Backstage at Ottawa

Why the CBC shunned the King story

WITH BLAIR FRASER March 31 1956

Backstage at Ottawa

Why the CBC shunned the King story

WITH BLAIR FRASER March 31 1956

Backstage at Ottawa

Why the CBC shunned the King story

WITH BLAIR FRASER

IN ALL ITS twenty years the Liberal government has never looked as stupid as at this session of parliament. In most cases the government had no one outside itself to blame—as, for instance, when the Rt. Hon. James G. Gardiner thought he could divert attention from an indiscreet remark by having it erased from Hansard. But there have been times when the government was a victim of circumstance, made to look foolish by no act or omission of its own. One such was the alleged “censorship” of a CBC television discussion of a recent biography of Mackenzie King.

No member of the government had anything to do with the cancellation of that program project. The mess the CBC got into was entirely of its own making. Jack Pickersgill, Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, had heard about the proposed telecast from a friend but hadn’t thought to mention it to his colleagues, so most of the cabinet heard of it for the first time when a CCF member asked a question in the House about it. But the incriminating circumstances were such that hardly anyone will believe this, and some of the people most convinced that the government suppressed the program are CBC employees.Q

The idea of having a television discussion of the Mackenzie King biography originated in London last November. It was suggested to the CBC’s London man by the authors, Bernard Ostry and H. S. Ferns, or by their British publishers, and the suggestion was relayed to Toronto by the CBC London man before anyone there had had a chance to read the book.

Nevertheless, it was a book with obvious program possibilities. There had been plenty of advance notice that it would be a hostile and highly controversial biography. Whether the book itself were good, bad or indifferent, a TV panel could have a lively time with its subject matter, the early career of the late prime minister.

Tentatively, therefore, the idea was accepted. In London an interview with authors Ferns and Ostry was recorded on film and sent to Toronto for use if and when the program was broadcast. A CBC man in Ottawa was instructed to sound out various people to see whether they would take part if a decision were made to go ahead with the program.

One who accepted was Fred Gibson of Queen’s University, who is writing a book of his own about Mackenzie King and has also worked with R. MacGregor Dawson on the official biography. Another was John Stevenson, Ottawa editor of Saturday Night, who in King’s lifetime was one of his bitterest enemies.

MacGregor Dawson himself declined. So did Fred McGregor, probably King’s oldest friend and one of his literary executors. So did Senators Norman Lambert and C. G. Power, who are not great admirers of Mackenzie King but who wanted no association with the Ferns-Ostry book. So, most particularly, did Hon. Brooke Claxton, ex-Minister of National Defense and one-time parliamentary assistant to King.

Backstage at Ottawa

Unlike anyone in the CBC up to this point, Claxton had read the book, and he was furious. When the CBC’s telephoned invitation came Claxton’s reply

nearly melted the wires. This fact was immediately reported to the program people in Toronto, who in turn telephoned it back to the national director of programs at CBC headquarters in Ottawa.

Meanwhile, Claxton had told several people about the invitation and his indignant refusal. One was ex-colleague Jack Pickersgill, who sympathized with Claxton’s indignation but remarked that this was something no cabinet minister would touch with a barge pole. Another was Claxton’s old friend and near neighbor, A. Davidson Dunton,

chairman of the CBC Board of Governors.

A few days later the program came up for discussion at one of the frequent informal meetings of program directors with the CBC management in Ottawa. Of the four or five people at the meeting only two were aware of the Claxton incident, and none had read the book. They decided at least to postpone the show until they could have a look at the biography and see whether it merited this kind of special television treatment, which was not unique but was certainly unusual. The program

department was told to go no further with it for the time being.

This was early in December. The CBC Times, which lists CBC programs for each week, goes to press three weeks before its publication date. When the order came to suspend operations on the Ferns-Ostry show the CBC Times had already gone to press with the program listed for radio broadcast Dec. 20, although it was not announced that the discussion would be televised.

In January the CBC’s top echelon met again, and this time everyone at the meeting had read the book. None liked it. They all thought it was biased and malicious, an opinion shared by many foes as well as friends of the late prime minister. They didn’t think it deserved the special publicity of a TV discussion panel instead of an ordinary book review; in fact, as one of them remarked later, they thought the CBC had been sold a bill of goods.

The only question among them was whether the project should be dropped at this point, or whether it had gone too far. The strongest argument for going through with it was that dropping it now might look like a yielding to pressure—or, as Conservative MP Donald Fleming said later in the House of Commons, to “the anticipation of pressure, which would be even worse.” The obvious counter to that, of course, was that the program should be judged on its merits and not favored through fear of being thought afraid.

In the end the decision was to drop the TV panel discussion and simply review the book in the ordinary way on the radio program Critically Speaking. But instead of settling the problem, this merely brought the comedy of errors to a climax. A review had already been assigned, in fact, and was to have been broadcast in late January or early February. But now a new complication arose.

The reviewer, a well-known Canadian scholar, withdrew from the assignment. He pointed out that the controversy had put him in an imposÍ sible position. If he disliked the book he would sound like a hired hatchetman for the CBC. If he liked it, he would sound like an apologist hired to redress the grievance of Ferns and Ostry. He didn’t wish to appear in either role.

This left the CBC in a spot all over again, and at the moment of writing they’re still in it. The CBC thought the reviewer’s point so well taken that the CBC hasn’t felt like asking anyone else to assume the embarrassing task. Some people have suggested two reviews, one favorable and one critical, but this would be special treatment almost as extraordinary as the original TV panel. It is apparent to everybody now that to review this book “in the ordinary way” is no longer possible.

The funniest ending imaginable to this protracted fuss would be to set up . another panel discussion. What the Liberals would do or say then is a matter for interesting speculation.

STRANGE AS IT MAY SEEM the Liberals have the worst persecution complex of all political parties in their relations with the CBC. They think the CBC is in a dark chronic conspiracy to malign the Liberal government, and they recite examples with the fluency of a hypochondriac describing his symptoms.

In one wrangle that went on for over a year and has only now ended in reluctant agreement, the Liberals were on one side and the Conservatives, CCF, Social Credit and the CBC all lined up on the other. The issue was political television, the kind of freetime program that on radio is called The Nation’s Business.

Liberals had two evident motives for dragging their feet in the preparations for free-time television. Without it, the Liberal advantage over other parties on TV is overwhelming. The news, naturally and inevitably, brings the faces of Liberal cabinet ministers to the screen night after night. Liberal Party workers complain that the pictures thus broadcast are unflattering (ard deliberately so, they imply), but they must know their near-monopoly of the television screen is a net asset.

Another visible reason for Liberal reluctance to support politics-over-television is the fact that Prime Minister St. Laurent, their star attraction and champion vote-getter, dislikes television and will have no more to do with it than he can help. The party has lots of other TV talent available, of course—L. B. Pearson, James Sinclair, Paul Martin and others have taken to the new medium like ducks to water—but the typical Liberal Party official is as timid as a millionaire and as tender as the princess who couldn’t sleep on a pea. The idea of going into political contest without „their star alarmed them.

Uie too-dry runs

Foot-dragging first became evident about fifteen months ago when the CBC began a series of “dry runs” by way of experiment in political broadcasting. Various leaders from all four parties were brought to the studio, made up and put through sample programs in front of TV cameras that were live in the studio but not sending pictures over the air.

Liberals seemed to want the dry runs never to stop. At one point they were insisting that, before any live programs were broadcast, every one of the twenty-one cabinet ministers should have one. Since the dry runs cost about thirteen hundred dollars apiece and since other parties would have had to get proportionate treatment, the CBC managed to fend off this demand, but not without effort.

Meanwhile, though, the dry runs had exposed another difficulty. All the experimental programs were simply terrible. The picture of a single politician’s wooden face, while he read without any interruption a prepared speech, was something that defied all attempts to turn it into a show. But according to the interpretation of the Broadcasting Act that had been accepted in radio, this was the only kind of political broadcasting permissible.

“Dramatized” broadcasting was forbidden by the act itself, not by mere CBC regulation. The prohibition was a result of Mackenzie King’s annoyance with a Conservative radio series in the 1935 campaign, when a fictitious character called “Mr. Sage” took large strips of hide off Liberals generally and Mackenzie King in particular. And for radio purposes, the CBC had always

assumed that dramatized broadcasting included discussion programs or, indeed, any sort of program with more than one speaker at a time. For radio, nobody minded. Television was different.

Last October the CBC drew up a tentative set of new regulations for television. Multiple speaker programs, graphics and various other devices of the TV trade were to be allowed. This involved a reinterpretation of the Broadcasting Act, but the CBC suggested that if all four parties were agreeable to it, nobody else would care.

The opposition parties were favorably impressed by the plan. The Liberals were not. Action was deferred until another meeting scheduled for November, which was later canceled because the Liberal representative couldn’t make it. The meeting was not in fact reconvened until mid-December, nearly two months after the plan was first proposed and only one month before the free-time programs were to have started.

They did not start. The Liberal representative announced that his party could not agree to these proposals, be-

cause any such agreement would amount to a conspiracy to evade the law. He suggested that the new regulations be submitted to the Department of Justice for an opinion as to whether or not they violated the Broadcasting Act.

Two more months (and two more cancellations of scheduled meetings) later, the party representatives and the CBC met again to hear the Justice Department’s opinion. It was favorable— the regulations were pronounced legal. Even the Liberals had nothing more to say in the way of objection.