BACKSTAGE

Will MPs use new statute to dictate to CBC?

BLAIR FRASER October 11 1958
BACKSTAGE

Will MPs use new statute to dictate to CBC?

BLAIR FRASER October 11 1958

Will MPs use new statute to dictate to CBC?

BACKSTAGE

AT OTTAWA

BLAIR FRASER

What’s going to become of the CBC

under the statute passed last session? Will it be able to maintain its independence or will it soon be a mere government department doing as it's told?

Pessimists and optimists both agree that George Nowlan, the minister who reports to parliament for the CBC, did a good job with the new Act. In the House of Commons he had a fairly easy time (indeed the Opposition parties were so flattering that Nowlan was considerably embarrassed) but one reason was that everybody knew he’d had a hard fight in cabinet, and had won it.

Private broadcasters wanted the new regulatory body, the Board of Broadcast Governors, to be a group very different from what it actually is. They wanted a small panel of full-time paid officials, responsible to the minister of transport and directly dependent on the government for their jobs. To some ministers this iooked like an ideal system, and they did all they could to enact it. Nowlan held out for a large board that would represent all parts of Canada, as recommended by the Fowler report last year. He didn't get quite the board that Fowler suggested, which would have been entirely unpaid and independent, but he did get a majority of part-time members who have no reason to defer to politicians. Most observers here, in and out of the CBC, believe the compromise was the best obtainable in the circumstances.

They are less sanguine about the other important feature of the act. the financing of the CBC. Every enquiry into broadcasting, from the Aird commission of thirty years ago to the Fow-

ler commission, has treated finance as the most important and difficult problem of all—how to raise money for a Canadian broadcasting system without depending on an annual vote of parliament, and thus on the favor of the government of the day. Various devices have been tried—direct licenses, which were hard to collect and unpopular; an earmarked tax, which brought in first too much and then too little; lately the voting of a lump sum to cover the CBC deficit. The Fowler commission suggested three other possible methods, none of them entirely satisfactory, but all at least providing assured revenue to the CBC.

The new broadcasting act is written as if the problem of financing didn’t exist. It provides that CBC budgets shall be submitted to parliament for an appropriation vote, affer first being approved by the minister of finance as well as the CBC’s own minister. There will be no real difference, Nowlan admits, between the CBC’s budgets and the estimates of any other government department.

But whether the CBC’s independence can survive this innovation is a wideopen question. The odds are against it. Most politicians, at some time or other, feel the urge to tell the CBC what to do. Back-benchers in the two major parties, and Social Crediters, are the most vociferous but the least effective. Ministers seldom try in public to push the CBC around, and usually deny it when they are caught in the attempt, but their interventions are much more formidable.

Some of these interventions are already famous. Like the letter ex-Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent sent to Davidson Dunton, then CBC chairman, vigorously objecting to a CBC commentator. When challenged in the house the prime minister lamely contended that the letter had been a purely personal opinion, to the vast amusement of the Conservative opposition.

But the Conservative prime minister already has had an even more flagrant case to explain and made an even less plausible job of it. When British Prime Minister Macmillan was here last June, a CBC interviewer wanted to ask him if Britain’s free-trade offer would still be open at the commonwealth trade conference in September. But when this question was suggested, Prime Minister Diefenbaker cut in: "No! No!" he said. Later he told the House of Commons he meant only that it wouldn't be on the conference agenda. But that is not what three listening reporters thought he meant. Neither did the CBC’s staff interviewer, who obediently omitted the question.

One minister, now dead, who reported to parliament for the CBC, never did comprehend that it wasn’t just part of his department. His secretary used to telephone the CBC’s newsroom with instructions that the minister wanted this or that item, usually political, to be broadcast on the national news summary. To his dying day he remained aggrieved and affronted that his orders were disobeyed.

Such crudities as that, of course, were easy to repel and no doubt will remain so, no matter what statute we

have. The real danger is more subtle— general pressure on the way news and commentaries are handled. The outstanding example is the great pipeline debate of 1956.

One of the few things on which Liberals and Conservatives agree is that the pipeline debate did as much to beat the Liberals in 1957 as any other single thing, and that it owed this lethal power to radio and television. On that issue it was impossible to get a "balanced" panel of reporters, for there was hardly a man in the Press Gallery who thought the government’s conduct anything but outrageous. The CBC gave the story very full coverage—so full that there wasn’t a man, woman or child in Canada who hadn't heard about the "guillotine” and "black Friday.”

The Liberals were livid with fury. They wanted the CBC to shut up about the pipeline, stop giving the embattled Tories all that free and favorable publicity, let the fuss die down that never (in their view) should have arisen. I don’t know that anything approaching an order or even a formal protest was ever made by the cabinet to the CBC, but there was certainly no doubt about how the ministers felt or what they wanted. It took a lot of courage in the CBC’s high command to keep on giving the story the play it deserved.

Partly the CBC’s ability to ride out this and other storms was the personal achievement of Davy Dunton. Nobody else in the Corporation has quite the same combination of fortitude, tact and good humor—the talent for handling irate critics and soothing their wrath without giving any ground. Even without a change in the law. the CBC would probably have a rougher time now that he has gone to preside over Carleton College.

But the change in the law will make it rougher yet. For the first time, barring the special and temporary case of the past two or three years, the publicly owned but politically independent Corporation will have to go hat in hand to the government for its revenue. No party, not even the CCF (which has by far the best record in this regard), could be trusted not to take advantage of this opportunity at that last session. Opposition leader L. B. Pearson was somewhat embarrassed after he had made a stirring plea for freedom on the air, when one of h:s own back-benchers got up to complain that the CBC had been allowed to broadcast one program of which he had disapproved.

Again, this sort of blatant and vulgar censorship will probably remain easy to avoid. The hard things will be to keep a genuine independence of mind and spirit among men who know they must depend on the politicians' favor for what they are about to receive. Government departments prepare their estimates in the autumn, run the grim gauntlet of Treasury Board (a committee of ministers that must approve all outlays before they are submitted to parliament) and finally that of parliament itself. During that time, and indeed all the time, it will be the plainest common sense that the Corporation will get better treatment from pleased than from displeased politicians. Nobody will need to point it out.

It was Humbert Wolfe, I think, who wrote a quatrain long famous in Fleet Street:

You cannot bribe, or buy, or twist, Thank God, the British journalist, But seeing what the man will do Unbribed, there's no occasion to.z