusations in 1977, the national unity clause has never worried CBC journalists. During that CRTC inquiry, A. W. Johnson, then president of the CBC, said he had never required “political blood tests” as a prerequisite for employment. The clause has been used primarily by politicians of all stripes as a debating point. In 1986 the debate heated up again when the Caplan-Sauvageau task force on broadcast policy published its report which said the national unity clause should be removed from the CB(~’s mandate. According to Caplan-Sauvageau, that particular section of the mandate placed “a prior obligation on CBC journalists to practice in a I certain way-as a propaganda : service, a cynic might say.” The I report laid a base for Bill C-40 I which was tabled in the House I of Commons in 1988. It passed I smoothly through the House, drawing little fire at that time, but stalled in the Senate when a federal election was called. By the time it was re-tabled in October 1989, Canada’s political environment had changed. The Meech Lake Accord deadline was looming and NDP critics latched onto the proposed new Broadcasting Act as another example of Mulroney’s Conservatives trying to weaken the federal government in favor of regionalism.
Liberal associate communications critic John Harvard told a Commons committee in December that “the major function of the CBC in times I when the country is divided I over issues such as Meech Lake I and free trade must be to foster national unity.” Not so, countered Masse and again accused the Liberals of wanting to make the CBC a propaganda agency. Even though they were too engrossed in the Gulf War to register much in the way of excitement when C-40 finally passed, CBC broadcasters have supported the changes. The faint shadow that hovered over the CBC at the time of the 1977 CRTC inquiry, and lurked around the edges of some of the coverage of Meech Lake, is gone. CBC President Gerard Veilleux has said that simply broadcasting the facts from Canada’s different regions should indirectly promote national unity, and that the CBC should never become a “political institution” with programming legislated by ideological policies. Patrick Watson goes even further: “If, in what to me would be a very unhappy future, Canadians decide they want to restructure the country or take it apart, it should not be the responsibility of the CBC to deliberately prevent their knowing how to do that.”
But for the present, reporters and producers in CBC newsrooms aren’t as concerned about whether their jobs require them to work towards national “unity” or “identity” as they are about the survival of the national broadcasting service itself. At a time when budget cuts have resulted in the axing of 11 regional CBC stations, the new Broadcasting Act announces this solemn purpose: “Programming should reflect Canada and its regions to national and regional audiences while serving the special needs of those regions.” The irony may be lost on the government but it’s painfully evident to broadcast journalists and their regional audiences.
This is a joint byline for the Ryerson Review of Journalism. All content is produced by students in their final year of the graduate or undergraduate program at the Ryerson School of Journalism.